The plague of Malta in 1813-1814
The plague of 1813-1814 was the last major outbreak in Malta and Gozo (until the COVID 19 of course). This Plague began around March 1813 and ended around February or May 1814. It was officially declared over in September 1814. This epidemic was no joke for our island as 4,500 died. Wiping out 5% of the island’s population at the time.
The Origin of the outbreak.
The plague first arrived in Malta when a ship from Alexandria had infected crew members onboard. The ship named “San Nikolas” had left Alexandria on 17 March 1813. Two of its crew members had fallen ill a week after the ship left the port. The ship arrived in Malta on 28th March and it was quarantined in Marsamxett for two weeks.
Health guards were sent to ensure there was no communication between the ship and the shore. However, two other ships arrived in Malta from Alexandria “Nancy” a British ship and “Bella Maria” a Spanish ship. Both had cases of the plague on board. Two crew members of “Nancy” had fallen ill and one crew member from the Bella Maria had died from the plague.
The two crew members who had fallen ill on the “San Nikolas” were taken in the Lazzaretto in Manuel Island. However, like a game of fetch, the captain had also fallen ill, followed by the servant who had been looking after the two crew members. The Captain and the servant died a few days later. Their bodies were examined confirming it was indeed the pesky plague.
This is were in gets ugly, while the Nikolas was in quarantine some guards stole linen from the ship’s cargo which of course was infected. The stolen linen was stored in a shop in Sliema until it was sold to smuggler Salvatore Borg, who lived in Strada San Polo in Valletta. You can guess what the outcome of this was
And yes, you guessed right, Salvatore’s eight-year-old daughter had fallen ill and died three days later,. Although it wasn’t immediately realised what the cause of death was and she was buried in Church of Ta’ Giezu. But by then, the mother had fallen sick and died and Salvatore followed the same fate afterward.
Panic spread throughout Valletta and many people left the city for the countryside, others left the island altogether. Most British and Maltese went into isolation in their homes. Disease spread was low and people doubted the plague’s existence. However, the diseases made its presence known when there was an increase in the outbreak in May throughout Valletta. The guards who stole the linen were among the first who died.
The Outbreak throughout the Island
The first cases were in Mdina within days , as were other towns and villages. The most severe was in Birkirkara, by July the death rate was 1602.
Other villages with the long duration of the disease were Qormi and Zebbug.
Towns that weren’t infected at all Gharghur, Balzan, Kirkop, Safi, Ghaxaq, Qrendi and Senglea.
Measures that were taken
Public places such as courts, theatres were closed down. The Three Cities were placed under medical observation. Direct or indirect contact between people was discouraged, especially in markets. Any communications between the shore and ships were forbidden. Churches were also closed down. Only food stores were allowed to remain open.
Sir Hildebrand Oakes ordered that any suspected cases to come forward and if the infected people tried to hide the disease, existences were liable to the death penalty. The first to be sentenced to death was Anthony Borg, who concealed his infection and they executed him in public by a firing squad in Valletta.
Houses of people who were infected were closed down and there were no attempts to purify them. Domestic animals were encouraged to be placed on cages and strays to be killed ☹. Many people hid contaminated goods to prevent the authorities destroying them.
They forced prisoners to carry the dead from their home to burial sites in specially made carts known as Beccamorti. The Maltese feared those prisoners, and many prisoners became infected, eventually, they died.
Outbreak in Gozo
While Malta was left devastated by the plague and the disease made it to Gozo, but the numbers were small. It’s believed infected clothing which had been hidden during the outbreak in Malta and was kept hidden in a box imported the disease.
Death toll of the plague of Malta in 1813-1814
The number of deaths by the plague was between 4,668-4,487 out of a population of 97,000 in Gozo was 96-104 out of the population of 15,000.
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