Thursday, May 26, 2005

Malaria's Grim Harvest in Early Hong Kong

I wrote last week about the plague in Hong Kong, and the insalubrious conditions of Chinese tenements at the close of the 19th century. But fifty years earlier, in the 1840s, it had been the colonials and their Indian soldiers that had been dying in large numbers from a different disease - malaria. As we know today, malarial fever was borne by mosquitoes. However, in the mid-19th century Western medicine had not yet recognized this as the source of the killer disease, having identified noxious vapours instead. This was still quite a close diagnosis, given that such vapors were to have been found at sources of stagnant water or swampy areas, which also happened to be ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. We will share many stories of this killer disease in our upcoming "Plague, Death and the Ghosts of Taipingshan" walk through Western district. But you may enjoy a taste of what we'll be offering in this quote from Montgomery Martin in 1847, a former Treasurer of the Colony, in his book Martin's China:[ed. Note: italics are mine]

"The structure [of the earth in Hong Kong] may be briefly described as consisting of decomposed, coarse granite, intermixed with a strata of red disintegrating sandstone, crumbling into a stiff ferruginous-looking clay. Here and there huge boulder stones, which gunpowder will not blast, may be seen embedded in a stiff, pudding earth, or they are strewed over the tops and sides of the mountains. Gneiss and feldspar are found in fragments. That the granite is rotten and passing, like dead animal and vegetable substances, into a putrescent state, is evidenced from the crumbling of the apparently solid rock beneath the touch, and from the noxious vapour, carbonic acid gas, or nitrogen which it yields when the sun strikes fervidly on it after rain.

On examination of the sites of houses in Victoria, whose foundations were being excavated in the sides of the hills, the strata appeared like a richly prepared compost, emitting a fetid odour of the most sickening nature, and which at night must prove a deadly poison. This strata quickly absorbs any quantity of rain, which it returns to the surface in the nature of a pestiferous mineral gas. The position of the town of Victoria, which may be likened to the bottom of a crater with a lake, prevents the dissipation of this gas, while the geological formation favours the retention of a morbific poison of the surface, to be occasionally called into deadly activity."

With such beliefs, it is no wonder that so many graves in Hong Kong's colonial cemeteries attest to doctors' inability to arrest the fearsome mortality rate amongst civilians and the soldiery alike....

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