Piwa ʻEleʻele: Plague and Fire

#126 in the Moʻolelo series

On the Fourth of July, 1894, the self-proclaimed Provisional Government, with a Constitutional Convention, renamed itself the Republic of Hawaiʻi. Sanford Dole, President of both governments, wrote in his papers that it was “important that it have the word ʻRepublic’ in the name,” [emphasis mine] in order to signal that Hawaiʻi was no longer a monarchy. After the annexation ceremony in August, 1898, the US did not establish a government in Hawaiʻi. So the Republic continued on as a sort of unofficial, de facto government.

Some call this a period of interregnum, a period without government (inter: between, reg: from the Latin regere“to rule, direct, lead, govern,”  and related to rex (genitive regis) “king,”). During this period of interregnum, Hawaiʻi faced its first known epidemic of the bubonic plague, or “Black Plague.” The Republic’s Board of Health consisted of the physicians Nathaniel Emerson, Francis Day and Clifford Wood, who, by January 1900:

for more than a month they had been directing a largely unsuccessful battle against the first invasion of bubonic plague ever to reach the Hawaiian islands

James Mohr, Plague and Fire, 2005, 1.

The plague was concentrated in Chinatown, Honolulu and was carrying off one to two victims per day. Indoor assemblies were prohibited (Mohr, 2005, 2). A controlled burn of a cluster of shacks in Kalihi was attempted, but a change in wind direction led to the steeple of Kaumakapili Church catching on fire.

Iʻm really into side-by-side photos of historical sites then and now like these above – it gives one a good idea of exactly where events occurred, which is often difficult because sites look so different today. In these images, you can see that after the first building on the right, the same buildings stand today. honolulumagazine.com

The conflagration tore out of control, fueled by stacks of lumber at a lumberyard and fireworks in a warehouse meant for Chinese New Year, only a little more than a week away. The closely-built, and mostly wooden two-story buildings of Chinatown ignited to such an extent that firemen focused on evacuating residents rather than fighting the flames (Mohr, 2005).

Chinatown residents who were already under quarantine now had to be fed and housed in camps, all while preventing spread of the plague. Mohr notes:

Few of residents felt any loyalty to the government that had placed Emerson, Day and Wood in charge of the public’s health. On the contrary, many suspected that the day’s fire was a white plot to ruin or even exterminate them … As a smoldering glow illuminated drifting nighttime clouds, the three physicians had to face the fact that a policy they had initiated in the name of public health had led to the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history.

Mohr, 2005, 5.

And yet, as Honolulu Magazine notes:

The first Kaumakapili Church, built with twin towers in Downtown, was destroyed in the fire and rebuilt a mile away, on King Street. After the 1900 plague fire was extinguished, health authorities set more than 30 more “controlled fires” and four months later declared Honolulu free of plague.


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