“People were dying like flies — among them many of my own followers. I knew that something must be done, and I knew that I must take the initiative. I was not entirely without scientific knowledge. Among my own followers the news circulated swiftly, as I had intended it to do, that their Imam had been inoculated and that they were to follow my example. Deliberately I put my leadership to the test. It survived and vindicated itself in a new and perhaps dramatic fashion.” — His Highness the Aga Khan writing in his Memoirs

By HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN
(November 2, 1877 – July 11, 1957)

There had been sinister rumors that an epidemic of bubonic plague was sedulously and remorselessly spreading westward across Asia. There had been a bad outbreak in Hong Kong; sporadically it appeared in towns and cities farther and farther west.

When in the late summer of 1897 it hit Bombay there was a natural and general tendency to discredit its seriousness; but within a brief time we were all compelled to face the fact that it was indeed an epidemic of disastrous proportions. Understanding of the ecology of plague was still extremely incomplete in the nineties. The medical authorities in Bombay were overwhelmed by the magnitude, and (as it seemed) the complexity, of the catastrophe that had descended on the city. Their reactions were cautious and conservative. Cure they had none, and the only preventative that they could offer was along lines of timid general hygiene, vaguely admirable but unsuited to the precise problem with which they had to deal.

 plague house being whitewashed by men standing on scaffold Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A plague house being whitewashed by men standing on scaffolding in Bombay. Photograph, 1896. Photo Credit: Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

A plague house being whitewashed by men standing on scaffolding in Bombay. Photograph, 1896. Photo: © Wellcome Library, London, Wellcome Images.

Open up, they said; let fresh air and light into the little huts, the hovels and the shanties in which hundreds of thousands of the industrial and agricultural proletariat in Bombay Presidency lived; and when you have let in fresh air, sprinkle as much strong and strong smelling disinfectant as you can. These precautions were not only ineffective; they ran directly counter to deep-rooted habits in the Indian masses. Had they obviously worked, they might have been forgiven, but as they obviously did not, and the death roll mounted day by day, it was inevitable that there was a growing feeling of resentment.

It was a grim period. The plague had its ugly, traditional effect on public morals. Respect for law and order slipped ominously. There were outbreaks of looting and violence.

Drunkenness and immorality increased; and there was a great deal of bitter feeling against the Government for the haphazard and inefficient way in which it was tackling the crisis. The climax was reached with the assassination (on his way home from a Government House function) of one of the senior British officials responsible for such preventative measures as had been undertaken.

Interior of a temporary hospital for plague victims, Bombay plague epidemic, 1896-1897 Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Interior of a temporary hospital for plague victims, Bombay plague epidemic, 1896-1897. Photo: © Wellcome Library, London, Wellcome Images.

Now it happened that the Government of Bombay had at its disposal a brilliant scientist and research worker, Professor Haffkinez, a Russian Jew, who had come to work on problems connected with cholera; he had induced the authorities to tackle cholera by mass inoculation and had had in this sphere considerable success. He was a determined and energetic man. He was convinced that inoculation offered a method of combating bubonic plague. He pressed his views on official quarters in Bombay — without a great deal of success. Controversy seethed around him, but he had little chance to put his views into practice. Meanwhile people were dying like flies — among them many of my own followers.

“A man’s first battle in life is always important. Mine had taught me much, about myself and about other people. I had fought official apathy and conservatism, fear and ignorance — my past foretold my future, for they were foes that were to confront me again and again throughout my life.” — His Highness the Aga Khan

I knew that something must be done, and I knew that I must take the initiative. I was not, as I have already recounted, entirely without scientific knowledge; I knew something of Pasteur’s work in France. I was convinced that the Surgeon General’s Department was working along the wrong lines. I by-passed it and addressed myself directly to Professor Haffkine. He and I formed an immediate alliance and a friendship that was not restricted solely to the grim business that confronted us. This, by now, was urgent enough. I could at least and at once give him facilities for his research and laboratory work. I put freely at his disposal one of my biggest houses, a vast, rambling palace not far from Aga Hall (it is now a part of St. Mary’s College, Mazagaon); here he established himself, and here he remained about two years until the Government of India, convinced of the success of his methods, took over the whole research project and put it on a proper, adequate and official footing.

An affluent family forced to leave their home due to plague. pHOTO Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. Copyright.

An affluent family forced to leave their home due to plague. Photo: © Wellcome Library, London, Wellcome Images.

Meanwhile I had to act swiftly and drastically. The impact of the plague among my own people was alarming. It was in my power to set an example. I had myself publicly inoculated, and I took care to see that the news of what I had done was spread as far as possible and as quickly as possible.

My followers could see for themselves that I, their Imam, had in full view of many witnesses submitted myself to this mysterious and dreaded process; hence there was no danger in following my example. The immunity, of which my continued health and my activities were obvious evidence, impressed itself on their consciousness and conquered their fear.

I was twenty years old. I ranged myself (with Haffkine, of course) against orthodox medical opinion of the time — among Europeans no less than among Asiatics. And if the doctors were opposed to the idea of inoculation, what of the views of ordinary people, in my own household and entourage, in the public at large? Ordinary people were extremely frightened.

Looking back across more than half a century, may I not be justified in feeling that the young man that I was showed a certain amount of courage and resolution?

At any rate it worked. Among my own followers the news circulated swiftly, as I had intended it to do, that their Imam had been inoculated and that they were to follow my example. Deliberately I put my leadership to the test. It survived and vindicated itself in a new and perhaps dramatic fashion. My followers allowed themselves to be inoculated, not in a few isolated instances, but as a group. Within a short time statistics were firmly on my side; the death rate from plague was demonstrably far, far lower among Ismailis than in any other section of the community; the number of new cases, caused by contamination, was sharply reduced; and finally the incidence of recovery was far higher.

A man’s first battle in life is always important. Mine had taught me much, about myself and about other people. I had fought official apathy and conservatism, fear and ignorance — my past foretold my future, for they were foes that were to confront me again and again throughout my life.

By the time the crisis was passed I may have seemed solemn beyond my years, but I possessed an inner self-confidence and strength that temporary and transient twists of fortune henceforth could not easily shake.

Date posted: June 21, 2019.

Before departing this website, please take a moment to visit Barakah’s Table of Contents for links to more than 150 pieces dedicated to Mawlana Hazar Imam and his family.

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The above piece is adapted from The Memoirs of Aga Khan by His Highness the Aga Khan, 1954.

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