Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Death in the Time of Cholera: Bureaucracy, the State and Contested Communications in Nineteenth-Century Spain and the Ottoman Empire

Session Abstract

The nineteenth century was an age of vastly expanded levels of global interconnection and communication. While much of the attention that goes to modernization during this era focuses on perceived technological advances, such as the electric telegraph or steam-powered transportation, another modern “communication” spread by such increased connectivity was that of communicable disease. One of the most notable of these was cholera, caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which, was able to spread from a mainly localized disease endemic to Eastern India, to a series of global pandemics that lasted the rest of the century. That cholera was spreading along the nodes of modernized transportation infrastructures also served to diminish those infrastructures’ benefits of shortening the time and cost of trade and other travel by forcing the need to cut off transportation routes or to require long quarantines for those who traveled from infected areas.
In addition to affecting technologies of transportation and communication, the cholera pandemics presented challenges to another rapidly modernizing technology- that of the state. While obviously a disaster in the short run, the need to treat cholera could eventually lead to the development of a permanent public health bureaucracy, as in the cases of Spain and the Ottoman Empire. Here, again, we can see the emergence of cholera as intertwined with modernization. Finally, since the nineteenth century was also the age of European imperialism, the two papers dealing with the Ottoman example demonstrate how the international politics of the time also intervened in actions and ideas about the cholera pandemics and how they should be controlled. Together, these three papers argue that understanding the nineteenth century cholera pandemics is crucial for understanding the modern world that the nineteenth century made.

Presenter 1

Disease and the State in Late Ottoman Iraq, 1821-1899

Isacar A. Bolaños

California State University, Long Beach


The cholera and plague pandemics of the 19th and early 20h centuries shaped Ottoman state- building and expansionist efforts in Iraq and the Gulf in significant ways. For Ottoman officials, these pandemics brought attention to the possible role of Qajar and British subjects in spreading cholera and plague, as well as the relationship between Iraq’s ecology and recurring outbreaks. These developments paved the way for the expansion of Ottoman health institutions, such as quarantines, and the emergence of new conceptions of public health in the region. Specifically, quarantines proved instrumental not only to the delineation of the Ottoman–Qajar border, but also to defining an emerging Ottoman role in shaping Gulf affairs. Moreover, the Ottomans’ use of quarantines and simultaneous efforts to develop sanitary policies informed by local ecological realities signal a localized and ad hoc approach to disease prevention that has been overlooked. Ultimately, this paper demonstrates that environmental factors operating on global and regional scales were just as important as geopolitical factors in shaping Ottoman rule in Iraq and the Gulf during the late Ottoman period.

Presenter 2

Sanitation in the time of Cholera: Spain, Epidemics and the Dirección General de Beneficencia y Sanidad, 1830-1860

Ruth A. Oropeza

University of Arizona


In the early nineteenth century, the Spanish Crown entered some of the most politically turbulent years on the peninsula. Napoleon’s invasion and the questions of legitimacy that plagued Isabella II’s reign along with the subsequent Carlist Wars destabilized the Crown and raised important questions about governance. In addition to this political turmoil, Spain faced another threat: disease. Spain was hit with a global pandemic of cholera in the 1830s. Although the state had policies in place to manage epidemic outbreaks, order quickly broke down as these public health measures did nothing to stop the spread of infection. As the wave of epidemic subsided, the Spanish Crown took decisive steps to manage illness on the Iberian Peninsula. This paper explores the Crown’s attempts to manage epidemic outbreaks with the creation of the Dirección General de Beneficencia y Sanidad. By utilizing medical manuals, medical records, pamphlets and other sources, I explore how this global pandemic as well as local sites of healing helped shape the Dirección General into a modernizing state directed system of public health. I argue that cholera appeared on the peninsula as an agent of change, and as a result, required negotiation at a local, municipal, and state level to prevent illness.

Presenter 3

Contested Quarantines and Interruptions: The Effects of Cholera on Late Ottoman Mobilities

Alex Schweig

University of Arizona


By the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire, like most of the world, had entered the age of steam. Ports such as Izmir were continuing their long-time roles as nodes of connection with the rest of the world, but were now docking steamships that connected its hinterland to rapidly developing networks of global capitalism. Newly-built railroads opened up formerly impenetrable interiors for trade, travel, and military use. These enterprises were not purely Ottoman, but most frequently involved a process of negotiation between the Ottoman state and foreign investors and companies, who were able to provide funding and experience not otherwise available in exchange for increased political influence and economic control.


Panel Discussion