Zoonotic Obliteration

Zoonotic Obliteration: The Effects of Yersenia Pestis (Black Plague) on Non-European Countries. Author: Genevieve El-Masri. copyrighted


In the 14th Century, a great and terrible mortality stretched across the eastern part of the world as a violent pandemic. The Zoonotic bacterium Yersenia Pestis, traveled in the gut of fleas on the body of rats. Poor sanitation, ill hygiene, and growing trade created a powder keg of disease that affected seventy-percent of its victims. The death toll of Y. Pestis was incalculable, though many historians have speculated that it reached numbers estimated as high as 200 million human lives. The Black Death notably infected Europe, bringing death, despair, and pestilence to many homes, including those of notable historical figures. While the 14th century European outbreak has been a major focus of historical documentation, many non-European countries have experienced severe political, social, and economic effects of the Bubonic Plague since the bacteria’s inception into human civilization.
The origins of the bacteria Y. Pestis are complex and multifaceted. Y. Pestis evolved between 1,500-20,000 years ago from the closely related Y. Pseudotuberculosis bacterium in northern Africa; the current strain has only existed for about 500 years. With just a few genetic variations, Y. Pestis evolved to infect the putrid foregut of fleas, forming a plug of packed bacilli which it passed to its victims when the flea fed; regurgitating its infection into its victim’s blood stream. The transformation of Y. Pestis from bacteria that could survive solely in the mid-gut of desert fleas, to the foregut, allowed the bacteria to be transferred to new opportune hosts. As soon as it was introduced into human civilization; Y. Pestis quickly decimated all life in its path (Achtman).
One of the earliest accounts of Y. Pestis infecting a population occurred around the year 541 A.D. in the city of Constantinople. The infected fleas busily arrived on ships bringing powder caked grain sacks from Egypt. As many as 10,000 people were dying daily from the plague in Constantinople.
The effects of the Bubonic Plague on the Middle East affected political and social structures. In his essay on the Justinian Plague outbreak of 540 A.D., Joshua Armstrong states, “...The plagues high virulence and subsequent strain on the empire, both militarily and economically, directly contributed to the decline of the Byzantine Empire.” It would be nearly a century before Y. Pestis would appear again in the Middle East.
The next major outbreak occurred in 639 A.D. in the town of Emmaus, Palestine (Van Ess). After the Rashidun Caliphate conquered the region, plague shortly followed. Considering that the Rashidun Caliphate had gained a tight grip on most of the Arabian Peninsula and a part of Northern Africa, there is a correlation to speculations made by modern scientists of the plague’s African Origin (El-Hibri). The fleas traveled with members of the Caliphates party and spread out to other regions from there. While trade was partly responsible for the encroaching infection, necessity was secretly placing its hand into the pestilence.
In the year 638 A.D., a great drought struck Arabia, bringing about a terrible famine. The Rashidun Caliphate was implored to rush rations to the starving masses. Abu Ubaidah, a companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, came to the aid of the people bringing sacks of grain which were the likely culprit for the outbreak (Amansari). Without manpower, agriculture sustained terrible losses and famine soon followed. The lack of proper nourishment led to susceptibility towards other diseases, and jobs typically reserved for men, required women to alter social and domestic views. Men were more likely to be infected by plague; as a result, economic and military structures were crippled severely. Medieval Islamic armies like the Mamluks were heavily crippled forcing other areas with greater populations to maintain a grip on cultural views (Ayalon). Women began to join military campaigns in defense of their property and peasants began to take unfamiliar social roles.
The great loss of life in the Middle East ironically benefited peasants, since land was plentiful and wages were easily gained due to loss of workers. As populations increased, workers and peasants were forced back into famine and poverty. Thus, perpetuating their risk for exposure and setting the cycle for pestilence over again. As the pestilence attacked cities, foreigners were treated with caution and disgust.
A xenophobic stance was taken in the Middle East since foreigners were believed by many to be the cause for plague. Long standing wars between Muslims and Jewish people reached escalations during the 14th century outbreak when many Muslims believed that Jews were responsible for plague. Accusations were made that Jews had poisoned the well water supplies and several exterminations were committed. In 1349, Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne were exterminated as a precaution against plague. Like Europeans, many Middle Eastern nations took to extreme religious measures as a way of dealing with plague. Some adherents engaged in flagellation, torture, penance, and stoning of those infected publicly (Watkins). This sent a ripple throughout the Middle East which reinforced long-lasting hatred between the Jewish people and other Islamic nations. Y. Pestis made its way like a silent assassin, dividing nations, families, religious ideas and marched invisibly towards the deserts of Asia. In the Gobi desert, Y. Pestis would rest dormant until the 14th century when it would awaken with a fiery vengeance.
One of the most likely events for the reemergence of plague in the 14th century was climate change that was occurring in the world during this time. The earth was going through what scientists generally understand as the “little ice age.” Heavy snow levels on regional mountains in Mongolia demonstrate dormant fleas on the back of rats may have traveled to lower levels in search of warmth (Oosthoek). As a result, several Mongolian towns began to experience smaller outbreaks. The lethal bacteria found its way to Europe via the silk trade road; Genoese sailors arrived in Europe with a ship full of goods and disease (Kelly). Flea infected rats began to contaminate the city at an alarming rate and suddenly all of Europe was sent spiraling into death’s palm. This was the beginning of the great mortality. Death crept into every home like a silent fog and Europe would historically claim its position as ground zero for the Black Death. The European outbreak, however, affected trade with the Asian trade routes. This forced Chinese and Mongolian merchants to reevaluate trade. Economically, Asian traders were finding ways to survive; the bacterium was picking off people within their communities. The reasons why there were not as significant numbers in Mongolia and China are unknown, though it can be speculated that the higher and cooler elevations shunned rats. Chance and irony interconnected, bringing the consequence of death to the Asian continent.
The turn of the 19th century, ironically began with the Chinese zodiac new year of the rat. The Chinese New Year brought the usual celebrations of rice cakes, paper candies, lanterns and an additional surprise (Echenberg); plague was approaching the citizens of various provinces. While many were out celebrating, strange symptoms were emerging in several of the citizens of Hong Kong and surrounding areas. At first, it was thought to be common malaise associated with a bevy of familiar illnesses like malaria, dysentery or cholera; that was until the black pustules formed in the groins, pits, and lymphatic areas of the infected. Plague had started infecting the Chinese people a month prior, but in a few short years the death toll would rise dramatically. This however, was the beginning of a new era in the Bubonic Plagues history. The advancement of medicine with highly sensitive laboratory tools allowed many scientists analyze plague from a different perspective. As a result, it is generally understood that the Chinese 19th century outbreak was independent of the 14th century European outbreak, because it was handled on a completely different level of scientific advancement (Benedict).
An example of the effects of plague on language is that there was not originally a Chinese character for plague, since the Chinese felt that Y. Pestis was not contagious; they were in fact correct. The bacteria itself was not transferred from person to person. China rarely enforced public health policies and rejected colonial medicine, though the Chinese still maintained an oncological approach of medicine that was congruent with western medicine. Still, there were many things that were not understood about the Bubonic Plague. The careful advancement of eastern and western medicine allowed the infected population to analyze carefully the causes of the plague and to treat them with a greater sense of caution and less superstition. Though those who chose to sort to herbal cures and treatments were encouraged, since it was considered the norm to utilize natural treatments as part of eastern medicine. The Sino-Japanese war led to the restructuring of Chinese policing and medical structures, which would eventually be used to analyze and arrest the Manchurian plague. As plague became commonly understood the character for plague was introduced into the Chinese language (Benedict).
It is possible that the reason why the Chinese outbreak was better contained than the Middle Eastern and European outbreaks was because of dietary causes. The influence of Chinese medicine with its bitter barks, herbs, and roots created an offensive scent to its potential prey. This caused the fleas to maintain a safe distance. Oddly though, many succumbed to plague in China during this time. Without the current knowledge of antibiotics, there was no immediate solution to infection (Summers). The pervasive nature of bacteria would make it quite difficult to eradicate it by means of eastern medicine. The success of treating plague with eastern medicine allowed for the acceptance of Chinese medicine as a viable solution to treating specific illnesses like plague.
The European pandemic was on a very large scale and the tight populations of larger cities in Europe were affected in ways that smaller outskirt villages did not suffer. Plague, however, was not limited by class or social stature. While many were trying to find solutions to destroy plagues in their cities, there were compromises to culture, religious views, and linear thinking. Plague forced the Middle Eastern and Asian populations to adapt given their experiences by way of their cultural biases. The Middle East suffered tragic losses coupled with religious fervor. The Asian continent dealt with plague at a far more modern time in medical development which allowed the infected population to deal with plague in a form that is consistent with western medicine. Death, disease, famine, and loss are commonalities that all continents exposed to the Bubonic Plague experienced. However, each region experienced plague on a completely different platform in their cultural evolution. While the Y. Pestis bacteria could not be deviated from its historical path in Europe, its memory was kept alive only by specific regional pandemics. Many other populations were greatly impacted by plague and its influence could be felt far-reaching into the shaping of history. Though millions of lives were lost collectively in Europe to the Bubonic Plague, and its inception changed the course of European history, plague affected Asia and the Middle East. Its legacy as one of the worst pandemics in history can be viewed from a non-European lens, for the tragic toll it took on human life and culture was not solely confined to countries in Europe.

-G. El-Masri 2019

Works Cited

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2 thoughts on “Zoonotic Obliteration”

  1. Very interesting read! As someone who knows little about the subject, I always had a bias about which regions were effected by the plague. “Each region experienced plague on a completely different platform in their cultural evolution.” Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your comnment JoJo. Yes! Plague definitely affected many different regions!

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