The Bubonic Plague of 1720, the 1820 Cholera Pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1920 and now the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. As far as the history of disasters is concerned, it seems that the world experiences a new pandemic every 100 years. Though, there have been many such disease outbreaks in the world history, the realization of a sequence being followed in the timeline of these four major outbreaks have ignited the curiosity of many people recently. While some researchers have expressed their apprehensions related to a similar pattern repeating every 100 years, some feel it could be simply a coincidence. So, is there really some conspiracy theory that could explain this systematic occurrence of pandemics? Well, in this article we don’t aim to answer this question. Our aim is to study one of these pandemics (the 1820 cholera pandemic) in detail and analyze its origin, causes and impacts.

Before moving on, let us first try to understand the term which has been on the lips of almost the entire world recently ie. pandemic. As per WHO, a pandemic refers to the worldwide spread of a new disease. A pandemic is different from the more commonly used term ‘epidemic’ in terms of the scale of spread and the number of people affected. With around two lakhs deaths around the globe till date, the coronavirus pandemic is already indicating towards an upcoming crisis. Let us go exactly two centuries back in time to understand the conditions that might have prevailed during the emergence of another pandemic- cholera.


Cholera is an infectious water-borne disease which is caused by a bacterium Vibrio Cholerae. The bacteria lives in salty waters such as the coastal areas and deltas. Consumption of food items or fluids contaminated by the bacterium leads a person to catch the disease. Though it is not possible for the disease to spread through person to person contact, it is often spread through the consumption of food which is contaminated by an infected person’s feces. Thus, the epidemics related to the disease often emerge in brackish waters, or areas with improper water sanitation and sewage mechanism. Although about 90% of the cases are asymptotic, the remaining 10% often show severe symptoms such as watery diarrhea, leg cramps and vomiting. The disease results in an acute loss of fluids and electrolytes and may even cause death within few hours, if not treated.

At present, there are a number of anti-biotics available which can reduce the intensity of the disease by about 65%. As an immediate response to the lost liquids, oral rehydration solution (ORS) is also provided to the patients to rehydrate them.

Early Origins of Cholera

Cholera has been around for decades and centuries. Many early texts by Sushruta Samhita in India and Hippocrates in Greece have described numerous cases of maladies that could have been cholera. Gaspar Correa, a Portuguese historian and the author of the book Legendary India provided detailed records of a disease that emerged in the Ganges Delta in 1543. “The very worst of poison seemed there to take effect, as proved by vomiting, with drought of water accompanying it, as if the stomach were parched up, and cramps that fixed in the sinews of the joints”, he expressed while describing the disease. The disease was then called as “moryxy”. Since then many such cases have been reported, however those were majorly limited to the delta region of India’s Ganges River.


In the year 1817, cholera transformed into a disease of global importance as it started spreading outside the Ganges Delta. The pandemic that emerged was popularly called as the Asiatic Cholera. While cholera has spread across India previously as well (largely associated with pilgrim congregations), the disease started spreading outside India this time. While few cases of the disease were observed in Purnia of Bihar (a state in India) in the year 1816, the pandemic is believed to originate from the town of Jessore in India in 1817 due to contamination of rice. A civil surgeon of Jessore (now in Bangladesh), reporting on the high incidence of a severe gastrointestinal disease among his patients, drew attention to the source of contagion — contaminated rice.  Amidst attacks of vomiting and diarrhea thousands of people collapsed and died, including hundreds of British soldiers transiting through Bengal. The disease gradually spread across most parts of India,Myanmar and Sri Lanka along the sea routes established by Europeans.

In the year 1820 cholera pandemic spread through different parts of the world like Thailand, Indonesia and the Phillipines. From there, the disease made its way to China and Japan via infected people travelling in ships. The disease was mostly seaborne to all the Asian nations it affected. While the bacteria affected almost every Asian country, it spread beyond Asia as well.

It is believed that the movement of British troops affected the spread of the bacteria to a large extent. The troops consisting of several infected persons took cholera with them as they arrived in Oman in 1821 to put an end to slave trade. The slave traders carried the bacteria along the eastern coast of Africa to Zanzibar. In the early 1820s, the troops carried Cholera to Persian Gulf, Baghdad, Syria, Anatolia and parts of southern Russia where they invaded.

The transmission of the disease slowed down gradually and in 1823, the first cholera pandemic finally came to an end. It is believed by some scientists and researchers that the winter of 1823-24 might have killed the bacteria in water supplies.


The exact toll of the deaths caused by the very first cholera pandemic remains unknown. However, there are some statistics which can help us estimate the overall impact the outbreak might have led to. As per reports, it is believed that about 1,00,000 people died in the island of Java alone. In Iraq, 18,000 people died in merely three weeks in the year 1821. According to a report by Macnamara, the epidemic in affected 195, 935 square miles in Bengal not sparing even a single town or village. 1817 was a year of heavy floods in India, the pandemic worsening the situation leaving the poor people immunologically vulnerable and aggravating the mortality rates in the coming years. It is estimated that around 2 million people might have succumbed to the first cholera pandemic in India alone. The impact of the disastrous disease doesn’t end here. This pandemic was only first of the seven cholera pandemics that the world encountered. The bacteria keep on taking thousands of lives each year even today. According to WHO, 1.3 million to 4 million people are infected by the disease every year globally.


The cholera pandemic of 1820s was called the Asiatic pandemic due to its effects being realized majorly in the Asian sub-continent. However, the cholera pandemics which followed affected countries in Europe, the US, South America and many impoverished nations of the African continent.

The pandemics which followed the first outbreak were however able to curtail the severity of the disease to some extent as people began to realize the nature of bacteria and started adopting techniques to reduce the spread. One such example is seen in the Soho area of London in the 1850s, where the officials slowed down the spread by removing a pump handle as John Snow realized that contaminated water from the public well pump was the source of disease.

The instances of such pandemics and the way researchers and scientists gradually dealt with them helps us to understand the best practices we can follow in case of a pandemic. The “Pandemic Every 100 Years” theory expressed in the beginning of this article might be a correction measure by the mother nature to restore the equilibrium of the environment every century. But it is the human’s responsibility to not lose hope and keep on looking for ways to combat such pandemics even if they are god’s will!

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