May 2013 Event: The Plagues in Malta

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MHA-May13-JoeBorg-FrancesBonniciMHA President Mrs Frances Bonnici thanking the guest speaker, Mr Joe BorgOn Tuesday 21st May, Mr Joseph Borg gave an interesting presentation on the plagues in Malta. Plagues have been with us since time immemorial. They were first described around 80-100 AD, being found in Libya, Egypt and Syria.

There are three kinds of plagues:

  • bubonic , characterised by swollen lymph nodes,
  • Septicaemia, involving the blood
  • Pneumonic, which affects the lungs.

What caused the plague?

The bubonic plague in most cases is contracted through the bites of an infected rodent, fleas, lice, cats, dogs, squirrels etc. The bacteria enter through a cut in the skin, either form a piece of contaminated clothing used by an infected person, or it was spread through coughing and shared living quarters.

MHA-May13-Audience-620The gathering for the presentationAs a consequence to this, the marriage rate rose sharply, the birth rate rose, there was a notable increase in violence and debauchery, and upward mobility took place on a small scale.

Malta had a plague almost every century. Sometimes ever four in one century, as in the sixth and seventh century.

The first possible contact with the plague was in the late 13th century. An ancient cemetery in Rabat Gozo is said to contain the corpse of King Louis IX of France.

Lazzaretto-paintingA painting of LazarettoAt the start of the 16th century there was a great risk of the introduction of contagious diseases due to ships coming from shores where epidemics were rampant. Hence, ships coming from the north African coast were moored in Marsamxett harbour for a certain period of time (quarantine). Bishop's island (aka Manoel Island) was used for the segregation of contaminated cargo, passengers and crew. Later on the island was developed into a Lazaretto by the Knights.

Soon after their arrival the Knights took steps for the protection of the Islands against the introduction of contagious diseases.

Lazzaretto-photoA photo of LazarettoValletta was founded in 1566 and the Knights built a large hospital and established a quarantine station. Passengers and goods were required to stay in quarantine and those afflicted were sent to Lazaretto or to the hospital.

How did the Maltese react to the plague of 1676? Many terrified people left their homes and headed for the open fields in spite of wintry conditions. Towns were emptied and the fields became towns. This plague took 11,600 lives. Among the dead were many medical personnel as well as many priests. When the plague was over, all houses were fumigated, the streets were cleaned and accumulated garbage collected. Infected mattresses, bedding and clothing were burned. All those who were in contact with the sick and the dead were quarantined.

Aftermath of the plague

cart-1813-transport-plague-victimsCart by Gioacchino Xerri 1813 to transport plague victimsThe Knights had to put Malta back on its feet, and measures were taken, namely: duty was raised on wine, cheese, meat, bird-seed, firewood and coal, even though the people were starving. The Knights had to try to get the embargo between Sicily and Malta lifted, and industry had to find its feet again.

Giving-Eucharist-to-infected-personGiving Eucharist to an infected victimThe plague of 1813 was introduced by a British brigantine the San Nicola which was coming from Egypt. A series of health regulation were set in motion. Among them were public gatherings were prohibited, people were to stay indoors, shops remained closed, Mass on Sundays and feastdays were suspended, persons showing symptoms of the disease were to report to Fort Manoel for diagnosis, dead corpses were buried in lime to accelerate their decaying process.

St-Rocco-patron-saint-plague-patientsStatue of St Roque, the patron saint of plague patientsThe risk of another outbreak remained for years but thankfully they finally ended due to preventive measures.

As a result of the last plague, commerce and agricultural produce nose-dived. However, Sicily opened its harbours to Malta ships in 1815.

Many villages built cemeteries for plague victims. Below is the cemetery at Lija village.

Lija-CemeteryLija Cemetery, Malta











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