The way the plague in 1813 disrupted life in Malta and gripped the population in a terrifying fear can still send a chill down the spine of anyone who reads of such episodes.

An extremely vivid description of how that outbreak spread and the way the British authorities tried to curb it is presented in the latest edition of Treasures of Malta.

Treasures of Malta is published three times a year by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti in association with the Malta Tourism Authority.

Typesetting, colour separations and printing are by Progress Press.

In the feature about the plague, that lasted about 10 months and wiped out 4,500 people, Giovanni Bonello presents a vivid description of the terrifying effects of the plague and how, in spite of its horrifying results, some people still tended to think it would not hit them, with thieves stealing property from the victims of the scourge.

The courts, the theatre and other buildings where the public met, including churches, were closed down and the harbour areas placed under medical supervision.

The carriers of the disease were members of the crew of the Maltese brig San Nicola sailing under a British flag that arrived at Marsamxett from Alexandria on March 28, 1813.

Dr Bonello writes: " on board showed obvious symptoms of the plague. Malta had been virtually free from that scourge for over 163 years, and now the dreaded curse appeared again among us...

"The board of health turned jittery at the threat of a plague reservoir moored at the centre of the harbour. They wanted the ship towed out and burnt. The owners insisted on compensation. After 13 days haggling, the floating coffin left for Alexandria".

The colonial government ordered that anyone withholding information of an appearance of the disease or who concealed infected people would be sentenced to death.

Valletta was segregated into separate districts by means of barricades, fences, gates and armed guards. Signs painted on doors by day and lanterns by night advertised those houses where the infection had visited.

Criminals were press-ganged under armed surveillance to remove and bury corpses, caking them in quicklime in communal graves and clearing garbage from infected houses.

"Though under military escort, these convicts in their red and black robes, their faces hidden by hoods, spread as much terror as the plague they were engaged to control.

"Their guards, generally frightened of the delinquents in their charge, rarely restrained them from painstaking rounds of rape and robbery," Dr Bonello wrote.

Other intriguing articles on lesser known facets of Malta's social, religious, artistic and architectural heritage include The Medieval Walls of Mdina by Stephen Spiteri; Grinding Judas' Bones by Anna Borg Cardona who writes about wooden ratchets used during Passion Week; Malta and the Crimean War by Robert Attard and Punic Mythology and Medicine by Charles Savona-Ventura.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us