Critical Mass: Colonial Crowds and Contagious Panics in 1890s Hong Kong and Bombay

  • Robert PeckhamEmail author
Part of the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series book series (CIPCSS)


This chapter examines the interrelation between contagious disease and ‘native’ panic in two sites of the British Empire: Hong Kong and Bombay during the onset of the Third Plague Pandemic in the 1890s. It shows how colonial concerns about the destabilizing impact of bubonic plague in Asia became intertwined with anxieties about the management of ‘panic-stricken’ indigenous crowds. A metropolitan interest in the ‘crowd’ as a phenomenon of mass industrial city life, popularized in works such as Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895/1896), was recast in the Asian colonies. There, the teeming populations of Eastern cities and their vast hinterlands exposed the precariousness of colonial authority. In Hong Kong and Bombay—both key port cities of the Empire—new scientific knowledge about the aetiology and transmission pathways of the plague ‘germ’ overlapped with a quasi-scientific understanding of the ‘contagious’ nature of native crowds. The chapter argues that this co-production of imperial knowledge about crowds and germs had a countervailing effect: it induced novel forms of anxiety and infective panic.


Port City Crowd Behaviour Native Mass Colonial Discourse Local Crowd 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of Hong KongPokfulamHong Kong

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