Outbreak of 1831-1832

In the early 1830’s in Europe, the most pressing issue at hand, initially, were the political revolutions. These revolutions were prevalent all over the continent of Europe, and even reached Britain. Along with these political revolutions came an even bigger threat: the disease cholera. The first case of cholera in England was reported in 1831 (Snow). This sparked panic in citizens and medical professionals alike. However, the arrival of this disease came as no surprise to the people of Britain. Cholera first arrived in Europe in 1823 from Africa, slowly creeping its way across the continent as it inched closer and closer to Britain. For 8 years, the people of Britain had known that cholera was approaching their nation’s borders. The high death rate and lack of a cure struck fear into the hearts of the British. Documents from the time of cholera stated, “three-fifths, two-thirds, and even six-sevenths of the infected have perished.” Other documentation from the 1830s claimed “no pestilence has ravaged the world to such a frightful extent…. as Cholera” (Young, 3). Modern researchers estimate that half of all victims died once they were infected with the disease. When this disease struck, it struck fast. Cholera victims often died within 12 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Not only was this disease deadly, but with it came another fear factor; you could see it coming. Now, this isn’t some interpretation of you could see it coming that refers to being able to predict when the disease would strike. No, you could physically see cholera with your own two eyes. Historian of medicine Projit Bihari Mukharji recounts a story from October, 1831, in which people from a small Scottish fishing village walked out of church one morning, and noticed a “little yellow cloud” that was near the ground off in the distance. They knew that this “little yellow cloud” was cholera, and it brought utter fear and panic to anyone who saw it. It came to be known as the “cholera cloud” or the “cholera mist.” Similar sightings of “cholera clouds” occurred all across Britain. Most people at this time believed cholera was caused by some kind of air borne toxin.

V0010484 A dead victim of cholera at Sunderland in 1832. Coloured lit
A dead victim of cholera at Sunderland in 1832. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Villages that were near water were the most susceptible to the disease. It was also a popular belief among people in 19th century England that cholera was much more prevalent in the summer when the temperature was hot, and when next to water made the atmosphere much more humid. Many of the people that died in the 1831-32 outbreak were fisherman and artisans. Among other factors that influenced a higher infection rate were poverty and sanitation. Due to their poverty, people in these towns and villages did not have the proper resources to practice good sanitation in order to prevent the disease. Overpopulation also played a role in the rapid spread of cholera, as the disease could be passed quicker to people living in tighter quarters. (Evans, 129) Among people living in poverty, many believed that the government was lying about cholera being an unknown disease. In France, poor people believed that the disease was used as a ploy to reduce the number of poor people in the country, and such beliefs even caused riots (Evans, 138). In England, many poor people believed doctors were causing the cholera in order to get bodies for dissection (Evans, 138).

In terms of transmission of the disease and possible cures during the outbreak of 1831-32, not many answers were to be had. Prior to the entrance of the disease to Britain in 1831, there was considerable debate among physicians about the causes of cholera, and no effective treatment.  It was not until the mid 19th century that a better understanding of the causes and action cholera emerged. In fact, Britain even helped spread the disease out of the country in 1832, as their troops carried the disease with them to Poland.

There was some thought among the people of Britain that cholera was sent by God, and the response should be religious rather than (or in addition) medical.  Accordingly, there were days of fasting and sermons on the subject of cholera.  The Reverend Orville Dewey, for example, argued that,  “The Cholera, I am firmly persuaded, will prevent more suffering than it will occasion,” because it would bring people back to God. While many  people believed that prayer and fasting could help prevent cholera, there is no possible way to search for evidence on whether or not the prayers worked.

Overall, the cholera outbreak of 1831-1832 caused around 20,000 deaths in Britain. However, this was not the last cholera outbreak in Britain. Three more outbreaks took place throughout the mid 19th century (1848, 1853-1854, & 1866). These three outbreaks also caused thousands of deaths to this horrible and mysterious disease of the time. The first initial outbreak in 1831 was only the beginning of a disease that played a highly significant role in shaping the history of Britain and the world that exists today.

Written by Austin Morris

Sources

  1. Dewey, Orville. A Sermon on the Moral Uses of the Pestilence, Denominated Asiatic Cholera: Delivered on Fast-Day. August 9, 1832. New Bedford: 1832.
  2. Evans, Richard J. “Epidemics and Revolutions: Cholera in Nineteenth-century       Europe” Past & Present, no. 120. (1988): 123–46.
  3. Mukharji, Projit Bihari. “The “Cholera Cloud” in the Nineteenth-Century “British World”: History of an Object-without-an-Essence.” Bulletin Of The History Of Medicine 86, no. 3 (2012): 303-332.
  4. Snow, Stephanie J. “Sutherland, Snow and Water : The Transmission of Cholera in the Nineteenth Century.” International Journal Of Epidemiology 31, no. 5 (2002): 908-911.
  5. Young, L.H. An Account of the Rise and Progress of the Indian or Spasmodic Cholera: With a Particular Description of the Symptoms Attending the Disease: Illustrated by a Map, Showing the Route and Progress of the Disease, from Jessore, Near the Ganges, in 1817, to Great Britain, in 1831. New Haven: 1832.