International Collaboration and Rivalry in the Early Fight Against Rinderpest

This is part of our special feature, Beyond Eurafrica: Encounters in a Globalized World.


In 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) declared rinderpest virus (cattle plague) to be globally eradicated.[1] Rinderpest eradication was a campaign of the FAO, the OIE, and the Intra-African Bureau of Animal Resources of the African Union, with funding and scientific support from USAID and the European Commission. In 1994, these agencies launched the Global Rinderpest Eradication Program, made possible with improved vaccines and local veterinary and community support. Eradication ended a centuries-old scourge of cattle, water buffalo, and countless wild ungulates, making it perhaps the deadliest historical cattle disease of Europe, Asia, and Africa.[2] When European colonial conquest brought rinderpest to sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1880s, presumably for the first time, it virtually wiped out African herds, undermined agrarian systems based on ox plows and ox-powered irrigation, disrupted trade using ox wagons and pack oxen, and starved pastoralists, who relied on cattle for milk, butter, and primary sustenance. By killing millions of African wild ungulates rapidly, it launched a colonial wildlife protection movement that evolved into the modern African national park system, with all its problems for local communities.

Although rinderpest was long known in Eurasia, emanating from the central Asian steppes with trade, warfare, and herd migration, its arrival in sub-Saharan Africa in 1888, and subsequent spread throughout the continent over the next decade, is surprising. After several nineteenth-century outbreaks in western Europe, notably following the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, Europeans strengthened quarantines, bolstered veterinary policing and surveillance, monitored borders, trade, and shipping, and virtually eliminated the disease from western and central Europe before the 1884-85 Congress of Berlin, which launched the European “Scramble for Africa.” A rinderpest conference in Vienna in 1872, which involved most European nations, including Russia and Turkey, created an international framework for rinderpest policing. With a treaty and veterinary infrastructure in place among the colonizing powers, why did they fail to stanch, or even recognize, the most horrific cattle plague in European history? And once diagnosed in 1896 in colonial Zimbabwe, how did researchers develop effective vaccines against the virus within a year, when such efforts had failed in Europe?


Rinderpest in Nineteenth-Century Europe

Before global eradication in 2011, rinderpest was a virus of even-toed ungulates (Artiodactyla), especially cattle and water buffaloes, which, in the most virulent form had a 100 percent mortality rate.[3] Susceptibility of central Asian “steppe cattle,” where the disease was enzootic, was not as high, but such animals maintained virulence and could infect other livestock. Rinderpest was transmitted by aerosol droplets from grazing or watering animals, or by nasal and eye secretions and bodily excretions. Although rinderpest was an age-old disease in Europe and Asia, only in 1899 did researchers in Istanbul, affiliated with the Pasteur Institute in Paris, determine that it was a virus. Before then, its causative agent was unknown, but its infectious nature and key symptoms, discernible though autopsies, were well understood. Among cattle never exposed to the virus, an incubation period of three to five days was followed by a rapid rise in temperature, severe mouth lesions, anorexia, bloody diarrhea, and death from dehydration. Surviving animals had life-long immunity. The virus did not survive long in direct sunlight or high temperatures, but could hide in uncooked meat and unprocessed hides.

Rinderpest had long been known in Europe, often becoming epizootic at times of warfare, when normal curbs on cattle movement broke down to supply armies over long distances. In the eighteenth century, tens of millions of European cattle were lost to wartime rinderpest outbreaks, which continued throughout the Napoleonic era.[4] The first European veterinary schools were founded largely to combat rinderpest, and many treatises since the eighteenth century addressed the contagion. As with human diseases, debates arose between contagionists, who believed that diseases were infectious and could be spread by trade and contact, and “miasmists,” who argued that diseases arose spontaneously owing to local circumstances, such as climate, temperature, soil, and poor sanitation.[5] Control of epizootics mimicked methods of combating human epidemics like plague: infected regions were isolated, mobility was curtailed, quarantines were enforced, disinfection was mandated, and military control was paramount. But unlike human epidemics, all cattle that showed symptoms of rinderpest, or that had contact with diseased herds, could be slaughtered to completely “stamp out” the disease. By the nineteenth century, some compensation was often paid for cattle killed by veterinary order, and cattle insurance helped encourage compliance.

An international system of disease control gradually evolved, aimed at protecting nations from human and animal diseases. For example, the Austrian military border, originally directed at invasions from the Ottoman Empire, developed into a sanitary corridor of over one thousand miles, with militia posts and quarantine stations to prevent incursions of human and animal contagions.[6] Ironically, contagionists lost ground in the early nineteenth century owing to the rise of free trade ideology, which attacked maritime and land quarantines as thinly disguised protectionism, abused for the sake of power politics and trade advantage against rival nations.[7] Nevertheless, uniform international quarantine policy was the goal of many policy makers, as the rise of steam travel made the landing of diseased animals more likely before they could die at sea. Contagionists gained ground following a major rinderpest outbreak in Britain in 1865 – the first in 120 years – which convinced many that the infection must have been imported.

Following rinderpest outbreaks accompanying the Franco-Prussian war, the 1872 Vienna rinderpest conference bolstered international control measures.[8] Delegates hammered out guidelines to protect borders from animal pathogens, establish quarantine stations, agree on duration of quarantines, mandate railway transport and disinfection methods, define animal susceptibility, and agree on rules for using hides, meat, and tallow of affected animals. The delegates agreed on the contagious nature of rinderpest, and to publicize outbreaks immediately. Most argued that rinderpest stemmed from Russian central Asia and the Ottoman Empire, who were encouraged to strengthen veterinary policing to accord with the other nations. Following the conference, Russian veterinary training was professionalized following German guidelines.[9] The Vienna delegates disagreed on many issues, but in general, a Europe-wide agreement was in place. By 1881 rinderpest was virtually eliminated from Europe through veterinary policing, and even in Russia, it tended to be confined to the southern steppes.

Surprisingly, the Vienna delegates opposed vaccination research, concluding that “inoculation stations should be considered dangerous with respect to the spread of rinderpest.”[10] Over 120 years of experience had demonstrated that “from all points of view, and in every nation of central and western Europe, these methods must be absolutely discarded; and in countries where Rinderpest was enzootic, these methods must be abandoned from an economic point of view.”[11] But in Russia, where a longer cattle frontier encumbered veterinary policing, in 1853 Czar Nicholas I had mandated vaccine research, using methods along the lines of Edward Jenner’s eighteenth century smallpox inoculation.[12] Breakthroughs in germ theory and vaccine research in western Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, advanced by Robert Koch in Germany and Louis Pasteur in France, encouraged Russian researchers to pursue rinderpest vaccines.[13] But, in central and western Europe, veterinary policing seemed to have solved the rinderpest problem, so there was no urgency to fix a problem that was not broken.


Rinderpest in Africa and Vaccine Breakthroughs

Although rinderpest broke out in Egypt several times in the nineteenth century, and was enzootic in the Ottoman Empire, it apparently never breached the Sahara or Nile River cataracts.[14] The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 opened the Red Sea up to international trade and military competition, with Britain, France, Egypt, and Italy vying for control, while a revived Ethiopia struggled to maintain hegemony over its coastlands. In March 1888, Italian forces invaded at Massawa on the Eritrean coast, importing cattle to provision their troops against Emperor Johannes of Ethiopia.[15] The cattle stemmed from either India or the Arabian Peninsula, both regions where rinderpest was enzootic, disguising the virulence of a disease that infected sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. What would become an African panzootic for the next decade was exacerbated by a confluence of natural disasters, including locust plagues, drought, and human diseases like smallpox. This climate disaster possibly owed to a series of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events, which caused extreme drought every few years from the Horn of Africa to South Africa, forcing infected cattle to congest around water holes, lakes, and wells.[16] Moreover, many African wild ungulates, including Cape buffalo, wildebeest, eland, and antelopes, were highly susceptible to rinderpest, a fact generally unnoticed in European wildlife, where centuries of settlement had separated cultivated from wild spaces.[17] Sharing ecosystems with African cattle, wild ungulates facilitated the spread of rinderpest throughout African cattle regions. Within three years, rinderpest traversed 8000 km along the southern sahel from Massawa to Dakar in West Africa, while it took four years to spread south to the Zambezi River, 6000 km distance. The Zambezi temporarily delayed the epizootic, but by early 1896 rinderpest infected the herds around Bulawayo in modern Zimbabwe. Within a year, it reached the environs of Cape Town.

Although rinderpest killed over 90 percent of African cattle, it did not affect all African societies uniformly. A broad swath of central-western Africa, lying in the tsetse belt, was all but devoid of cattle owing to bovine sleeping sickness. African pastoralists who relied almost exclusively on cattle for sustenance – Oromo in the Horn of Africa, Maasai in the East African Rift Valley, Fulani of West Africa, and Nama of Southwest Africa, among others – were most devastated, as the loss of almost all their cattle caused starvation, broke down social structures and norms, forced people to flee to neighboring agrarian societies as refugees, and led to internal warfare and raiding for surviving cattle.[18] Agrarian societies that relied on draft oxen – notably Ethiopia, where farming production depended on the ox plow – were severely undermined as production collapsed. Italian settlement inroads in Eritrea in the early 1890s owed in part to Ethiopia’s concurrent starvation, which killed one third of the population. Along the Nile River in the Sudan, where the Mahdist Islamist state warred against neighboring Egypt and Ethiopia, rinderpest severely impaired ox-powered irrigation. Across the sahel, rinderpest exterminated pack oxen needed to deliver grain to Saharan oases. And in southern Africa, almost all commerce depended on ox wagons, spanned with as many as two-dozen cattle, while much settler and African agriculture had become plow-based.[19] Rinderpest was cataclysmic for Africans who relied on cattle for milk and butter, as the basis of marriage and social alliances, and in some regions as the marker of elite status and prestige.

It would be wrong to view rinderpest as simply a natural disaster; in multiple ways, it was tied to colonial conquest. Ethiopian and Mahdist razzias against Italian and British colonizers brought diseased cattle deeper into Africa, while colonial conquest was predicated at taking cattle booty to punish African opponents and reward allies. Hermann von Wissmann, sent to quell the Abushiri coastal rebellion against German encroachment in 1888-89, provisioned his expedition with cattle from Bombay or Aden that may have been infected with rinderpest.[20] When rinderpest broke out in Matabeleland in Rhodesia in 1896, the efforts of the British South Africa Company to stamp out the disease using quarantines, trade bans, and extermination of healthy cattle that came into contact with suspicious herds incited the Ndebele uprising, the prosecution of which exacerbated the path of the epizootic. Africans widely believed that Europeans intentionally brought rinderpest and concomitant plagues to impoverish and dispossess them, and force them into labor markets.

The African colonial context disguised the nature of rinderpest and frustrated its control. Although some European travelers, missionaries, military men, and staff doctors used variations of “rinderpest” (pestis bovina, peste bovine) to describe the epizootic that was sweeping the continent, most used vague terms such as epidemia bovina, epizoozia, moria di bestiame, and Rinderseuche. They confused the epizootic with other European diseases, including bovine pleuropneumonia, foot and mouth disease, and anthrax, or thought it was a contagion unique to Africa. There were few veterinarians on the ground to identify the disease, and observations of wildlife mortality, which was not considered a characteristic of European rinderpest, confused diagnoses. Even if the colonial borders-in-the-making could be effectively policed against cattle movement, wildlife movement could not. Moreover, nascent colonial regimes struggled to finance their undertakings, and were not predisposed to encumber trade because of an unknown disease. Many did not consider African cattle breeds to be sufficiently productive of meat and milk, or adequate for draft power, and expected to remake the herds in the image of European grade animals; starting from the beginning was not unimaginable.

A series of accidental circumstances led to the diagnosis of rinderpest in Africa, and subsequent efforts to find a vaccine. In colonial Rhodesia, connected to Cape Town by telegraph, it was clear in early 1896 that stamping out was failing to prevent the loss of virtually all cattle and draft oxen, impairing agriculture and transport, and frustrating the early stability of white settlement under Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. Press reports attributed the Ndebele uprising to “Zambezi cattle fever,” and the fear was that similar events would follow if the disease reached the settler-dominated colonies of South Africa. The Colonial Veterinary Surgeon in Cape Town, Duncan Hutcheon, recommended that a veterinarian working as a telegraph operator in northern Bechuanaland, Charles Gray, who trained in Edinburgh, be sent to investigate. Gray quickly diagnosed the epizootic to be rinderpest, putting into force the Cape Animal Diseases Act, which was based on British quarantine policy: isolating herds suspected of infection, killing all cattle believed to have come into contact with the disease, burying the cadavers, stopping all cattle traffic on roadways, disinfecting people and their belongings at border stations, fencing in localities to protect disease-free cattle from contact with infected animals, and limited compensation to encourage compliance.[21] By September 1896, Cape policy was to abandon the lands north of the Orange River as lost to rinderpest, and over £600,000 – one tenth of annual government expenditures – was approved to create a sanitary corridor stretching the entire length of the Orange River, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Drakensberg Mountains. Hundreds of miles of barbed wire separated the Cape from the Transvaal and Orange Free State, and farmers were subsidized to fence their lands. The Orange River line held for about four months, but was breached by March 1897. From there rinderpest spread throughout South Africa in waves.

The failure of veterinary policing, fears of African uprisings, and the high value placed on settler cattle led to a search for a vaccine solution, bolstered by Gray’s diagnosis of rinderpest in March 1896.[22] In October, the Cape government, with support from De Beers Consolidated Mines, enlisted Robert Koch, who was the first to identify the bacilli of anthrax and tuberculosis, to come to Kimberley to research a rinderpest vaccine.[23] Koch and other researchers did not have to start from a blank slate. As in Europe since the eighteenth century, farmers in South Africa often used folk remedies against epizootics that seemed effective, soaking wool in bile from infected cattle, and inserting it under the skin or in the tail of the animal to produce a vaccine effect. Moreover, Russian researchers had by then published methods using blood serums to protect cattle from rinderpest. Amateur and expert vaccination trials suggested a path that would allow a retreat from “politically confrontational policies of veterinary policing,” which African and white farmers alike deeply resented, and often opposed by force of arms.[24] The South African Republic also enlisted two researchers from the Pasteur Institute in Paris to find a vaccine, the Pole Jean Danysz and the Belgian Jules Bordet, alongside the Swiss Arnold Theiler, already employed as the government veterinarian, and Herbert Watkins-Pritchford from Natal colony. A British bacteriologist from the Cape, Alexander Edington, was already at work on a vaccine, as was the Cape Medical Officer, George Turner. The German government in Southwest Africa also called for its own expert, Paul Kohlstock, who worked with Koch in Kimberley. These teams competed to find an effective vaccine, but also shared information owing to the cross-border nature of the crisis. Rival camps produced combinations of vaccines derived from infectious bile, infectious blood, and blood from recovered cattle, some producing temporary immunities, others eventually conferring long-lasting immunity by inducing non-deadly fever reactions. Turner and Wilhelm Kolle, picking up from Koch at the Kimberley research station, developed a fortified serum by serially inoculating healthy animals with virulent blood. By 1897, vaccine therapies succeeded in limiting rinderpest mortality to less than twenty percent in some cases. As a result, sixty per cent of the Cape’s cattle survived, especially in settler districts where vaccines were available and accepted. When rinderpest struck again following the South Africa War in 1901, improved vaccines were on hand to eliminate the virus completely and permanently from southern Africa.

The ongoing advancement of rinderpest vaccines owed to the continuing endemicity of the disease on Europe’s peripheries. Vaccine breakthroughs for rabies, cholera, and diphtheria in the early 1890s led the Ottoman sultan to found the Constantinople Imperial Bacteriology Institute in 1893, with support from the Pasteur Institute.[25] One of Pasteur’s researchers, Maurice Nicolle, became the first director, advancing microbiology and the study of infectious diseases in general. Between 1899 and 1902 Nicolle and the Turk Adil-Bey conducted a series of experiments that demonstrated for the first time that rinderpest was an “ultramicroscopic” virus, a category of pathogen that had only recently been discovered. Building on the South African experiments, researchers in Istanbul developed improved blood serum vaccines that could be applied to a new rinderpest epizootic in Egypt in 1903, against ongoing outbreaks in the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.[26]

Vaccine breakthroughs alone did not eliminate the rinderpest threat. Unlike southern Africa, where vigorous fencing, vaccination, and diminishing wildlife populations kept the virus at bay, rinderpest became enzootic in other parts of Africa, and remained a problem for the rest of the twentieth century. Rinderpest broke out in Korea, Japan, China, and the Philippines in the twentieth century, and was an ongoing threat in Russia. The globalized cattle trade played its part. In 1920, a shipment of Indian oxen headed for Brazil docked at Antwerp, and infected a load of German reparations cattle destined for an abattoir at Ghent, setting off a local epizootic – the first incident of rinderpest in western Europe since the late nineteenth century.[27] A French mission set up a serum station at Brussels, which, combined with traditional border closures and quarantines, succeeded in eliminating the contagion. But the cattle shipment continued to an American beef plant in São Paulo, Brazil, infecting local slaughter stock and dairy cattle – the first ever American case of the disease. For several months, rinderpest spread rapidly in several Brazilian states, forcing quarantines in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the Polish war against the Bolsheviks in the eastern borderlands elicited a fresh rinderpest outbreak that threatened Central Europe. International European teams – some with recent experience fighting rinderpest in West Africa – arrived to combat the outbreak with quarantines and serum stations at Pulawy in Poland and Brest-Litovsk in Belarus.[28] These combined incidents reminded Europeans and Americans that rinderpest remained a global problem, and were the prime motivation for the International Conference for the Study of Epizootics in Paris in 1921, which created the International Office of Epizootics (OIE) in 1924. The OIE’s mandate was to prevent the spread of epizootics across borders, and provide a permanent international forum and scientific updates on animal diseases.

The global eradication of rinderpest in 2011 is in many ways a story of the relationship between Europe and its perceived peripheries: Russia, Turkey, Asia and Africa. The first vaccine breakthroughs and the discovery of the etiology of rinderpest owed to extra-European regions that had been abandoned to the contagion, and where veterinary policing of porous borders was not feasible. Once vaccines were developed owing to research in Russia and South Africa, they were re-applied to Europe itself, when the virus returned following World War I. Recognition of the continued vulnerability of the continent to rinderpest and other epizootics motivated the creation of the OIE, which, seventy years later, would launch a concerted vaccination campaign to snuff out the remaining loci of the contagion in Africa and Asia.


Thaddeus Sunseri is Professor of African History at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado. In 2015-16 he was research fellow at the International Research Center on Labor and Human Life Cycle (re: work), Humboldt University, Berlin. He is author of Vilimani: Labor Migration and Rural Change in Early Colonial Tanzania, 1884-1915 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002) and Wielding the Ax: Scientific Forestry and Social Conflict in Tanzania, c. 1820-2000 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009). He has published recently “Blood Trials: Transfusions, Injections and Experiments in Africa, 1890-1920,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 71, no. 3 (2016): 293-321, and “Working in the Slaughterhouse: Tanganyika Packers Ltd., from Colonialism to Collapse, 1947-2014,” forthcoming (2018) in Labor History. His current research is on the history of Rinderpest (cattle plague), the cattle trade, and the slaughterhouse industry in East Africa and the wider world.




[1] Peter Roeder, Jeffrey Mariner, and Richard Kock, “Rinderpest: The Veterinary Perspective on Eradication,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B-Biological Sciences 368, 1623 (2013): 1-12.

[2] Franz Hutyra and Josef Marek, Die orientalische Rinderpest (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1916), iii.

[3] Roeder, et al., “Rinderpest,” 7; C. A. Spinage, Cattle Plague: A History (New York: Kluwer Academic, 2003).

[4] Hutyra and Marek, Die orientalische Rinderpest, 5-6; Dorothee Brantz, “‘Risky Business’: Disease, Disaster and the Unintended Consequences of Epizootics in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century France and Germany,” Environment and History 17 (2011), 35-5

[5] Michael Worboys, Spreading Germs: Disease Theories and Medical Practice in Britain, 1865-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[6] Gunther E. Rothenberg, “The Austrian Sanitary Cordon and the Control of Bubonic Plague: 1710-1871,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 28 (1973): 15-23.

[7] Mark Harrison, “Disease, Diplomacy and International Commerce: The Origins of International Sanitary Regulation in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Global History 1, 2 (2006): 197-217.

[8] “Auszug aus den Verhandlungen der internationalen Conferenz zur Erzielung eines gleichförmigen Vorgehens gegen die Rinderpest,” Magazin für die gesammte Thierheilkunde 39 (1873): 1-29, 65-90.

[9] C. Müller, “Die Reorganisation der Veterinair-Institute in Russland,” Magazin für die gesammte Thierheilkunde 40 (1874): 227-31.

[10] Worboys, Spreading Germans, Chapter 2.

[11] “Auszug,” Magazin für die gesammte Thierheilkunde 39 (1873): 19.

[12] P. Jessen, “Neue Bemerkungen über die Rinderpest in Russland,” Magazin für die gesammte Thierheilkunde 30 (1864): 413-71.

[13] Worboys, Spreading Germans, 3; Feldtmann, “Der gegenwärtige Standpunkt,” 53.

            [14] Holger Weiss, “‘Dying Cattle’: Some Remarks on the Impact of Cattle Epizootics in the Central Sudan during the Nineteenth Century,” African Economic History 26 (1998): 173-99.

            [15] G. Memmo, F. Martoglio and C. Adami, “Peste Bovina,” Annali d’Igiene Sperimentale 14 (1904), 235-93, here 238.

[16] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002), 263-66.

            [17] Thaddeus Sunseri, “The Entangled History of Sadoka (Rinderpest) and Veterinary Science in Tanzania and the Wider World, 1891-1901,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 89, 1 (2015): 92-121, here 115.

            [18] Waktole Tiki and Gufu Oba, “Ciinna – the Borana Oromo Narration of the 1890s Great Rinderpest Epizootic in North Eastern Africa,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 3, 3 (2009): 479-508.

            [19] Pule Phoofolo, “Epidemics and Revolutions: The Rinderpest Epidemic in Late Nineteenth Century Southern Africa,” Past and Present 138 (1993): 112-43.

            [20] W. Littlewood, “Cattle Plague in Egypt in 1903-04-05,” Journal of Comparative Pathology and Therapeutics 18 (1905): 312-21, here 312.

            [21] Spinage, Cattle Plague, 525-26.

[22] Roy Mack, “The Great African Cattle Plague Epidemic of the 1890s,” Tropical Animal Health and Production 2, 4 (1970): 210-19.

[23] Daniel Gilfoyle, “Veterinary Research and the African Rinderpest Epizootic: the Cape Colony 1896-1898,” Journal of Southern African Studies 29, 1 (2003): 133-54; Spinage, Cattle Plague, 425-26.

            [24] Gilfoyle, “Veterinary Research,” 133.

[25] Anne Marie Moulin, “Patriarchal Science: The Network of the Overseas Pasteur Institutes,” in Science and Empires: Historical Studies About Scientific Development and European Expansion, ed. Patrick Petitjean, Catherine Jami, and Anne Marie Moulin (Boston: Kluwer, 1992), 307-22, here 314; Hutyra and Marek, Die orientalische Rinderpest, 3.

[26] Spinage, Cattle Plague, 438.

[27] “Veterinary Science Conquers Rinderpest,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 59 (1921): 405-407; Cornelia Knab, “Infectious Rats and Dangerous Cows: Transnational Perspectives on Animal Diseases in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” Contemporary European History 20, 3 (2011): 281-306, 293.

[28] “International Conference on Epizootic Diseases of Domestic Animals,” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 60 (1921), 124-131; M. G. Curasson, “Notes sur la Peste Bovine en Afrique-Occidentale Française et en Pologne,” Revue Générale de Médecine Vétérinaire 30 (1921): 569-90.




Published on March 1, 2018.


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