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11 October 2023 - 11 October 2023

12:00PM - 1:00PM

Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College, Durham City

  • Free

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At the turn of the twentieth century, the city of Bombay was in the midst of an ongoing epidemic of Yersinia pestis that killed thousands annually.

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A Rat

While in many cities that Yersinia pestis arose during the Third Plague Pandemic (1896–1940) the epidemic emerged and subsided quickly, taking a few dozen lives, in Bombay, the epidemic returned cyclically, killing hundreds or thousands before retreating again. By 1930, over 180,000 residents of the city (or roughly one quarter of the city’s pre-epidemic population) were reported to have died of plague (Arnold 1993, Klein 1986). The unique ecology of the disease in the city prompted steps by the City Government of Bombay to address the apparent “place-based” etiology of plague. The Bombay Improvement Trust Act of 1898 established the Bombay Improvement Trust, a municipal organisation charged with enacting “a comprehensive scheme for the improvement of the City of Bombay, more especially in respect to the better ventilation of densely inhabited parts, the removal of insanitary dwellings, and the prevention of overcrowding” (Bombay Improvement Trust, Administration Report for the Year Ending, 31 March 1901, Bombay Improvement Trust Administration Report 1898–1899 to 1904–1905, p. 3).

In this talk, I will examine the role of slum clearance and urban beautification projects undertaken by the Bombay Improvement Trust between 1898 and its dissolution in 1925 in the spread of plague across the city of Bombay. Building on the work of Kidambi (2001), Hazareesingh (2001), and other scholars of urban improvement, I will argue that these urban beautification projects were conducted in tension with and often contradictory to the work being undertaken by the Plague Research Committee into plague-proof housing. Combining geospatial, ecological and primary source evidence from the epidemic, this talk will assert that the approach of the Bombay Improvement Trust likely contributed to the continuation of the epidemic by disrupting rodent communities and worsening living conditions, and in doing so highlight the long-term effects of the fracturing of knowledge production and implementation practices at differing scales of governance during the epidemic.

An Abstract Booklet featuring all events in this series is available here. 



Arnold, David (1993): Colonizing the Body. State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Colonial India, Berkeley.

Hazareesingh, Sandip (2001): Colonial modernism and the flawed paradigms of urban renewal. Uneven development in Bombay, 1900–25. In: Urban History 28, 235–255.

Kidambi, Prashant (2001): Housing the poor in a colonial city. The Bombay Improvement Trust, 1898–1918. In: Studies in History 17, 57–79.

Klein, Ira (1986): Urban development and death. Bombay City, 1870–1914. In: Modern Asian Studies 20, 725–754.