It will have been. George Waring, a writer of some note, had been wanting to visit the rock of Gibraltar for many years. Now, on November 18, 1833, he was on board the steam packet Flamer, and she was moored at a jetty in the harbour of Gibraltar.
The only thing that separated him from land was a plank. That, and a ‘health guardian’ who patrolled the jetty and prevented anyone from going ashore. A sentinel stood close at hand with a loaded musket and orders to “shoot any obstinate transgressor of the quarantine regulations”.
This was no ordinary time. Two years earlier, on October 17, 1831, 12-year-old Isabella Hazard, who lived near the docks in the port town of Sunderland, had gone about a typical day. Except at midnight she took ill and turned cold and then very blue. By the following afternoon she was dead, the first victim of the Asiatic cholera in England.
It was always unlikely that a seafaring nation would escape it. The British knew Asiatic cholera well from deadly outbreaks in India as early as 1817. They also knew it would travel, and had taken precautions – ones misguided by the science at the time, and that did nothing to prevent cholera from becoming a pandemic.
The blue girl amplified the fear. In Sunderland itself, a strict harbour quarantine brought the coal trade to a halt. The local merchants were so enraged that they earned a mention in the London Medical Gazette: “the public safety is in their estimation a very secondary object when brought into competition with the sale of coals”.
And yet, what vexed our George Waring was not so much the thought of cholera, as that of being stuck on a ship within sight of his bucket-A-listed rock of Gibraltar. The problem was that Falmouth, from where the Flamer had set sail, had not yet been declared free from cholera. None of her crew and passengers would be allowed ashore at any port unless they were first quarantined.
A couple of days earlier, in Cadiz, they had hoisted the ‘odious’ yellow quarantine flag. At anchor in the middle of the harbour, they had been denied all contact with land. Small parcels and letters had to be dipped in a mixture of vinegar and water, and holes punched through them to let out any foul air. (At the time it was thought that the cause of infection was miasma.) Larger parcels faced no such problems, such was “the inconsistency of the quarantine laws”.
Be that as it may, there was no dodging the Lazzaretto. On November 25, Waring’s ship dropped anchor in the Quarantine Harbour (Marsamxett). The passengers were duly informed that they had to undergo 14 days’ ‘purification’ on Manoel Island. We have the details in Waring’s Letters from Malta and Sicily addressed to a young naturalist, published in London in 1843.
The Lazzaretto was a dank and cavernous place. That its inhabitants were effectively prisoners, and that it was sparsely furnished, was an ill wind that blew the ‘innkeepers’ of Valletta much good: they made money by hiring out things like bed linen and utensils. Waring hired a Maltese servant, too, as well as a boat and two boatmen who would leisure-row him around the harbour.
The other passenger was a ‘guardian’ who saw to it that they made no contact with anyone. This was one of many precautions that had to be followed. All letters were fumigated with a ‘composition’ that contained brimstone (sulphur). Orders for the innkeepers were listed on pieces of slate, which were believed to be infection-proof.
Waring was a naturalist of sorts, and indeed his book contains two wonderful illustrations of a Maltese lizard and the common Friar’s Cowl flower.
During his time in quarantine, he discovered a ‘little pebbly beach’ across the harbour from the Lazzaretto. (The shore down by the Excelsior Hotel is very pebbly, so his beach must have been somewhere there.)
They had taken precautions – ones misguided by the science at the time, and that did nothing to prevent cholera from becoming a pandemic- Mark Anthony Falzon
He christened it ‘Chiton Beach’ on account of the many different kinds of animals he found and collected there. Throughout, the guardian would keep him company and correct any social distancing infringements.
Not that there were many, because, as Waring puts it, ‘noli me tangere’ (‘touch me not’) was everyone’s motto.
Fruit hawkers would approach the Lazzaretto in boats and pass on their wares in long-handled scoops. Waring’s commentary can be funny: “It is amusing to see with what extreme care everyone avoids us, not from the fear of taking any disease, but because the slightest touch would subject them to the same length of confinement as ourselves.”
His guardian was fond of joking that the stone gallows near the Lazzaretto was there for anyone who broke the rule of confinement. When Waring asked to be allowed to fish, his request was refused: “it was supposed that a fish, having taken a bait which had been touched by a person in quarantine, might escape, and communicate an infectious disease to all the other fish in the harbour.”
Waring was released from quarantine on the morning of Sunday, December 9, 1833, after a rigorous medical check-up. A doctor showed up and asked, “Gentlemen, are you in good health?”, and that was that.
We should best take leave in his own words: “performing quarantine has not been so irksome as we had anticipated, for our time has been so fully occupied, that the days have passed rapidly with us… but I can easily believe that to many persons the confinement would be most wearisome, especially
to those who have but few indoor pursuits, and to whom the employment of collecting shells and insects would be an absolute punishment.”
Note: My source for the section on the Asiatic cholera in England is Rose George’s 2011 essay The Blue Girl: Dirt in the city.
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