Malta has periodically suffered outbreaks of the Bubonic plague. In fact, prior to the 19th century, there had been four outbreaks of plague – in 1592-1593, 1623, 1655 and 1676.
In those days it was not known how the disease was caused and how it spread
Plague again broke out in the Maltese islands in 1813, at a time when our harbours were the centre of a wide network of communications with many Mediterranean ports. The harbour towns of Valletta and the three cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua were usually the first to receive the plague, from where it spread inland.
The Order of St John relied on quarantine and a vigilant Board of Health to safeguard the population. A period of uncertainty or denial would be followed by panic when those who could, fled to the countryside. The rest barred themselves inside their homes. The infected were removed to the Lazzaretto, built on Manoel Island for that specific purpose during the reign of Grand Master Jean-Paul de Lascaris Castellar in 1643. Fort Manoel was also used to detain those who had come into contact with the sick.
The management of the plague of 1813-1814 differed in one important aspect from the previous outbreaks. Malta was under British administration, with Civil Commissioner Sir Hildebrand Oakes at the helm.
The official version linked the outbreak of this plague in Malta with the Brigantine San Nicola. The San Nicola left Alexandria in Egypt on March 17, 1813, with a crew of 12. Two of the crew fell ill when they were a weeks’ sailing from Alexandria. Six to 10 days is the incubation period of the plague, which implies that the men were infected in Egypt. The sick were attended by their captain and his servant.
On arrival at Malta on March 28, the San Nicola was kept for a fortnight in the middle of the Marsamxetto Quarantine Harbour. Health guards on boats stayed with the ship and ensured there was no communication with the shore.
The men from San Nicola were admitted to the Lazzaretto after taking the usual precautions of shaving their heads, washing themselves with sea water, and afterwards with vinegar, and leaving their clothes behind them on the ship. On April 1, almost a week after they had tended their sick comrades, both the captain and his servant fell ill and died.
At some fortunate moment, the guards boarded the ship and stole part of the cargo, including the ship’s linen. They hid the booty in a wine shop in Sliema, and shortly after sold it to the shoemaker Salavtore Borg from Valletta, a regular purchaser of stolen goods.
That was the beginning. Among the first to die were the guards themselves. Apart from these, the plague first slayed a girl from Valletta, on April 16. A few days later, Borg, her father, and mother contracted the illness and died.
In those days it was not known how the disease was caused and how it spread. Nobody realised – as was later discovered – that the disease was due to an infection from a microbe that attacks rats, from which it was passed on to human beings by the bite of infected fleas that lived on the rats.
Ignorance regarding the cause and the transmission of plague rendered largely ineffective the precautions and preventive measures to control the epidemic advocated by the health authorities of the time. Furthermore, the introduction of these measures was delayed.
The authorities reacted by closing down the courts, the theatre and other venues where the public met. The houses of the infected inhabitants were shut for weeks without even being purified or cleansed, although contaminated with articles of the most susceptible kind, including living animals, whose escape was liable to carry the disease where ever they went. Eventually, on May 9, 1813, Bishop Ferdinando Mattei ordered the closure of all churches.
When the plague first appeared there was great difficulty in getting nurses to attend the sick. On May 17, Sir Hildebrand warned the people that those who knew they were suffering from the disease, and kept it secret from the health authorities, would became liable to the death penalty. This threat was actually carried out when a man from Valletta, who did not report his disease, was shot in public.
Meanwhile, the epidemic reached other parts of Malta from Valletta. The epidemic spread to Mdina first, then to Birkirkara. The sick were transferred to the Lazzaretto which eventually became crowded. No space remained to separate the suspect from the confirmed cases, and patients gathered close to each other. Other provisional hospitals were opened in other parts of the island, such as Villa Bighi at Kalkara, and part of St Dominic’s convent in Rabat.
Even these emergency hospitals soon proved inadequate to cope with the number of the sick. To somewhat alleviate the unsustainable overcrowding, the government resorted to building wooden shacks in the ditches near Porte de Bombes and the bastions of Floriana. These wooded houses, exposed to the sun and the reflected heat from the bastions, must have made the place extremely unpleasant to live in.
Sir Hildebrand collapsed under the pressures of the epidemic, and left Malta, to be replaced by Governor Sir Thomas Maitland on October 3, when the severity of the plague had already started showing signs of diminishing. Maitland, on finding the whole of Valletta and Floriana resembling more a plague hospital, immediately got hold of the problem and channelled all his energies in exterminating the contagion.
As the number of attendants to care for the patients was insufficient, the government made use of prisoners for this purpose, as well as to carry the sick from their homes to the various hospitals and to bury the dead. These prisoners, who were guarded by soldiers, eventually caught the plague and died. The government was then forced to bring over prisoners from Sicily, to continue the work, but these too were carried off by the plague.
More and more restrictive measures were imposed on the population. They could not go out to the countryside and barriers had been erected to prevent communication. They had to abandon their cotton fields, as this crop was deemed a vulnerable item which retained the contagion. They could not even go down to the ports to earn a living.
Qormi, Żebbuġ and Birkirkara claimed the highest mortality in the countryside. For this reason these villages were cordoned off by soldiers, to isolate their inhabitants and prevent them from leaving their villages and thus carrying the infection to other areas.
On January 29, 1814, Malta was declared free of plague and all restrictions were lifted. People were allowed to leave Valletta and the villages, with the exception of Qormi, which remained cut off and guarded by soldiers until the beginning of March.
On March 2, 1814, Maitland was informed of an outbreak of fever in the village of Xagħra in Gozo, which was confirmed as plague on March 7. Maitland believed that the plague had been carried to Gozo by a man liberated from quarantine who, previous to his leaving the island, had dug up and carried off a small box containing wearing attire which he had buried before being sent to the Lazzaretto and which he did not re-open until he got to Gozo.
The Maltese islands were officially declared free from plague on September 8, 1814. Out of a population of over 100,000, the epidemic had carried off over 4,500. This overwhelming mortality had to be catered by special cemeteries, some displaying prominently the year 1813.
A man from Valletta, who did not report his disease, was shot in public
The plague caused great economic distress, as it brought about a disruption of commercial relations with neighbouring countries and a heavy expenditure of government funds.
Those who attributed their survival to divine grace offered ex voti to pious places of worship. Villages which escaped the plague of 1813 were Għargħur, Balzan, Kirkop, Safi, Għaxaq, Qrendi and Senglea.
The inhabitants of Senglea, together with the Collegiate Chapter and clergy, prayed incessantly to God and to the Blessed Virgin so that their city could be spared from the epidemic. On August 8, 1813, they made a number of vows to be carried out if they were delivered from the plague. These vows were approved on May 4, 1814, by a decree of Bishop Mattei.
Archpriest Vincent Cachia himself, at the end of 1813, recorded in the parish’s death register the truth that Senglea was spared. There he wrote: “Superiore elapso Anno 1813 obierunt in hac Parecia Invicta Civitatis Senglea Adulti no. 48 Parvuli no. 72 in totum num: 120 – Mares 63, Femine 57. Qiu omnes mortui sunt sine Peste, protegente Bma Virgine Mariae, cujus Nativitatem peculiari cultu vneramur.” (In the year 1813 just ended, in this Parish of the Unconquered City of Senglea, 48 adults and 72 children died, 120 in all: 63 men, 57 women. None of them dies due to the plague, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, whose Birth is venerated (in this city) with great devotion.)
As a communal votive offering for deliverance from the plague, a statue of Our Lady Causa Nostrae Letitiae (Beginning of our joy) was erected at the heart of the city of Senglea. This marble statue was sculpted by Vincenzo Dimech and paid for by Salvatore Debarro. On May 19, 1816, it was blessed by Archpriest Cachia and the Te Deum was sung.
An inscription, written in Latin by the Archpriest himself, was engraved on a marble slab and placed on the column. The inscription, today translated into Maltese, is a reminder to all that, by the grace of God and through the intercession of Our Lady, Senglea was spared from the plague of 1813.
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