Lessons on dignity and compassion from plague-stricken Derbyshire

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THE VILLAGE of Eyam, in the Peak District of Derbyshire, caught the Plague in 1665. It came, reputedly, in a box of clothes and shoes sent to the village from London. When plague broke out, Mr Mompesson, the vicar, decided that he would stay and urged all the other villagers to remain rather than flee and risk passing the disease on to others. In consequence, the people of Eyam died but the rest of Derbyshire was preserved.

This is a touching story, and as famous as it deserves to be. It has a special meaning for me because, for a few years of my childhood when my father worked in Sheffield, we lived in Eyam. Now there is plague in India, and British tabloids shriek with simulated terror. It reminds me of that grey village among its tiny, stone-walled fields, and its ill-buried memories.

The awareness of the Plague was everywhere. Behind our house was the dell where Mompesson held services in the open air, to avoid infection. At the other end of the village were the Riley Graves, trenches where the victims were piled, and across the road, on the main street, were the Plague Cottages which had stood since before Mompesson's time. One day, though I did not see this, men repairing a chimney-breast dislodged a dusty mass of clothing which had been hung there to fumigate in the smoke. The street emptied instantly, and people took much persuasion before they would return.

It seems to have been true that many people in Eyam agreed to stay, for the sake of other villages. But the neighbouring communities did not entirely trust their altruism. They barricaded the tracks leading to Eyam, and posted men with muskets and pikes on them day and night with orders to shoot if anyone approached the barrier. Grass grew over the roads. In Eyam, so many died that there were too few left to bury them.

Long before modern frontiers, the plague made people erect barriers to control movement. Later, each port had a quarantine mole and isolation building where the passengers of incoming ships might be held for weeks. There was an association of pestilence with outsiders and foreigners, with the alien and malign. As with the anti-rabies campaign, it is not hard to read the xenophobic signals now in the pictures of aircraft being sprayed at Heathrow, in the calls for greater vigilance.

The outside world is unclean - but how clean is it this side of the wire? I was once told, in considerable detail, that bubonic plague in a very mild form had been found to be endemic in part of Suffolk - in the tongue of countryside between the estuaries of the Orwell and the Deben. In the late 1930s, some medical officer had put together a sequence of widely separated but undiagnosed fever deaths in isolated farmhouses there, and looked at them more closely. He concluded that he was looking at plague, the bacterium possibly living in the fleas of rats or coypus inhabiting the ditches of that low-lying region.

There the story broke off. Whether more cases occurred, and even whether the researcher reported his study to the authorities, I have no idea. The county council archives at Ipswich have no trace of the business. Perhaps it is an invention, although my hunch is that there is something true buried here. The point, to me, is the image of the plague as something as naturally, unobtrusively English as Suffolk mud.

But plague, when it becomes an epidemic or - as in the case of the 1348 Black Death - a pandemic, is also political. Groups of human beings suddenly and drastically change the way they treat each other. This can have economic causes. The Black Death, killing at least a third of Europe's population, created a labour shortage which was good for slave-traders - and for peasants who could now sell their labour dearly. On the other hand, change can come directly from the plague - by the very methods used to fight it.

In 1896, plague broke out in India. Unlike the European outbreaks, this was a long-lasting catastrophe; between 1898 and 1908 it killed 6 million people, and by the time it finally dwindled away in 1930, it had taken more than 12 million lives. The Indian plague, which seems to have arrived from Hong Kong, precipitated a furious, complex confrontation between the population and the British authorities which contributed, indirectly but powerfully, to the growth of Indian nationalism.

The British attacked the epidemic with a ruthless and - as it seemed to them - benevolent energy. In Bombay, where the outbreak started, the government took full powers to destroy 'infected property', and then to detain and segregate plague 'suspects' in camps and hospitals, to ban pilgrimages and fairs, and to examine travellers. Control of health was taken away from local authorities and passed to European doctors and civil servants.

Here was one of those insoluble misunderstandings which go to the heart of imperialism. To the European mind, it was utterly obvious that stopping the spread of plague was the supreme priority, to which customs and traditions, property rights and group privileges, must defer. This was about life or death. Efficiency was all.

But the Indians, it turned out, did not see the crisis in that way at all. They did not want to die; they wanted the plague halted. But they were not prepared to declare martial law in their minds, by appointing one aim as dictator over all other considerations.

The Indian masses objected to forced hospitalisation, which violated the family and deprived the dying of correct ritual. They protested that hospitals were actually places of pollution, because caste and dietary rules were ignored. They saw compulsory physical examination as an act of contaminating violence and - in the case of women - as a form of gross sexual assault. The use of British soldiers to search houses for concealed plague victims led to riots, and W C Rand, the Plague Commissioner of Pune (Poona) was murdered. The Indian middle class accused the British of using the plague as a pretext to strip them of administrative authority.

In the end, the British backed off. They dropped the use of force, which had anyway failed to stop the plague spreading, and went over to methods of persuasion. But each side had baffled the other. The British were confirmed in their view that 'the natives' were hopelessly irresponsible, and unfit to govern themselves. The Indians suspected that the British were out to exterminate them culturally, socially, perhaps even physically.

There is a fate worse than death (the Indians seemed to say). This is that the whole interlace of custom and love, the delicate fabric in whose stitches individual human lives begin and end and are replaced by others, should die too. That is what illiterate people felt in the Bombay slums a hundred years ago. Long before, in tiny Eyam, the Reverend Mompesson was saying the same thing.