A History of Plague in Java, 1911-1942

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    Maurits Bastiaan Meerwijk’s A History of Plague in Java, 1911–1942 is an informative and thoroughly researched book. His expertise as a science secretary at the Health Council of the Netherlands and a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for History at Leiden University is evident in the quality of the text. His book brings to life an important, but largely ignored, history on the colonial solution to the third plague pandemic, or “rat-flea-man” plague, in Java. Meerwijk’s central thesis is that the “plague prompted a colonial health intervention that was both unprecedented in scale and uniquely invasive in scope” (3). Most readers will be surprised to learn about the enormity of the primary policy to combat the plague, namely through the home improvement program. To this end, Javanese houses were renovated using solid wood and rooftiles according to Dutch colonial designs, replacing bamboo poles and thatched roofs, which allowed the house rat (Mus rattus) to gain access to “dead space” to live in the hollow interior of bamboo, in close proximity to humans (33; 36–37). Later, house inspections were added to bolster hygienic standards. The program would lead to 1.6 million renovations, at an estimated cost of at least f. 85 million over thirty years to “build out the rat” (3; pp. 62–63). However, with five million houses in Java, and a plan to renovate only 50,000 per year, the policy could not “hope to stamp out plague in anything like a reasonable number of years” (99). As the book concludes, it was more about “Dutch scientific and colonial power, prestige, and ambition” (162) and the overall “esthetics of plague control”, than “its efficacy (170)
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)136-137
    Number of pages2
    JournalHistory: Reviews of New Books
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 2023

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