When Bubonic Plague Came to Honolulu


Photo: Hinano Brumaghim

By ‘Anakala Hinano Brumaghim

For the record, China connected with Hawaiʻi once before as the source of an epidemic of Bubonic Plague that reached Honolulu. The plague originated in South Central China (ca. 1870) and moved to the China coast by 1900 via well-used trade routes. In 1893, it was in Canton. In 1894, it was in Hong Kong before continuing toward the Indian subcontinent. In 1895-1896, it moved to the Middle East. In December 1899, it arrived in Honolulu.

In the beginning, Hawaiʻi authorities had no idea what disease confronted them.

Not until two doctors – Kitasato Shibasaburo and Alexandre Yersin – correctly diagnosed bubonic plague and the micro-organism “versina pestis,” was a plan put in place to fight the disease.

Honolulu was susceptible due to heavy international traffic, while treatment to combat the plague was unknown. Two ships were suspected of bringing the plague to Honolulu: the Nippon Maru in June/August 1899 and the Manchuria in October 1899. The first victim (You Chong) died Dec. 12, 1899.

Honolulu Board of Health staff and doctors devised a plan to rid Hawaiʻi of the plague by seeking/destroying areas deemed infected with fire – after first emptying the area of people. This “controlled burning” technique had been used successfully elsewhere: San Francisco (1900), Kobe, Japan (1901), Berlin (1902), Mexico (1903), and Manchuria (1910).

The area identified was Honolulu’s Chinatown (bordered by Nuʻuanu Stream, Nuʻuanu Street, Kukui Street and the Wharf).

The first block was burned Dec. 31, 1899. A second block fire was started on Jan. 20, 1900. But what started as a “controlled burn” quickly got out of hand due to high winds coming down from the Nuʻuanu Pali. The fire burned for 17 days, scorched 60 acres, and killed 54 people.

In the aftermath, the Honolulu Board of Health learned that rats by themselves cannot cause the plague. They were/are the reservoirs for the plague, however, it was actually mosquitoes that spread the disease from rats to humans.

6,000 refugees from Chinatown were detained on the grounds of Kawaiahaʻo Church and ʻIolani Palace. Never before, or since, has Honolulu seen a fire like that of Jan. 20, 1900.

Wayne Hinano Brumaghim is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools, and the University of Maine where he earned a BA in mathematics/engineering. He served in the U.S. Air Force and lived on the continent until 1984 when he returned to Oʻahu to care for his mother. He retired from the Sheraton Waikīkī in 2005 and returned to school at UH Mānoa, earning both BA and MA degrees in Hawaiian studies in his 60s. Brumaghim resides in Papakōlea.