The Cholera Riots

Nearly two hundred years ago, shipping merchants ignored all health warnings and brought a cholera pandemic to Britain. Their act of greed triggered widespread social revolt.

‘The “Report of the Health Board on the Housing of the Poor”, which appeared last week, is presumably intended to serve Madame Cholera as a Directory of addresses calling for preferential visitation.’

— Karl Marx, writing to Friedrich Engels, 27 July 1866

Cholera arrived in Britain from the belly of a freighter docking at Sunderland in October 1831. Weeks earlier, the navy had warned every port in the country against vessels from the Baltic, whose cities were deep in the throes of the disease. Shrill objections by local merchants drowned out these cautions, and the freighter — a tar ferry from Russia — was given the go ahead to disgorge cargo and crew, cholera ridden, into the town. An epidemic would within months take the lives many thousands of workers in Tyne and Wear.

In the period preempting this first outbreak of cholera in Britain, Engels talked of ‘a universal terror seizing the bourgeoisie.’ Newspapers in the run-up to the pandemic were loaded with columns on the effects of the disease in the East, its death march across Russia, and its portentous arrival on the shores of the Baltic. Russia’s foreign trade was controlled by British merchant houses, who sent back report after report to the press here detailing every grisly development in the country — dispatches sent back to Britain onboard ships like the one that docked in Sunderland.

Of all the symptoms of cholera, the most disgusting, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, was the disease’s tendency to ferment working-class rebellion. Furious attempts at upending the social order seemed to follow the bacterium. The news from Russia made for unsavoury reading in the parlour rooms of the British upper-classes; they learnt that in each Russian city visited by the disease, crowds of workers — often in the tens of thousands — gathered in anger. The uprisings were a response both to the obvious class iniquities in the toll of the disease, and to the tsarist regime’s laissez-faire mismanagement of the crisis.

Sevastopol in Crimea saw the first major Russian outbreak. The city’s 1830 riots culminated in the execution of the military governor by workers and rebel troops, united in disgust at the low value placed on human life by the regime in its containment measures. The poorest inhabitants of the city realised that the method of quarantine proposed by the government would mean their slow starvation. Across Russia, crowds of similar magnitudes reacted in much the same way, as the disease spread to their towns, they stormed police departments, manors, and state offices, spurred on by a suspicion that the tsar, Nicholas I, was guided in his handling of the crisis by a patrician instinct to ‘prune’ the working class.

Victims of cholera turned blue, deprived of oxygen by cyanosis, the damage done by the disease to the body’s circulatory system. In contrast, those Russian workers fortunate to stay in good health seemed to turn red: riots quickly became avenues for the airing of long-suppressed class grievances. Cholera rebels in Novgorod founded their own court, which The Soviet Encyclopaedia recounts, for a brief moment, allowed the local workers’ an avenue for the settlement of charges against landlords and the bureaucracy.

Cholera in Britain

In short, the British ruling class were right to be afraid. Accounts from Russia led them to make a connection between dismal hygiene and the impact of the disease, and so, in advance of its arrival in a slum town like Manchester, the bourgeoisie of the city founded a commission to investigate the scale of squalor in working-class dwellings. This, it was hoped, would give a sense of the potential for the disease to take hold among their workforce. The degree of squalor was seen to be of calamitous proportions; ‘to cleanse such an Augean stable’, Engels again reported, was ‘out of the question’, for reasons of expense. Token attempts were made at sanitising some of ‘the worst nooks’ — like Little Ireland, the area due south of Oxford Road Station — but the destitution returned within weeks, well in advance of cholera’s arrival.

From Sunderland the disease initially spread north, again by ship, to Aberdeen. Here the epidemic climaxed over the twelve days of Christmas, 1831. On Boxing Day, a crowd apparently numbering 20,000 — two-thirds of the city’s population — took shape. The ire of this mass was directed at the medical establishment, who they suspected were deploying cholera as a scheme for bodysnatching. They resisted the detention of friends and family by the cholera hospitals — people were carted off, sometimes with only minor symptoms, to never be heard from again. The grave-robbers Burke and Hare had been caught in Dublin only five years previous, and the case weighed heavily on the minds of the working class in Aberdeen, where the crowds chanted ‘down with the burking shop’ as the city’s anatomical college was razed.

But as cholera seeped into larger cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool, and London, the workers took a Russian turn. No other science buildings were targeted. The medical authorities were still reviled, but only as an arm of the state, whose health boards were seen to be treating workers with no more dignity than livestock. In Glasgow it was believed the epidemic was an intended measure, a new technique in the wheelhouse of the bourgeois state to raise the productivity of the working class by ‘weeding out’ weaker members of the herd. A doctor in Ballyshannon during the town’s outbreak recorded that the crowds believed he was ‘to have 10 guineas a day’ for spreading the epidemic in this manner. £5 for every person he killed, ‘and to poison without mercy.’

In the fourteen months following the tar freighter’s arrival in Sunderland, cholera caused at least seventy-two riots across Britain and Ireland, raising crowds in the many thousands. Physicians continued to attract hatred, as the state turned to the medical profession to enforce its containment policies out of fear that, were the military or police to shoulder this task, the protesters would round on the authorities in the way they had in Russia. The consequence was a pure hatred of the medical establishment. In Glasgow a doctor was chased through the streets, hailed with projectiles by ‘an immense crowd’ of mothers, who believed the physician had buried a 14-year-old alive. A crowd in Edinburgh chanted ‘Kill the Doctors’ out of anger over the loss of funeral rites for their family members. A dignified burial was regarded as a minimal right for those living the indignity of the slums.

The Politics of Pandemics

This global pandemic of 1827–1831 saw cholera fan out over Eurasia in a five-year wave, from British-ruled Bengal, where a vicious strain of the bacterium is thought to have cultured a decade earlier in sodden rice left on the banks of the Ganges. By the time this wave had receded, the disease had caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, and future tides would bring millions more, across the globe, with the most recent epidemic coming less than a decade ago, in Haiti, 2011.

The riots associated with cholera outbreaks are a historical constant. In later decades these events would spark crowds as huge as 30,000 (a record set in Russia); cholera rebels would take control of cities, murder governors, judges, bosses and landlords, and burn factories and state offices. A Pittsburgh journalist writing in 1892 remarked that these comorbid moments of violence in the midst of epidemics ‘scarcely find parallel in modern history.’

The insurrectionary properties of cholera have imprinted on our social understanding of epidemics more broadly. It is a quirk of epidemiological history that no other diseases are associated with social violence in the same way, even when the containment measures adopted by the state were just as brutal. The impact of cholera alone is responsible for the widely-held view that all ‘deadly diseases,’ in the words of Susan Sontag, ‘spawn sinister connotations.’ Based on his study of a 1991 Haitian outbreak, the medical anthropologist Paul Farmer — quite typical of his field — argued that such connotations are ‘a calling card of all transnational epidemics.’

But contra cholera, the experiences of societies in the grip of other epidemic diseases shows that the general rule of history in these moments has been cohesion. Even in societies riven by extreme class division, and where the pestilence causes symptoms as miserable as in cholera (such as yellow fever, bubonic plague, or H1N1), riots never materialised. Instead, other pandemics, like the Great Influenza of 1918, in fact led to greater accord in many places, a standing-down of intracommunal divisions. In Philadelphia, the American city most pillaged by the outbreak, Catholic nuns worked in Jewish hospitals, and ‘people of all kinds poured into emergency aid headquarters’ to volunteer as nurses, ‘thrusting themselves into the presence of [the] lethal disease.’

The apolitical reception of the 1918 pandemic is apparent from the lack of heed paid to it by the Left in some of the most afflicted countries. Even as the influenza ‘resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death’, killing 50 million, twice the lives lost in the First World War, it failed to factor — at least consciously — in the politics of socialists during the conflicts of these years. Despite its decimation of the working class in cities like Saint Petersburg and Berlin, there was scant mention of the pandemic in the deliberations of Marxist groups. This is made even more remarkable when you consider that the Spartacist uprising in Berlin came just months after the pandemic reached its height in the city.

If pandemics typically engender greater unity, there must be something unique about the social mediation of cholera that transforms its plagues into wellsprings of working-class anger. Comparing the 1918 flu pandemic in Britain with the 1831 cholera outbreak, perhaps the simplest explanation for the different reactions of the working class is the level of public education on the respective disease’s aetiologies.

The causes of cholera had been quite widely known since the middle of the nineteenth century. Marx lived 300 yards from the Broad Street Pump in Soho, where Dr. John Snow first recorded the waterborne transmission of the bacterium following an outbreak in 1854 that could easily have prevented Capital from ever being written. The notion that cholera riots were the sum of working-class ignorance is easily disproven by the fact that rioting continued long after public acceptance of Snow’s discovery.

Cause and Effect

Echoes of what might have motivated the cholera rebels of the nineteenth century are present in the outbreaks of the past thirty years. The epidemics in Haiti, Venezuela, and Peru refract ‘muted shades of the old class tensions.’ In Peru’s 1991 crisis, the working-class riots were a direct retaliation to propaganda of the government in which the workers were labelled ‘pigs’ and condemned for bringing on the disease through their ‘pig-like’ habits. This dynamic fits the thesis that it is the preponderance of worker-blaming attitudes in the case of cholera that converts outbreaks into insurrections.

More so than with any other epidemic disease, cholera was blamed on its working-class victims. In 1842, a dilettante British reformer, Edwin Chadwick, published a Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population. The pamphlet sold 30,000 copies. ‘Riddled with middle-class moral judgments,’ the work served to titillate its upper-class readership with descriptions of ‘the moral turpitude of slum-dwellers,’ in the words of historian Phillip Harling.

Chadwick’s moralising was nothing new, but his was the most straightforward articulation of the elite’s self-righteousness in the face of cholera. He attributed the spread of the disease to the foul air excreted from the working class’s ‘bad habits’, which were in turn blamed on damage done to workers’ mental capacities — damage caused by the diseases these habits gave them — lacing his ideas with a fashionably eugenicist flourish.

Cholera rebels were acting out of bitter retaliation for misplaced blame. Their actions in Britain against the medical profession — the preserve of men like Chadwick — were because the doctors served as vectors of establishment scorn. Such blame was a constant in the handling of cholera crises: blame of the working class for their dead loved ones, blame of the working class for the mass graves of their neighbours.

Riots followed wherever workers refused to shoulder this guilt. Many of the rebel workers would have instinctively known that their conditions of work were their conditions of life, and that cholera was therefore the fault of their bosses. Despite this, the riots that occurred were without exception dislocated from any wider movements of struggle against the bourgeoisie.

But the uprisings did cast long shadows, all pointing in the direction of the dire living conditions endured by labour. Indeed, bourgeois interest in matters of sanitation is how Chadwick was able to sell so many pamphlets. In Britain and many other places, the first major public health ordinances — landmark steps towards the provision of clean drinking water, working sewage systems, and the appointment of medical officers — were, in large part, pursued as a means of protecting the political order against plebeian violence of the kind exacted by the cholera rebels.