Global pandemics as historical catalysts and literary allegories
THE outbreak of Coronavirus all over the world has set alarm bells ringing among policy makers, economists, scientists medical practitioners, politicians – in other words, all those who set the terms and lay the rules for our daily living. They are harking back to parallel experiences of past pandemics – not only to recall health problems created then, but also to remind us of the radical changes in the economy and politics of societies affected by such pandemics.
Apart from these powerful members of society, there are others – whom Shelley described as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – the poets and writers who mould our aesthetic tastes and sensitize us to moral values. They had also wrestled with successive pandemics and wrung out from them lessons for humanity – in the form of allegories of the moral degeneration of society, or metaphors for the political corruption of governance, or in some cases even parables signalling the curse of the populace against the age-old oppression by the ruling powers. Feelings of fear, sadness and helplessness that we find in the pages of these literary pieces, chime with the anxieties we are undergoing today.
The most well recorded case of a global pandemic that led to a political and socio-cultural transformation, is that which came to be known as the Black Death, engulfing large parts of Europe in the mid-14th century. The contemporary literature reflected a new pattern of thinking among the intelligentsia – both the religious and the secular. It led to the questioning of old certainties, and the stress on reason to understand the world. This new spirit of inquiry helped to ignite the Renaissance.
One of the literary observers of Black Death, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), offered an interesting perspective in Decameron. In his story, in order to escape the plague, ten friends leave Florence for a deserted villa in the countryside. They spend their days amusing themselves with exchanging racy stories. A modern historian, Martin Marafioti, terms these stories of Decameron as ‘narrative prophylaxis’ – a therapy for protecting oneself by isolation from the wider society on the one hand, and pleasant company with congenial friends on the other.1
But Boccaccio hides under the sly humour of his salacious tales, a serious critique of contemporary Florentine society. He exposes how the rich escaped into a life of wild excess. He also describes the hypocrisy and debauchery of the clergy. In that sense, to paraphrase Lenin’s words about Tolstoy (whom he described as the ‘mirror of the Russian revolution’), Boccaccio can be described as the ‘mirror of the Italian Renaissance.’ He, among others, inaugurated the period of questioning the given religious order and the ruling authorities of Florence by lampooning them.
It was not a coincidence that Boccaccio’s Decameron came from Florence. The city was ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy trading houses. The outbreak of Black Death shook their economic base. Some succumbed to the plague, others fled to safer territories. The most affected were the artisans, daily workers and craftsmen (corresponding to our pre-sent labourers in the informal sector, who had to migrate from the cities due to the Covid pandemic). Discontent among them and their next generation continued to simmer for some thirty years, till it exploded into an insurrection in 1378 that came to be known as the Ciompi Revolt (the term ‘ciompi’ used to describe wool workers), that lasted till 1382. Their revolt led to the creation of a government composed of the ciompi and other disenfranchised labourers. This government lasted for three and a half years, to be suppressed by the powers to be in 1382.2
In a swift move – that matches the fast spread of Covid-19 in today’s globalized system – Black Death, through trade routes, reached London in the autumn of 1348, and covered the rest of England by the summer of 1349, before dying down in December that year. As in Italy, in England too the plague had far-reaching consequences for the country’s economy and politics. With more than a third of the population killed by the plague, there was a shortage of labour to till the land. This gave an opportunity to the serfs and free labour that survived the endemic, to assert their demands for better living conditions and higher wages from the landlords. Over the next three decades or so, agricultural relations were to change drastically in the English countryside, leading to conflicts, strikes and riots among the different layers of rural society during those years.
These sporadic acts of violence paved the way for the more organized demonstration of 1381 – a popular uprising of peasants, social discontents, and discharged soldiers among others, known as the Wat Tyler rebellion, taking the name of its leader. Incidentally, as in Italy, in England too, it took a little over three decades after Black Death, for later generations of victims of its long-drawn-out economic fallout, to explode into such a rebellion. The rebels soon moved from the rural areas to London, where they occupied the royal fortress of the Tower for a few days, till they gained some concessions from the then boy king Richard II.3 These English rebels were marching to London at the same time when their Italian compatriots were fighting in the streets of Florence. The Black Death in its globalization, also apparently led to the universalization of the basic demands of the labouring poor in Europe, which was later crystallized in the international trade union movement.
In England too, the socio-economic impact of Black Death found its literary replicas, although two decades later than Boccaccio. The English poet William Langland, described the plight of the rural poor in his country in an allegorical poem, ‘Piers Plowman’ (1367-70), where he bemoaned: ‘God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us.’ Here, he brings a character called ‘Peace’ to Parliament with a petition against ‘Wrong’, who as a ‘King’s Officer’ has broken into the farm, ravished the women, carried off the horses, taken wheat from the granary. ‘Peace’ complains that the King’s Officer ‘mainteneth his men to murder mine own.’ Do not these words sound like premonitory echoes of the feelings of poor Indians today, who suffer from the depredations of India’s ‘King’s Officers’ – the notorious police and security forces?
The overwhelming disaster brought about by Black Death undermined the popular traditional religious beliefs in the orthodox Christian practices that were meant to provide immunity to the devotees. The rebel itinerant friar John Ball gave voice to the popular mood of simmering discontent against the wealthy gentlemen clergy who controlled the church, by coining the famous rhyme:
‘When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?’
Some three centuries later after Black Death, another epidemic hit England. Infamously known as the ‘Great Plague’, it incited socio-political changes, as well as prompted literary documentation. Samuel Pepys, a contemporary English politician and diplomat, left a diary written from 1660 till 1669, which includes a detailed account of the bubonic plague that broke out first in late 1664 in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside London.
By mid-1665, it had reached London, as recorded by Pepys in his diary dated April 30 that year, in these words of anguish: ‘Great fears of the sickenesse (sic) here in the City…’ To protect himself, Pepys adopted measures which were similar to those being recommended today to contain Covid-19: social distance from possible sources of infection. He discarded his wig, which he had earlier bought from an area in London that was later found to be a hot spot of the plague.
The other written record of the ‘Great Plague’ is provided by the famous novelist Daniel Defoe. Although he was only five years old, living in London with his parents in 1665, when it broke out, Defoe revisited that past about sixty years later, when in 1722 he wrote A Journal of the Plague Year. Based on his childhood reminiscences and later day reports, the account is a graphic description of life inside a city beset by a pandemic and besieged by a rigid administrative order. Referring to the forcible incarceration of all individuals locked in their homes, even if they were not sick, Defoe complained of ‘very great inconveniences in it, and some that were very tragical (sic)…’ All through the Journal, one message comes out clearly: nothing is more contagious than the sense of fear. The fear of death, in the words of Defoe, ‘took all bowels of love, all concern for one another.’
Our subcontinent in South Asia was also ravaged by epidemics all through recorded history. In fact, even before the first reported case of Black Death in Florence in 1348, a bubonic plague devastated Bidar in western India during 1334-35. It led to a political reversal of a decision by the then Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq, which proved to be crucial for the future of India. To explain the background: Tughlaq in 1327, had decided to shift his capital from Delhi in the north to Daulatabad in the south-west, in order to establish his suzerainty over the rest of India. But to his chagrin, he was to soon face the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Bidar in 1334, which decimated a part of his army; it crippled his military ambition to expand his rule, and forced him to relocate his capital back to Delhi.
A report of the Bidar plague can be found in the memoirs left by the Arab global traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta (1304-68), entitled Rehla, where he describes the years he spent in various parts of India. He arrived in India sometime in 1333, and met Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq and accompanied him to Bidar – only to watch the disaster brought about by the bubonic plague. Ibn Battuta left India, and on his way back home to Morocco (in the late 1340s), he was to discover how the plague in Bidar that he had witnessed in 1334, was the precursor and premonition of Black Death which he encountered in the course of his travels in Syria in 1346 – by when it had become a global epidemic.4
Still later, cases of epidemics like small-pox, cholera and malaria, were recorded from the 18th century onwards from places like Bengal. Till then, ailments manifesting similar symptoms were regarded as ordinary seasonal diseases infecting a few households restricted to certain areas. But they assumed massive proportions in the shape of epidemics in Bengal – due to the vulnerability caused by the dwindling physical resistance of the villagers who had been emaciated by a series of widespread calamities since the famine of 1769, which was caused by the exploitative taxation policies introduced by the newly installed British colonial administration.
Through the decades that followed the 1769 famine, the countryside in Bengal was periodically ravaged by epidemics. The first case of cholera was reported in 1817 from Jessore in east Bengal, which soon spread throughout India and beyond in territories covering today’s Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The spread was facilitated by the sea trade routes that were established by the colonial powers – an echo of which we find today in the spread of Covid-19 through the air travel routes. The other agency through which cholera spread in the past was from the peripatetic British soldiers who moved from one part of the country to another, picking up the infection from the food that they consumed. Thousands of British troops were reported to have died during the decade following the outbreak.5
The next major epidemic that was to devastate Bengal was malaria. Throughout the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, some hundred million people were afflicted every year, among which over one million died.6 The origins of malaria can be traced to the British administration’s engineering policy of laying down railway lines in the late 1850-60 period across areas, without paying heed to the natural course of rivers and channels that ran through those areas. Such engineering measures choked the traditional drainages from these water sources, that had, in the past, found outflow into seasonal floods. In the absence of such outflow, the water accumulated in stagnant pools became breeding grounds for the malarial mosquitoes.
While the poor Indian villagers perished due to the spread of malaria, the British administration invented a defence mechanism to protect its own functionaries from the epidemic that it had caused. Through their scientific investigations, the British administrators discovered that the plant cinchona could be used to produce a medicine to cure malaria. They began the cultivation of cinchona in the Nilgiris in South India in 1859. It took nearly twenty years for them to manufacture the drug ‘quinine’ as a remedy for malaria. They set up a quinine making unit in Darjeeling in North Bengal in 1874.
The other epidemic that hit Bengal and the rest of India in the 19th century was small-pox. While Calcutta reported some 13% of the total deaths due to the epidemic all over India between 1868-1907, more than four million people died of the disease.
How did the populace respond to the outbreak of these new epidemics, and to the medical intervention by the colonial administrators, to contain the spread? We find that they varied in nature from those that were manifest in Europe following Black Death in the 14th century, and the Great Plague in London in the 17th century. The variance was due to a large extent, to the different socio-economic experiences of the South Asian populace under a foreign, British colonial power.
The Indian victims of the epidemics invented their own defence mechanisms to survive. They took recourse to the traditional rural religious system of worshipping deities to help them in distress. We thus find the proliferation of new deities – mainly mother goddesses – among the rural Bengali populace during the 18th-19th century. They invented Sheetala Devi for protection against small-pox. The anti-cholera goddess that they gave birth to was named Ola-Bibi (a syncretic combination of both Hindu and Muslim terms, ‘bibi’ being the word used for a Muslim woman).
In folk literature, the Bengali poets spun funny songs to cope with epidemics like cholera and malaria – the therapy of ‘narrative prophylaxis’. To translate a few lines from a black humorous song by a 19th century popular poet, Pyarimohon Kabiratna (1834-75):
‘You and your clerical mind!/For whom are you earning money?/If Ola Bibi – cholera – catches up with you, that will be the end of you/… The doctors will feed you with bottles of medicines, and then they’ll disappear…/The quinine won’t work…/Your body will end up at the cremation ground…’7
But there was another form of popular response – which was more radical – in Maharashtra. When during the 1897 plague in Poona the then British administrator Charles Walter Rand, in order to contain its spread, deployed British soldiers to search every house suspected of being infected, it evoked strong public protests following reports of harassment of women by these soldiers. Instead of inventing new deities to protect their homes, three Maharashtrian brothers took the law in their hands, and punished Walter Rand by assassinating him in Poona on 22 June 1897. Quite predictably, they were hanged. But they remain etched in the history of our freedom movement as martyrs – the Chapekar brothers – Damodar, Balkrishna and Vasudev.
Will Covid-19 be a catalyst for a new socio-political upheaval and cultural transformation in the long-term, and give birth to a new generation of Indian writers – successors of the Boccacios, Ibn Battutas, Daniel Defoes, and folk poets like John Ball or our Pyarimohon Kabiratna? It may take some time for their experiences to sink into their minds, and translate into diaries and literary allegories to describe the plight of the thousands of Indian labourers who were forced to migrate and face death because of a brutal lockdown by an oppressive regime, the suppression of demonstrations of public protest and intellectual dissent by its government. India’s rulers have joined the club being described as one of ‘strong men’ ruling across the world who are ‘taking advantage of the pandemic to curtail liberty and democratic rights.’8 Are the descendants of Wat Tylers, and the Chapekar brothers waiting to enter the political scene to resist these rulers?
1. Martin Marafioti, ‘Post-Decameron Plague Treatises and the Boccaccian Innovation of Narrative Prophylaxi’, Annali d’Italia Vol. 23, 2005. jstor.org/stable/24009628?mag=boccaccios-medicine&seq=…
2. Alex Kitchel, ‘The Ciompi Revolt of 1378: Socio-Political Constraints and Economic Demands of Workers in Renaissance Florence.’ history.hanover.edu>hhr>HHR2018-kitchel
3. G.M. Trevelyan, English Social History. Longmans, Green and Company, New York, 1942.
4. The Travels of Ibn Battuta to India, the Spice Islands and China edited and translated by Noel O. King and Albion M. Butters, 2018.
5. David Arnold, ‘Cholera and Colonialism in British India’, Past and Present 113, November 1986.
6. Ira Klein, ‘Malaria and Mortality in Bengal, 1840-1921’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review,1 June 1972.
7. Translated from the original Bengali verse, quoted in ‘Sangeet Kalpatoru’, collected by Narendranath Dutta (later known as Swami Vivekananda) and Vaishnabcharan Basak, published in 1887. P. 219 from the reprint, dated 2000 by the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta.
8. ‘No Vaccine for Cruelty’, The Economist, 17 October 2020.