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A plague of locusts: When bubonic plague came to Australia

By Trevor Moore

You will no doubt recall, those of you who drive northwards into Moruya, that there was a sign outside the Moruya Museum on Campbell Street, advertising that the Araluen Road was closed because of bush fires. A month later the sign told us that the road was closed because of flooding. I remarked to her indoors that I expected that, because things come in threes, the road would next be closed because of a plague of locusts. Well, the road is effectively closed because of a plague, though not one of locusts. But the current coronavirus pandemic is not the first plague that the human race has endured, and I don’t suppose it will be the last. Most of the time when we read about previous plagues - they wouldn’t have been called pandemics until the middle of the 19th century - we are told about the Spanish ‘flu, though there was nothing especially Spanish about the Spanish ‘flu. And it wasn’t the first pandemic. And neither was the Black Death or bubonic plague.

During the First World War (1914 – 1918) Spain remained neutral. News was suppressed in the nations that were combatants in the war, but not in Spain. There the press could report on anything it liked – and it did, especially after the Spanish King Alfonso XIII got sick. He recovered, and went on to reign until 1931, but Spanish news was the only uncensored news that people saw so the disease became known as the Spanish Lady or the Spanish ‘flu.

It infected about 500 million people around the world, out of a global population of about 1.8 billion; that’s a rate of a bit under 30% though the numbers are probably not reliable. Between 17 and 50 million people died; the range is huge because there were no mechanisms for collecting global information. By comparison the First World War claimed about 16 million lives. The Spanish ‘flu arrived in Australia in 1919: about a third of Australians were infected and the disease claimed some 15,000 lives (about 0.3% of the then 5,000,000 population). There’s a University of Sydney website article dated 21 January 2019 that asks: “why don't we commemorate its victims and heroes?” The article makes the point that while those who fell in the First World War are remembered for the ultimate sacrifice, those who were carried away by the ‘flu were not remembered, in spite of the numbers.

Of course, the Spanish ‘flu pales when compared with the Black Death that swept across the then-known world in the 14th century. In the same way that COVID19 spread, at least in part, through global travel and trade, the Black Death or the bubonic plague travelled along the trade routes from Asia to Europe. Remember that the Americas were isolated (Christopher Columbus went there first in 1492) and so too was Australia (European exploration of Australia dates from 1606). When the Black Death hit, Europe was already suffering from several years of wet weather and poor harvests. In fact, there was a climate crisis in Europe in the early 14th century. The rain started in 1315 and it didn’t stop for 10 years. Two thirds of sheep and oxen died. There are widespread reports of cannibalism. It took years to recover. And before the known world could recover, it was hit by the Black Death or, more properly, the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague originated in China with an outbreak in 1331 and within a few years it had reached central Asia. By the end of 1347 it had reached northern Europe and England. It was spread by rats and by humans who were trying to flee from the disease. It was spread by direct contact between humans through coughing and sneezing.

We don’t know how many people died from the bubonic plague but some estimate that it was over 40 million. The world population in the 14th century was about 400 million so that would mean that the bubonic plague took some 10% of the world population. But many historians quote figures of 30% of the population dying in Europe and south-west Asia[1]. Its death rate was almost certainly higher than the Spanish ‘flu. Eventually it died out, but the economic consequences were enormous, and as it happens so was the impact on the English language. At the beginning of the 14th century the official language of England was French, by the end it was English. The Statute of Pleading allowed the courts to work in English rather than French, in large part a consequence of the bubonic plague.

Before the plague, the rising population ensured that wages were kept low while rents and prices were high. This meant that the scales were weighed in favour of the landowner and against the peasant. As the population dropped, wages went up. In Oxford a ploughman paid 2 shillings in 1345 was demanding 3 shillings in 1349 and 10 shillings in 1350. In England, the Ordinance of Labourers (1349) and Statute of Labourers (1351) called for a return to the wages and terms of employment of 1346 … but it didn’t work.


Bubonic plague arrived in Australia in 1900 though there were relatively few deaths thanks to a coordinated response by government and health authorities. The outbreak here was part of what is referred to as the Third Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic (the Black Death was the Second Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic). This started in in 1855 reaching Hong Kong in 1894 where it killed 100,000 people. This episode of bubonic plague spread to all inhabited continents, and ultimately led to more than 12 million deaths in India and China, with about 10 million killed in India alone.[2] The first case reported in Australia was Arthur Paine on 19 January 1900. He was a delivery man who worked at Central Wharf where the ship carrying infected rats would have docked. By the end of February there were 30 known cases. The response to the potential for an epidemic saw infected people (nearly 2,000 of them) sent to quarantine and the implantation of a rat extermination program.

In New South Wales (this was before Federation), Sydney City Council established a Plague Department and infected neighbourhoods were disinfected with lime, carbolic water and lime chloride. All waste, including garbage, manure and stable bedding, was removed and burned. So far as I can discover, there have been no cases in Australia since 1910.

Then there were the Romans, that was the First Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic … but that’s for next time.

Note on the bubonic plague: the plague did not die out in the 14th century. Over the next 300 years there were frequent outbreaks. At the end of the 16th century half the population of Spain died, In the 17th century 2 million people died in France. The last major occurrence of the plague in England was in 1665 when, at its height, 6,000 people a week were dying.

[1] Clive Ponting, World History: A new perspective, Random House, 2000 [2] Infectious Diseases: Plague Through History, sciencemag.org

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