The colonist who faced the blue terror

India, 1857. In a British enclave, Katherine Bartrum watches her friend, and then her family, succumb to the deadly cholera.

L0074303 Young girl suffering from cholera.

A girl suffering from cholera.

At 3pm on 29 June 1857, 23-year-old Katherine Bartrum, an Englishwoman living within the fortified walls of a British complex in the north Indian city of Lucknow, watched as her friend was taken ill with cholera. It was the disease most feared by British residents in India, but also by their compatriots back home, both for its rapid and horrific onset and for what it came to symbolise.

“There are few diseases which have excited more interest among medical men, or more terror in the mind of the Indian community at large, than the epidemic cholera.”
James Annesley (of the Madras Medical Establishment), Sketches of the Most Prevalent Diseases of India, 1825

During Bartrum’s bedside vigil her friend would have experienced severe diarrhoea, losing litres of fluid. Vomiting and writhing in pain, her thirst would have been unquenchable and her eyes and cheeks may have sunk into her face. Most startlingly, her lips, fingernails and skin would probably have turned an eerie shade of blue.

Within three hours the cold and clammy “dews of death” gathered on the patient’s brow and she lost consciousness. By 8pm, as her now motherless child slept unawares, Bartrum’s friend was already in her coffin. Surprisingly for the wife of a medical officer, this swift demise was Bartrum’s first experience of “death in any shape”. Yet, just a month before, cholera had claimed the life of the Commander-in-Chief of British India. Bartrum was also destined to encounter the disease again in the coming weeks.

V0010485 A young Viennese woman, aged 23, depicted before and after

A 23-year old woman before and after contracting cholera.

Cholera had been known in India for hundreds if not thousands of years, but for centuries it was limited to the Bengal region in the east. The “blue terror” travelled across India – and beyond – as the British expanded their grip on a country that had been under the control of the British East India Company for a century.

As the leading cause of death among British troops in India, cholera earned itself a reputation as an insidious, violent enemy always ready to attack. The British viewed Indians – and their “very loose habits” – as the natural cause of the disease, but the British themselves acted as carriers. Their large-scale troop movements aided cholera’s emergence from Bengal, British soldiers fighting on India’s northern borders introduced the disease to their Afghan and Nepalese opponents, and British troops carried it to the Persian Gulf when they were deployed to Oman.

L0074539 Actual & supposed routes of Cholera from Hindoostan to Europe

Nineteenth-century map showing routes of cholera from India to Europe and North America.

Even civil interventions by the colonial power contributed to cholera’s spread. By the time Bartrum arrived in Lucknow, the country’s first railway and the world’s largest canal – a network of routes spanning over 1,000 km – had opened. Both aided cholera’s expansion across the country.

Many Indians blamed the British for cholera’s spread, albeit for different reasons. Some believed cholera was meted out as divine retribution when the British defiled holy places or slaughtered cows, which are considered sacred in the Hindu religion. Others felt the disease was caused by deities who resented British rule. Since Indians were just as likely to catch cholera as the colonists, this meant the wrath of these gods was also targeted at Indians, who had failed to stand up to the British.

Cholera reached the heart of the British Empire too. When the first of four major cholera epidemics hit Britain in 1831, killing around 30,000 people, this ‘new’ disease sparked increased debate and a frenzy of analysis. For many years opinion was divided between those who believed cholera was spread through contact and those who blamed bad air and/or the effects of soil temperature. In the ten years before Bartrum arrived in Lucknow, efforts to understand the disease led to the publication of over 700 cholera-related books in London alone.

Gallery: studies of cholera outbreaks and causal factors

These studies served a purpose as epidemiological tools, but they also gave credence to politicised social policies. As the science of epidemiology developed, medicine shifted away from analysing the behaviour of individuals to investigating issues related to entire populations. These ranged from the nature of the water supply in specific parts of a city to the characteristics thought to be shared by a particular race. In the eyes of 19th-century Brits, the people of India – who were once viewed as fastidiously clean – were thought to be disorderly and dirty.

“The habits of the natives are such that, unless they are closely watched, they cover the entire neighbouring surface with filth.”
Royal Commission on the Health of the Anglo-Indian Army, 1863

Bartrum’s uninviting house in Lucknow was certainly dirty, but filth was also a fact of life in England. However, the 1848 Public Health Act – prompted by Edwin Chadwick’s report on the sanitary conditions of the labouring classes – now set England apart from India. While the home country was taking steps to bring filth and disease under control, India was viewed as stagnant and lacking self-discipline, like the immature child of the great British parent. In this climate, cholera came to symbolise the aspects of Indian society most feared by Europeans.

“One is no less saddened to see the populace as cruelly decimated by this horrible scourge in Berlin, London, and Paris, which stand at the head of modern civilization, as in the backward nations of the Orient and Northern Europe.”
Gazette médicale de Paris, 1832

Fear was the reason Bartrum herself had come to Lucknow. She had arrived seven weeks before, leaving her husband at another military station after Indian soldiers mutinied and killed civilian Europeans living in the city of Delhi. This event marked the start of India’s First War of Independence, and soon led to a six-month siege of the city where Bartrum had taken refuge. From this point on, to British eyes, India was increasingly a place of barbarism.

V0011353 John Bull defending Britain against the invasion of

John Bull defending Britain against the invasion of cholera, 1832.


L0000611 Broadsheet warning about Indian cholera 1831

Poster warning of the “alarming approach” of what was described as “Indian” cholera, produced in London in 1831.

In London, Dr John Snow had argued in 1849 that cholera was caused by swallowing poisonous matter that was transmitted through faeces and contaminated water. However, his views did not gain acceptance until at least a decade later. In the meantime, the British medical establishment maintained the stance that Indians were somehow fundamentally different to Europeans. Though scientific investigations found little evidence that race played any role, Indians were inextricably linked with the cholera they were thought to produce.

“Their ways of living are not ours, and for hygienic reasons… close proximity is not desirable.”
Kate Platt, The Home and Health in India and the Tropical Colonies, 1923

L0006579 Engraving: 'Monster Soup..." by William Heath

Nineteenth-century caricature revealing the microscopic impurities found in London’s drinking water.

Of course, if India and Indians were viewed as irredeemably unsanitary, the British administration could excuse itself from spending time and money trying to improve conditions. Susceptible areas in England were seen as unhealthy and vulnerable until improved; India, on the other hand, was beyond hope. Medical theories – despite the evidence – supported the differing political moods at home and abroad.

In England cholera was an alien invader, a colonist in its own right, occupying both the body and the land. As epidemic followed epidemic, people feared the disease might eventually ‘settle’, taking over the country. At the same time, the British administration in India prioritised the health and comfort of its own troops above all else. The Indians now fighting to eject the British from their homeland had to live in far worse conditions.

Just as these Indian rebels laid siege to Lucknow, Katherine Bartrum’s 17-month-old son Bobbie contracted cholera. Though the doctor told Bartrum her son was dying, she administered “the strongest remedies that could be given to a child” and knelt by his bed all night. By morning the outlook was better: Bobbie “began to revive, sat up, and looked so bright”.

Despite being struck down herself the following day, and discovering two months later that her husband had been killed in action, Bartrum and her son managed to survive until the British withdrew from Lucknow four months later. The pair then travelled to Calcutta and boarded a ship bound for England. The night before it set sail, Bobbie, who had been growing weaker by the day, died.

L0025760 Broadsheet: Cholera and Water, 1866

Poster advising residents of east London not to drink unboiled water during the 1866 cholera epidemic.

When Bartrum arrived back in England, London was in the midst of the ‘Great Stink’, a summer in which the stench of excrement from the Thames became so intolerable that politicians launched a project to develop a citywide sewer system. England experienced its last cholera outbreak eight years later. In London it was localised to an area not yet connected to the new sewage network. But in India millions of people died in later outbreaks. Today cholera remains, as it was before the 1800s, endemic in some areas of the country.

The associations between electricity and death emerged with the lethal power of lightning, an enduring symbol or omen of destruction.

The current that kills 

In the 19th century, electricity held life in the balance, with the power to execute – or reanimate.

Though not explicitly referenced in the novel, Galvanic experiments inspired in Mary Shelley’s imagination the possibilities of reanimating a corpse.

Though not explicitly referenced in the novel, Galvanic experiments inspired in Mary Shelley’s imagination the possibilities of reanimating a corpse.

“Too great a charge might, indeed, kill a man, but I have not yet seen any hurt done by it. It would certainly, as you observe, be the easiest of all deaths.”
Benjamin Franklin, to John Lining, 1755

The devastating power of electricity gave good cause for the unease and fear it evoked. And yet the risk of lethal injury was what made it so fascinating and its displays so sensational. Cases such as that of the Russian professor Georg Wilhelm Richmann, killed by lightning while experimenting with atmospheric electricity, emphasised the dangers of dabbling in this new field. But these horrifying stories also offered a piquant thrill. Richmann’s death inspired Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s uncle, to pen these florid lines:

“Near and more near he eyed with fond amaze
The silver streams, and watch’d the sapphire blaze;
Then burst the steel, the dart electric sped
And the bold sage lay number’d with the dead!”

Electricity could kill; but it could, according to some, also resurrect. In the mid-18th century physicians discovered that forcing air into the lungs could resuscitate people who were apparently dead. With the frontier between life and death appearing porous, some hoped that electricity could bring the dead back to life.

Eusebio Valli, an Italian physician, performed electrical experiments across Europe on amputated human limbs as well as on various species of animals, which he attempted to revive. But the most revealing experiments were thought to be those carried out on the bodies of the newly dead, since they could help to determine the nature and extent of consciousness as well as the value of electricity as a tool of resuscitation.

A number of physicians began to attend executions by guillotine to get access to the freshest corpses. Some experimenters concluded that a capacity for awareness survived after beheading and that the guillotine was therefore an inhumane form of execution. This apparent residual post-mortem electrical activity further blurred the boundaries between life and death.

Animals – either alive, or dead, and often dissected - were routinely used in various Galvanic experiments.

Animals – either alive, or dead, and often dissected – were routinely used in various Galvanic experiments.

Giovanni Aldini, nephew of Luigi Galvani (the Italian scientist who studied animal electricity using amputated frogs’ legs), became known for his sensational demonstrations on human and animal corpses. In late 1802 he travelled to Paris, where he performed experiments on guillotined criminals and large animal carcasses before huge crowds. His demonstration using an ox produced such bodily convulsions that “several of the spectators were much alarmed, and thought it prudent to retire to some distance”.

In 1803 Aldini arrived in London, where his experiments at the Royal Society on the body of the hanged criminal, George Forster, became notorious. On applying a current to the face, Forster’s left eye opened; when another was applied from the ear to the rectum it produced such a powerful reaction as “almost to give an appearance of reanimation”.

Such experiments may have provided inspiration for Mary Shelley in her 1818 novel Frankenstein, where the doctor assembles his monster from stolen body parts and manages to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing”. Edgar Allan Poe used Galvanic reanimation as a plot device to comic effect in his 1845 short story Some Words with a Mummy, where an Egyptian mummy is shocked into life.

The associations between electricity and death emerged with the lethal power of lightning, an enduring symbol or omen of destruction.

The associations between electricity and death emerged with the lethal power of lightning, an enduring symbol or omen of destruction.

The deadly power of electricity continued to loom large in the public imagination throughout the 19th century. In New York, where overhead cables were the norm (despite laws requiring underground wiring), cases of accidental electrocution began to emerge. Even while provoking consternation, such accidents provided for ghoulish fascination. John Munro’s 1893 book The Romance of Electricity devoted a dozen pages to graphic descriptions of well-known deaths by electrocution and included several illustrations of injuries to bodies and burnt clothing.

The 1890s also saw a development that many came to regard as the most sinister example of electricity’s deadly potential: the electric chair. In response to a growing sentiment in the US that hanging was a barbaric form of capital punishment, electric current was eventually sanctioned as a humane – yet still fearsome – alternative.

According to the author of the Execution Bill, “Criminals would infinitely more dread a silent going away – to be deliberately killed by a terrible but silent force to them unknown.” Park Benjamin, a prominent writer on electricity, agreed, explaining that “the instant extinction of life in a strong man by an agency which it is impossible to see, which is unknown, may create in the ignorant mind feelings of the deepest awe and horror, and prove the most formidable of all means for preventing crime”.

The lethal dangers of electrical innovations prompted the design of safety warnings, such as this Hungarian poster cautioning against climbing telegraph poles.

The lethal dangers of electrical innovations prompted the design of safety warnings, such as this Hungarian poster cautioning against climbing telegraph poles.

The first electrocution of a criminal, in 1890, gave the lie to these observations. William Kemmler required two prolonged shocks to die, during which he foamed at the mouth, groaned and convulsed, all accompanied by the smell of burning hair and flesh, urine and faeces. Witnesses vomited, cried and fainted.

The horror of the electric chair was co-opted by Walford Bodie, stage hypnotist and showman, in his turn-of-the-century performances. With the original chair used in Kemmler’s execution as a prop, Bodie would strap a volunteer in and hypnotise him to ‘protect’ him from the high voltage. During the mock execution the volunteer would twitch, shake and shriek, while being subjected to a non-lethal electric charge. The crowds reacted with predictable terror and revulsion. The awe of electricity could be inspired by its darkest, as well as its brightest, manifestations.