In 1885 Nepal had seen lots of rain and extremely hot weather. The city’s ‘sultry and oppressive’ air, Gimlette noted, ‘was undisturbed by the slightest breeze’.
The first ugly symptoms of cholera manifested themselves in mid May. Soon, five or six people were dying each day. By the end of May 10-12 people were dying. The British doctor tried to spur the palace into action, making ‘frequent and urgent’ calls for temporary clinics to treat the sick. But his pleas went ‘entirely disregarded’ by the Rana rulers at the time.
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Eventually the government gave a space for a small dispensary, but that fell far short of the what Gimlette really wanted — a ‘place into which patients could be admitted and treated continuously’.
Another poor decision added fuel to the fire. Over 15,000 troops were gathered in Kathmandu for a possible deployment in India. Some soldiers got sick, and others were not dispatched home immediately. Only after a colorful parade two weeks later on 1 June 1885 were soldiers sent home. But it was too late.
The disease followed them around the country. Kathmandu saw ‘a sudden increase’ in cases, the death rate now topping 50 per day. Cases appeared in Patan and then Bhaktapur. Cholera spread into the mountains.
Meanwhile, the troops at the British Residency remained healthy, despite cases nearby. Gimlette credited good hygiene and a limited quarantine — soldiers were not allowed into the city, then a slight distance away.
By 14 June, cholera had invaded the palace. Of the over 300 people who lived there, 25 were dead by evening, chiefly slave-girls and servants.
‘A panic ensued, and the Durbar was quickly emptied,’ Gimlette wrote. The dying were rushed to Pashupati. Others fled to the palaces of Patan and Bhaktapur which themselves soon grew into ‘fresh centres of the disease’.
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On June 29th, after alternating days of heavy rain and high temperatures, the daily death toll climbed over 100, its highest yet, and stayed there for several days. Gimlette made house calls, and visited the ghats daily. He observed a society struggling to maintain its humanity.
He described the cremation ghats as ‘crowded with sick, dying, and dead. Many unfortunate wretches were simply, when attacked, brought to the edge of stream and there abandoned’.
The scene was gruesome. The better off could afford to burn their dead, but ‘the bodies of the poor and low castes were thrown into the middle of the shallow stream by hundreds, to be pulled again piecemeal to the banks by the dogs, jackals, and vultures, who feasted on them’.
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Cooler temperatures in July gave the city a short respite. But the disease soon roared back ‘as bad as ever’. This time it devastated the city’s lower quarters. Only in August did the death rate significantly drop, the outbreak finally coming to an end in early September.
Over 9,000 people in Kathmandu Valley had died, the Darbar announced. Gimlette thought this estimate high, but agreed that the loss of life ‘must have been very great’. The city’s population, before the outbreak, was approximately 50,000.
G H Gimlette worried that poor hygiene and government indifference would yield yet more killer epidemics. ‘The disgustingly insanitary condition of Katmandu and other towns,’ he wrote, ‘is quite certain to breed epidemics in future. No efforts to remedy it are in the least likely to be made by the Durbar, nor would anything much short of burning the city to the ground suffice. The foundations are saturated with filth, and the air is almost thick with stenches.’
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Tom Robertson, PhD, is researching the environmental history of the Kathmandu Valley.