The jail of Akyab was a terrible place to be ill.
During the summer of 1877, nearly 80 inmates died, a most “lamentable mortality,” in the words of the jail’s medical officer, Dr. Johnstone. A cholera outbreak in the town had spread to the jail, where inmates were tightly crowded together without the luxuries of space and clean water that the townspeople enjoyed. Those condemned to confinement were also condemned to contagion. By July, cholera killed 45 men in the jail. An additional 33 inmates died later that year from other ailments. Akyab jail was one of the oldest of its kind in Burma under British colonial rule (in today’s Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State) and had long been notorious for high morbidity and mortality rates. Even so, 1877 was an especially tragic year, as those deaths represented a fourfold increase over past years.
Stories started to emerge. It was necessary for Dr. Johnstone to account for why this death cluster had happened in the jail he was responsible for keeping healthy. “These prisoners had been without exception opium eaters to excess who had fallen into a bad state of health,” he explained. A narrative of blame began to attach to the inmates who had died, in light of their presumed opium habits. According to the doctor, they were a type of problematic individuals, who when “deprived of opium are quite unfit for work and as a means of living, resort to theft; and when they become inmates of a jail, they are strongly predisposed to be attacked by…diarrhea [i.e., cholera], dysentery, and a diseased condition called…anemia.” These three diseases accounted for all of the Akyab jail deaths in 1877. Suddenly, the 80 men who died in an overcrowded jail, victims of a virulent disease while deprived of basic means of hygiene, became culprits. And the crude link that Dr. Johnstone forged—between death and disease in the jail and opium—would persist stubbornly over time, sanctioning new and forceful forms of stigma against vulnerable people.
See Diana Kim, Empires of Vices: The Rise of Opium Prohibition across Southeast Asia (Princeton University Press, 2020), p. 98.
For a recent blog post on epidemics in Burma, go here »