Pestilence, disease and man-made disasters


1. The Three Last Letters of Reverend William Barber (1830)

The tale of the Reverend William Barber in many ways epitomises the sufferings and tribulations endured by the many brave English and Scottish missionaries who flocked to Gibraltar during the course of the nineteenth century. Widowed at an early age, Barber first arrived on the Rock in 1825 with the hope of establishing Wesleyan Methodism among ‘the poor, benighted Spaniards at Gibraltar.’ Over the next few years he applied himself to the study of Spanish, a gruelling and often thankless task which caused him much vexation — he complained at one point that his attempts to speak the language were ‘not better than the poorest babblings’ — but which eventually allowed him to preach to the local inhabitants in their own tongue. During this time he revealed himself to be an observant student of men and morals, regularly writing letters full of insightful, if slightly sardonic commentary. Speaking about the people around him, for example, he writes that ‘the Spanish inhabitants of the Rock are generally persons that can live nowhere else; by this, however, I do not mean that they are of an abandoned and incorrigible character; but, that they are thus too intimately dependent on each other.’ Similarly, when reflecting about Gibraltar’s cultural situation, he complained that ‘there is nothing like a good bookseller’s shop; and no printing press but that which is in the hands of Government.’ Of the dangers facing him, however, the young missionary appears to have been largely ignorant — so much so that in 1826 he questioned whether ‘a greater number of persons are carried off here [in Gibraltar] by fever, than in any town of equal population in England.’ In fact, just over a year after he made these comments, yellow fever broke out in Gibraltar, this time with a force and virulence not seen since the great epidemic of 1804. Barber, who by this stage had become engaged and was waiting for the arrival of his bride-to-be from Malta, volunteered to help with the relief efforts and was duly appointed Acting Chaplain to the forces. The post carried an allowance of fifteen shillings a day, but Barber refused the money, arguing that ‘he would not upon any account be benefited a single farthing’ for helping those less fortunate than him. Over the next few weeks he behaved with exemplary courage and dignity, burying the dead and giving comfort to the dying ‘in the very midst of infection.’ Under such circumstances, it was not long before the inevitable happened. On the twenty-first of October, shortly after visiting a sick soldier, the Reverend William Barber fell seriously ill and died five days later. He was only 29 years old.

To the Committee of the Wesleyan Missionary Society.

Gibraltar, Oct. 10, 1828.

Dear Sirs,

I cannot neglect the opportunity ... of writing to you, interested as you must be in our present situation. The newspapers will, no doubt, have informed you that the yellow fever, so fatal here in 1804 and 1813, has again made its appearance; and, in spite of the most vigorous measures to prevent it, has prevailed to a very painful extent. It is probable that report has exaggerated the truth; I shall, therefore, confine myself to a simple statement of facts, for which, indeed, I am in some measure qualified by the friendship of Dr. Hennen, the Head Physician of the Garrison; and by the frequency of my visits to his office, for the purpose of rendering myself useful, if possible, combined with my activity, at present, in a somewhat official capacity, in the place of the Garrison Chaplain, who is ill of the disorder.

It was in the end of the month of August that the alarm was first excited by the successive illness of several of the members of a very respectable family, in the habit of attending at our Chapel. The servant of that family sickened, and, at length, after removal from the house to another situation at no great distance, she died. The disease was taken, before this event, by two individuals; the one a Mrs. Silcox, who unfortunately concealed her illness, till it was too late to remedy it; the other a Mrs. Smith, who, after a very severe illness, was kindly, in the mercy of God, restored to her husband and numerous family. The police and medical regulations of this place are always put especially on the alert in autumn; and these cases, as they were immediately known, became instantaneously the impulse of increased precaution and daily examination. A very few days, however, decided all doubt in the most competent quarters; for new cases of disease occurring, it became clear that we should have to see the progress, and to contend with the miseries, of a very decided and malignant epidemic fever, to which the Medical Gentlemen gave the appellation of ‘autumnal bilious remittent’ (I suppose, because the popular term ‘yellow fever’ is either not scientific, or of very alarming sound). But of the nature of the disease there exists, I believe, in no quarter capable of forming a just estimate, the shadow of a doubt.

There is also another very important point connected with this disease, which seems equally to have fixed all the Medical Gentlemen in one uniform opinion, with reference to its origin. Many have maintained that yellow fever is not a native of the place, but always imported when found at all. I suppose the history of the fever this year will leave no more doubt remaining; it is most plainly and certainly of native origin; and whoever contemplates the circumstances of the place from actual observation, will be surprised, not that infectious bilious fever should originate here, but rather that any year should pass without its appearance, and unmarked by its awful devastations. What the atmospheric influences may be in originating this calamity, must remain, I suppose, as it always has been, a mystery too deep for investigation, and too uncertain to admit of consistent theory: one thing, however, is certain, that the past has been the coolest summer known here for many years; most assuredly the coolest I have spent here; and to this, the very unusual prevalence of westerly winds, which are always regarded as by far the most healthy for us, has mainly contributed. Another circumstance, singular enough, is, that while there have been each year insulated cases of decided yellow fever, they have been for years confined to the individual sufferers; while in this, the coolest, and, everyone thought, the healthiest year of many that have passed over us safely, the cases which, when they commenced, seemed slight, almost immediately became epidemic, and now it is hidden among the secrets of God when and where it shall stop.

But my business is not to indulge reflections, but rather to give you a sketch of facts; which, if I should be permitted to live till these calamities are overpast, I may more particularly fill up.

Alarm began to spread about the 4th of September; and on the 5th, an order was issued from the Government, that every individual living in the district infected should immediately leave home, and encamp on the Neutral Ground, tent-equipage being provided for them there. You are aware, I suppose, that the Neutral Ground is that portion of the sands forming the isthmus which joins the Rock to the main land; it is outside the fortifications, but may be swept by the Garrison guns. The impression, produced by this decided and vigorous measure, was both strong and painful. Some imagined it unnecessary; others exclaimed that it was tyrannical; while many, remembering the sufferings of former epidemic years, felt a gloomy terror accompanying the apprehension of witnessing similar scenes of aggravated distress. It would be very difficult to convey any just idea of the scene presented to view. The order, to be of any use, was necessarily urgent; it was hoped, that, by clearing away the entire population of the district, all the infected individuals might be put outside the town; but this expectation was speedily baffled. The disease took, for some days, a well marked course from the very spot in which it commenced; till mingling, at length, with the mass of the population, all effort to trace or restrain it was in vain. Very soon, nothing was left but to thin the population as much as possible, and, bending every effort of medical and police regulation to lessen the mischief, to mitigate an evil which God would not allow to be extinguished.

Upwards of ten thousand people, it is calculated, have left the Garrison; and yet, it is supposed, there are not fewer than three thousand within who have not passed the fever, although nearly two thousand five hundred cases have already occurred, and more than four hundred and fifty have died. It is fearful to figure to one’s mind the possible, perhaps probable, range of the disease among so many, especially as the worst part of the season has yet to be passed. However, I cannot avoid expressing my deep personal conviction that we owe it to the distinguished zeal and vigilance of the measures authorised by his Excellency the Governor, and urged by the head of the medical department, Dr. Hennen, that we have not the whole town and territory of Gibraltar one great mass of disease and death. When I consider the amount of the population, estimated at nearly thirty thousand, including soldiers, the peculiar malignity of the disease, the subtlety of its infection, and the number of actual cases of sickness, I am surprised that our deaths are not even more numerous than they are; nor is there a day I live, but I feel grateful to God, that, by the measures adopted, one-third part, at least, of those who could be food for this unsparing devourer of human life, are placed almost in assured safety: for, on the Neutral Ground and in the Bay, the probability of security is very great.

On the 7th of September, our Chapel was opened for the last Sabbath services; but the congregation was so diminished, that we occupied no more than the lower part. We celebrated, on that day, the two ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The child baptised was an infant of Sergeant Grey, of the Royal Artillery. He and his excellent wife were present: they had set their minds on the day’s exercise with peculiar feeling; and we were more than ordinarily happy in the celebration. Our circumstances were very solemn; we apprehended that it was the last time the Chapel would be open; and everyone seemed to feel the uncertainty of ever meeting in it again; though, on looking round, no one seemed likely to die. On pouring the water on the face of the infant, I felt myself urged to offer up a prayer for its preservation, and for its Parents, with more than common power. These were friends, with whom I was in habits of the greatest intimacy; both were persons of superior mind, and eminent for piety of the most consistent kind. He, for solidity and firmness of principle and conduct, has been seldom equalled, perhaps never surpassed; she, for animation, and energy, and zealous effort, has not left her superior behind. But both are gone! They were incessant in their attentions to the neighbours in the next house, who were slightly attacked by the fever; and this, with the very bad situation in which they lived, being in the line of the fever’s direction, arid of a drain from the side of the hill, from which the disease, it is most probable, arose, prepared them for a heavier stroke. I was with them this night three weeks ago; we spent some time in conversation, and closed with prayer. They were then both well, and talking, among other things, of what was to be done in case of an attack of disease. The next day, or that which followed, Mrs. Grey sickened; in four or five days, Mr. Grey himself was incapable of holding up any longer. I called that morning to enquire after them, and was told that he was just going to the hospital. He was still the same unmoved, but deeply feeling, man that, in more happy times, I had always found him. I assisted him to the hospital wagon. He just told me that he felt his circumstances very painful, but was quite satisfied; nothing like a murmur escaped him; though, from his appearance and manners, I felt persuaded that his recovery was highly improbable; and I think he felt so himself. Mrs. Grey revived for a day or two, but at last sunk, after leaving the most delightful testimony of clear and animated faith, and love, and hope. ‘Oh!’ said she to a friend, who is himself at this moment ill with a severe attack of the disease, ‘Oh! if this be dying, why, O why, did not the Lord let me go just now? Should I recover after this, no more names or parties for me — none but Christ and his faithful followers!’ A few minutes before she expired, she was probably delirious, for she thought she saw a friend, of whose death, two or three days before, she had not been informed. After pointing, and mentioning his name, she said, ‘He is beckoning me to come to him! — Well,’ said she, addressing him, ‘just stay a minute, and I’ll come with you.’ And so she did, for she almost instantly expired. This excellent pair are thus removed together, for her husband died the same night at the hospital. They were very dear to me, and I shall feel the loss of them greatly. They were not members of our Society: he was of the Scotch Church, and she an Independent, of Mr. Parsons’ Church, at Leeds. But their decided piety commanded my veneration, while their personal attachment won my heart.

Another invaluable friend whom we have lost, is Quarter-master Sergeant Vagg, a member of my Class, and my very intimate friend. The last time we met in Class, several observed the peculiarly happy and holy state of his mind. He, like Mr. and Mrs. Grey, was universally esteemed; even the profligate admired him, and would gladly oblige him. But I cannot say more of him, or of others now: my paper is full, and my time is gone, and my heart recoils from the recital of such losses, even though I am strongly reminded, of the probability that, ere long, I may cease to have power to deplore them.

All places of public assembly were ordered to be closed on September 9th; and almost all business was immediately suspended. The respectable, I mean the monied, inhabitants, who could, made their escape, in every direction which was open; though, by this time, a cordon was laid down by the Spaniards; and soon after, a proclamation, denouncing the punishment of instant death to any one landing from Gibraltar, was published by the Governor of the Province.

Some days ago, a letter was addressed to me from the Governor, requesting the use of the Chapel, in this emergency, as an hospital. I immediately called together several of our leading members, and read the Governor’s letter, when it was instantly, and without difference of opinion, decided that the Chapel should be placed, with all cordiality, at the disposal of His Excellency.

The Chaplain of the Forces has taken the complaint very severely. Dr. Hennen told me just now that it is most likely by far he will die. He is, at present, on the verge of the last hope; and I have been requested by the Government to officiate in his stead, in the melancholy work of burying the dead. Twice a day, therefore, I have the painful duty of going a mile and a half to the ground. Thence I have just returned, after burying five bodies in one grave, and a civilian separately. The correspondence on these subjects you will, one day, receive, if I live; if not, it is perhaps enough to know that my conduct has been approved in the highest quarters here. And I hope if I drop, that this will hereafter turn out to the furtherance of the Gospel. I am, undoubtedly, now so exposed that nothing but a special Providence indeed can protect my life. I have it now, indeed, in my band. But when better motives run low, I ask myself, — Why should not I be exposed, as well as medical men and others? And there is nothing in me better than another to make me exempt, by merit, from a death, however sudden and calamitous, into which others, far, far more worthy, and more pious, than I, have sunk. Of course, I feel deeply at the possibility that this is the last letter I shall write to you; for I have no constitution to stand against a violent attack of fever. But should that be the case, I now leave my deliberate testimony that I believe salvation by Jesus Christ to be the true and only worthy object of human life, as a whole. I lament and bewail my own personal unfaithfulness, and Ministerial insufficiency. I feel most deeply that I have nothing to trust to for eternity, but the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The atonement of the Son of God, and the sanctification of the Spirit of Jesus, are the only ground of hope to your affectionate servant.

I forgot to mention that my man-servant took the fever and died. I am living at the house of Mr. Barnard, whom I hope, should I die, you will remunerate. The family are very dear and kind friends.

Our greatest number of deaths in one day, according to the official medical report, is twenty-nine; but the number has diminished since, so that some slight hope is felt of a turn in the course of the disease; but the east wind has set in, and the heavy rains keep off. Well! it is the will of God! — it is the will of God! Yet He hears and answers prayer. O! pray for us, then, for our need of the mercy of God is very great.

Your affectionate and obedient Servant, in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus,

William Barber.

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Gibraltar, Oct. 12, 1828.

My very dear father,

I cannot let the Packet depart without hastily scribbling enough to let you know that your son William is thus far safe from the disease, which is raging around him; though how long he may continue so is, of course, to the last degree uncertain. It is most probable that you have heard exaggerated accounts of the yellow fever’s prevailing here. I shall, however, have only just time to state two or three leading facts.

The disease is ascertained, as nearly as anything of the kind can be, to be of local origin. It appeared, at first, in the end of August, at a house situated about 200 yards from our Chapel. On the 4th of September, alarm spread; and then the Spaniards put on a cordon, and proclaimed instant death, as the penalty of any attempt to land, on their territory, from Gibraltar. On the 5th, the infected district of the Town was ordered to be entirely cleared of its inhabitants, who were provided with tents on the Neutral Ground. On the 7th, we had our last Sabbath day exercises; for, on the 9th, an order from the Government was issued, for closing all places of public assembly; and apprehension, now, so generally prevailed, that almost all business was suspended. No stroke could have been more fatal than this to the interests of Gibraltar just now; it is regarded as the last of a series of misfortunes, destined to accomplish its ruin. The Mission premises were soon in the very centre of infection, and I, therefore, thought it best to remove. I accepted the offer of some friends to receive me at the South part of the Rock, and strongly advised Paulo, my servant-man, and his younger brother, to go out to Camp. He, however, entreated me to allow him to stay at the Mission House, as he had no fear respecting the issue; and I, at length, unhappily complied with his request. He soon afterwards sickened; and, contrary to my earnest and express desire, concealed his illness from me: in four or five days he died. It is supposed that upwards of ten thousand persons have gone out either to encamp on the Neutral Ground between us and the Spaniards, or to escape in different ways; but there is, of course, great difference between alarm and precaution, and the actual prevalence of disease. You may then rely on the following facts:— the number of cases in all, which have as yet occurred, is 2500, a few, and but a few, more or less; and the number of deaths, is something more than 450; but there are still, beside the soldiers, nearly, or quite 3000 persons, who have never had the fever; these, indeed, are all encamped, and, therefore, out of the Town; but there are, at least, 3000 more within the walls, who may be victims of the disease; and now we are only at the 12th of October, having the worst part of the season to pass; for, from the number of cases and deaths which have occurred, our atmosphere must be full of disease; yet, hitherto, God has generally favoured us with strong winds. Our Chapel has been required as an hospital, though it is not yet employed; but the new Church is already occupied. Three medical men have died, and several more are ill. I attribute it, under God, to nothing but the unparalleled vigour and efforts of Dr. Hennen that we are not all in the most horrid confusion, and one vast heap of disease and death. The disease is so insidious, malignant, rapid, and infectious that, had not the people been greatly thinned, our situation would have been far worse than it is; and, had it not been for the wise arrangements which have been made, the evil would have been far more oppressive; but, after all, great numbers of the poor people that are excluded from the town have to be kept from starvation by public charity.

The Garrison Chaplain is now lying at the point of death, and I have been requested by the Government to officiate on the burial ground, in his stead. I have buried twelve persons in one day — this, as yet, is the highest number. I am, however, thus in the very midst of infection continually, and hence, I have very little hope of escape. Indeed, how can I hope it? or why should? since I am no better than others, who sicken and die.

I have lost several of my dearest, and most intimate, friends on the Rock, and many of my acquaintances. Well, if disease should be permitted to take me as a victim, it shall find me at the post of duty. I commend myself most heartily to your prayers. Oh, my dear Father, Brothers, and Sisters! how gladly would I once more embrace you! But I trust that the blood of Jesus will be the means of our meeting in Heaven. I have received the kind and cheerful letters of my friends in England, relative to my full admission into Connexion. I thank them heartily for their congratulations; but what do they all avail now? E_____, dear lovely girl, is, by a special Providence, detained, and that in, a remarkable manner, at Malta; and, by this time, she must have received my letter, to direct her to wait sometime longer in safety, where she is. But now, after all, I shall, perhaps, have to leave her an unmarried widow. Should that, unhappily, be the case, I am sure that I shall not commend her in vain to your earnest affections, if you should ever see her. With love to all my Brothers and Sisters,

I am, my dearest Father,

Your affectionate Son,

William.

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Gibraltar, Oct. 16, 1828.

My dear Mr. Pyne,

Every remaining friend is to us now very dear indeed. What a scene surrounds us! What a scene have I before me every day on the Neutral Ground! I rejoice more than I can tell you, and am more thankful than I care to describe, that you, by the good providence of God, were led away before this awful calamity burst on this unhappy place. Had your valuable life been spared by the disease, it would have been sacrificed by distress! (A mind and heart all sensibility must either burst now, or change its very nature!) But this is no time for any very particular expression of feeling, or description of facts; in some future time you will hear enough, — too much, from those who may be survivors. As for myself, I know not what reason I have, and I am sure I have no right, to hope to be spared; yet God has, in mercy to me, and in answer to the prayers, as I may without vanity believe, of many dear friends here and in England, spared me to see the 16th of October. But no man can now calculate upon a single hour; and deaths are very, very numerous, at three or four days illness. Among the members of our congregation, beside poor Mr. Walsall, we have lost both Mr. and Mrs. Grey. Their infant is spared, and under the guardianship of Captain Cameron. Quarter-master Sergeant Vagg is likewise gone; Mrs. Vagg and the children are spared. But the list is too painful to run over. You see, I have lost some of my most intimate friends in the Society, to whom my warmest affections were linked to their piety and love. Great God! how terrible is this! A fierce disease, which you can neither see, nor hear, nor touch, springs invisibly on its victims; and not by ones or twos, but by scores and hundreds, we are putting them into the grave. The number of the dead is so great that to bury them in single graves is impracticable. Trenches are dug, and the coffins (for, thank God, as yet coffins can be had, though only by the most praiseworthy vigour of the Government,) are laid side by side, in regular but most afflictive order. Yesterday, for example, I read the funeral service over nineteen bodies in the Protestant Ground! More than that number, of course, were likewise interred in the grounds of the Catholics and Jews. This morning I had to discharge the same melancholy duty for ten more; and how many may follow in the afternoon, I cannot guess. You will not think me stretching my respect beyond the bounds of truth, when I say, that I regard it as one of the most special mercies of God, amidst the judgments of this awful time, that Dr. Hennen was stationed here before it began, and that his health has been hitherto preserved. To his vigorous and decided measures we owe it, under God, that we have not one universal waste of disease and death. It is generally believed that the kind or type of the disease is fully as malignant as in 1804; and the only reason why effects so dreadful as of that year have not yet resulted must be found in the superiority of the measures adopted. Think of the crowded state of the Garrison; think of its pouring forth at Landport at least ten thousand of the inhabitants; of the Neutral Ground, covered with tents and sheds of the most temporary nature; of the thousands out of employ, dependent on the charity of others for daily support; of the sacrifices which everybody must make; of the numbers who have fled from danger and duty; and of the many, — for, thank God, they are not few, — who stand manfully, amidst the raging of disease, and the threats of famine, to alleviate the miseries of the rest; among whom, Mr. T. G. Turner, and Mr. Cochrane, who is today down with the fever, are pre-eminent.

But I must close. Miss Hennen continues in health; she is the life and soul of her invaluable Father, to whom this afflicted place is infinitely more indebted than it can ever be possible for the inhabitants to acknowledge, or the world to know, though much will, and ought to be known. I perceive that Dr. Hennen has expressed himself strongly about me. There is more of friendship in this than the occasion calls for. The Governor has required the use of the Chapel as an hospital, and requested me to act as Chaplain ad interim. The mournful duties of this station I have had to fulfil for Mr. Hatchman, among others; never have I had duties so melancholy to discharge. The burial ground and the hospitals are spots of intense infection, and I am every moment with my life in my hand. But: ‘What do ye more than others?’ There are very many who deserve infinitely higher praise, if praise at such a moment can be thought of with innocence, than I. With a very, very sinful heart, and a life that looks to me only in the light of something far worse than a blank, I prostrate myself at the feet of Jesus, and hope for everything through His atonement alone. Yet that heart feels that it is very affectionately yours.

W. BARBER.

William Barber and Anne Barber, A brother’s portrait: or, Memoirs of the late rev. William Barber (1830).

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2. On the recent spate of yellow fever epidemics (1831)

Yellow fever, otherwise known as yellow jack, black vomit, vomito negro, or Gibraltar fever, is an extremely dangerous vector-borne virus. It is typically found in tropical or sub-tropical areas and is primarily transmitted by the Aedes egyptii and the Aedes africanus mosquitoes. Although the virus is not transmissible through human contact, a non-infected mosquito can pick it up from an infected human and in this way spread it to other humans. Gibraltar suffered several outbreaks of the disease, the most dangerous coming in 1804, 1813/14 and 1828.

If I am allowed to cast a retrospective glance on the former epidemics, I may state, that, in 1813, the neighbourhood of Boyd’s Buildings was, as in 1804, the first spot on which the disease made its appearance in Gibraltar; and, as early as the 6th of July, a highly suspicious case of fever, which proved rapidly fatal, was met in the person of a ferryman, who lived in that unfortunate situation; but it was on the 10th of September that Dr. Gilpin, the principal medical officer, reported officially to the Board of Health that cases of fever of a very serious type had, within a few days, become prevalent in town, and that masons, porters, bakers, and people exposed to hard labour, had been principally attacked. The first case of black vomit which I personally observed during that season occurred about the beginning of September, in a gardener who lived at the south end of the South Barracks. He was a Genoese, and had for some time resided in Gibraltar. In 1814, the cases which first alarmed the garrison occurred about the 15th of August on the hill side, at Cavallero’s Buildings, situated close to Arengo’s Gully, and at the top of the central part of the town. These buildings competed at the time with Boyd’s for want of cleanliness. They were inhabited by about 300 Portuguese of the lower order, and, close to them, there was an accumulation of filth ... which emitted a very offensive stench, and attracted an incredible swarm of flies, which, infecting the whole neighbourhood, became at the time the subject of general observation and surprise.

I may assert, indeed, without fear of the correctness of the assertion being questioned, that, whenever the epidemic has appeared in Gibraltar, it has always commenced in the filthiest spot, among the lower and more disorderly class of inhabitants; and that this was the case in the late visitation is confirmed by an official communication of the late Dr. Hennen to his Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor....

The rise of our epidemic has never been satisfactorily traced to a foreign source, nor its progress marked, from a known focus of contagion, to one or more individuals; and instead of creeping from one family to another, cases have frequently appeared unconnected and scattered at different points; spreading, in some instances, with the rapidity of the electric fluid, and attacking persons who never had approached the sick, nor any assignable source of contagion.

Our epidemic fever did not spread [either] at Europa Flats, or on board of the vessels in the bay, or on the Neutral Ground, when carried thither from the town; and numbers of individuals who had the seeds of the disease about them, even in the case of their falling sick or dying there, did not communicate the malady to their neighbours or attendants. This important fact, which I had particularly noted during the epidemic of 1813, amongst the foreign recruits quartered at the Brewery Barracks, has been most forcibly exemplified during the late calamity, when neither the bedding, clothes, &c. &c. removed from the focus of sickliness, nor the continual intercourse with some of the inhabitants who daily went out to the Neutral Ground, nor the numerous convalescents directly sent thither from the Civil Hospital, often in an early stage of their recovery, produced a solitary case of the disease beyond the gates of the garrison among that numerous population who had fled thither, and who frequently were in confined habitations, when the heat of the weather, the depression of spirits, the melancholy scenes which they witnessed, and, I may add for many of them, privations and hardships, afforded the most favourable means for the propagation of the disease, had it been of a contagious and communicable nature.

Against this assertion it may be stated that cases of the same fever that prevailed in the garrison repeatedly occurred on the Neutral Ground among individuals who, for some time previous to the attack, had not breathed the atmosphere of the Rock. This circumstance certainly leads to the inference that those individuals contracted the disease by communication with the people going from the town; and this inference is corroborated by the fact related before the Board of Inquiry [of] a clergyman whose clothes had been recently stained by black vomit. [After] having been admitted into a shed, one of the [shed’s] tenants was immediately taken ill, and experienced retchings and febrile symptoms.  [Shortly after that] some of the other individuals in the same shed were similarly affected.

But in answer to this objection, I observe that a contagion producing a disease which manifests itself so suddenly is yet unknown, and that the sudden attack of the tenant of that shed appears to have been the effect of imagination, rather than of any contagious fomites retained in this gentleman’s clothes. This is the more probable, because the disease of the tenant and of the other individuals was mild, and at no time showed an unequivocal character; and because the cases on the Neutral Ground were altogether few, and did not present, as far as I could ascertain, any of the violent and dangerous symptoms observed in the garrison. The fact, also, that in former years, amongst the few people residing there, probably under 400 individuals, cases of fever were annually observed during the summer and autumnal months, which had been frequently attended with very suspicious symptoms; and compared with which the few slight cases observed this year, among a population exceeding 6000, placed under the most unfavourable circumstances, far from invalidating my position, evidently tends to establish the principle that the Gibraltar fever has been literally local, and its infectious properties confined to the vitiated atmosphere of the Rock.

The epidemics which at different periods have raged in this garrison, and on the coast of the Mediterranean, have always appeared about the latter end of summer, or during the autumnal months. If the disease were introduced from abroad, and had the property of propagating itself by contact with the sick, or with substances tainted with the effluvia of the sick, would that property have constantly remained inert during nine months of the year? and do other importable contagions attend to seasons to make their ravages?

The inefficacy of the various means which have been repeatedly employed to stop the progress of the epidemic — such as removing and sending out the sick, shutting up their houses, burning the furniture which they had used, prohibiting intercourse and meetings of all kinds — and, on the contrary, the success which tended the measure of removing from the impure atmosphere of the Rock those who appeared most susceptible of the fever, as was done in 1813 with many thousand inhabitants ... clearly prove that our epidemic fever is not easily removed from its native soil, nor easily transplanted into another place.

‘Answers to Queries from the Army Medical Board on the Epidemic at Gibraltar 1828 by R. Amiel, Surgeon, 12th Regiment,’ Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal (1831).

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3. Death of a yellow fever victim (1839)

‘The Gibraltar Fever, about which the doctors disagreed so much,’ wrote Ford in A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845), had nothing remarkable about it save that ‘the patients [were] dying in the mean while como chinches.’  This was one of the most tragic aspects about the 1804 epidemic and those that followed it in 1813, 1814 and 1828: the medical establishment had little, if any idea how to deal with what was happening. In the following passage a contemporary doctor gives us an account of the medical treatments offered to a dying fever patient.

James Larry, soldier of the twenty-third regiment, age 22, of a strong constitution, of middle stature, somewhat addicted to alcoholic drinks, at Gibraltar during the last four years, was received for the first time at the Marine Hospital the seventh of November, 1828. He exhibited then febrile symptoms unaccompanied by yellowness, which were of a short duration. Larry was received for the second time in the same hospital, the 23rd of the same month, having experienced the day before, after ten days’ convalescence, which appeared perfect, a rigor lasting four hours, headache, pain in the loins and limbs, nausea, and vomiting excited by soup. The 22nd, almost immediately after the appearance of these symptoms, ten grains of calomel were prescribed with half an ounce of castor oil and an enema of salt and water. The 23rd, three grains of calomel were prescribed ... with a small quantity of the spirit of Mindererus; and toward noon, a bleeding from the temporal artery. The patient had hardly lost three ounces of blood, when he was seized with a chill, became delirious, and it was thought proper to discontinue the bleeding. The head was shaved and compresses of cold oxycrat were applied to it.

The 24th, at ten o’clock a.m., the face was universally red; the eyes considerably injected (chronic ophthalmia); anxiety; frequent change of posture; constant complaints; headache, varying in intensity; and, in intervals of rest from severe pain, inclination to drowsiness; intense thirst; tongue moist, its edges of a deep red color, its centre whitish; nausea, vomiting at intervals of whitish matter; epigastrium and other parts of abdomen very sensible on pressure; urine easy; pulse frequent, moderately large; heat great, skin not dry; at intervals, slight chills, or great sensibility to cold. Forty leeches were ordered to be applied to the epigastrium; frictions with hot vinegar, a warm bath, cream of tartar lemonade were prescribed.

A large evacuation of blood was obtained by leeches, continuing through the night; the vomitings were repeated almost every time the patient drank; the anxiety was prolonged until half past ten, when the patient slept a little until midnight. The 25th, at ten o’clock a.m., the symptoms of the preceding day were noted, excepting the sensibility of the abdomen, which no longer existed; the pulse eighty, regular; the heat natural; the skin of a natural color. An application of vinegar and water to the head; Riviere’s potion; an ounce of the sulphate of Magnesia; the simple camphor mixture; lemonade.

The black vomit came on for the first time at eleven o’clock the same evening; it was more abundant and of a deeper color at midnight, and continued so until morning, coming on as soon as the patient drank. The 26th, at nine o’clock, the vomitings continued, and hiccough was added to them. The color of the stools was natural; the epigastrium indolent, except when the patient vomited. The countenance wore an expression of suffering, the mind not clear, slow; the eyes universally red and injected; the whole body yellow, especially the forehead; the thirst intense; the tongue clean, moderately red anteriorly, whitish posteriorly, thick and dry, though soft; the pulse small, regular, eighty-four; the skin generally cool, the hands and feet cold, although well covered up.

The vomit, on left standing for an hour, was found separated into two parts: the one upper moderately thick, homogeneous, blackish soot color; the other at the bottom of the vessel, of a deeper black color, apparently formed of a sort of pulverized detritus, really of a viscous fluid mixed with a black matter, sandlike. Hot applications to the extremities; frictions of hot vinegar; weak brandy and water for drink.

The hiccough and the vomiting continued [until] the patient became delirious ... and died at midnight.

Pierre Charles Alexandre Louis, Anatomical, pathological and therapeutic researches on the Yellow Fever of Gibraltar of 1828 (1839).

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4. The spread of Cholera (1865)

Gibraltar was struck by cholera epidemics in 1860 and 1865. The first visitation was relatively mild and caused about 100 deaths. The second, however, was much more serious and dragged on from 18 July to 27 October, 1865, killing over 400 people. It is thought that the disease was brought into the garrison by soldiers of the 22nd regiment, who had just arrived from cholera-ridden Malta. According to Professor Lawrence A. Sawchuk, around three-quarters of Gibraltar’s civilian population suffered from either cholera or choleriac diarrhoea during the 1865 outbreak.

Cholera has been busy here during the last fortnight, has ascended a step or two of the social ladder, carrying off a few victims, and descended again to attack with greater virulence than ever the lower classes, chiefly the convicts. They have lost upwards of forty, and when one considers what alarm these deaths must cause in the little community, and how effectually they are shut out from the cheering influence of social intercourse, it is not to be wondered at that they quickly succumb.

More than once we have had twenty deaths reported within twenty-four hours, and twenty-seven on one occasion. Altogether, the deaths amount to 380. This is a large mortality in a population of 21,000 (including the garrison) within fifty-six days. It is the most severe visitation from cholera which Gibraltar has experienced, being already nearly equal to the total amount of deaths, and in excess of the daily rate in 1834.

There are some curious points of difference and resemblance. In 1834 the first case occurred on June 19, the last on August 3; and on the 7th of August a proclamation was issued by the Governor, appointing a day for public thanksgiving. The total number of deaths was 390. Proportionately, the soldiers suffered most. Twenty-four was the maximum of deaths within twenty-four hours. A westerly wind prevailed in that year. Official reports were daily published by command in the local journal. This year the first case occurred on July 19. None for twelve days after. The first case within the town was on August 19. The civil population has suffered most. Easterly winds have prevailed. No returns are published. In this respect it is difficult to say which course is the more wise. Official reports might allay the panic caused by rumour of mortality exaggerated as they pass from mouth to mouth.

Jew and Gentile are now alike smitten. The deaths among the soldiers give an average of ten to each corps, besides as many women and children. The Artillery, so long exempt, have rapidly made up their quota. Some of the troops have been sent under canvas at the southerly point of the Rock; but even there they have suffered. The bastions along the line wall have contributed more than their due proportion. Many of them are unfit for occupation; indeed, they want but a pole in the centre to resemble the pit assigned to the bears in a zoological garden. Damp clothes are stretched across the confined enclosure, in deference to an order forbidding the beating of carpets and hanging out of clothes along the ramparts; such warlike signals might create alarm in the present disturbed state of Europe. No breeze penetrates to carry off the unwholesome vapours.

One hundred and twenty people were stowed away in some of these places, but they are now vacated. Long as we have held this much-vaunted post, we have not yet sufficient barrack accommodation fit for occupation; we have not tanks for a sufficient supply of water; we have not stores in which we can trust the temporary storage of beef and other provisions.

Meanwhile, about £1500 has been subscribed to alleviate the severe and widespread distress among the native population. Relief is daily yielded to thousands suffering from the want of employment. We are still roped in by the cordon, a measure condemned by the Government in 1855, when cholera was prevalent in Spain, and many towns established the barrier against one another. A Royal proclamation declared it to be impotent for the ends aimed at, only inflicting injury on commerce and depriving one another of neighbourly aid, and directed the governors of provinces to forbid them. This is now interpreted as having no bearing upon foreign towns adjacent to Spain. But the cordon is not the sole step our neighbours have taken against the pestilence. The priests and people at San Roque organised a grand procession last week, and carried in pomp a wooden figure of their patron saint, who, they say, is peculiarly powerful against cholera; and they bowed down before the idol they had made, and worshipped him, and prayed him to stay the scourge among us, that so intercourse might shortly be renewed. Such is the conduct of Spain, at once the most arrogant and the least enlightened nation of Europe.

Anonymous, ‘The Epidemic at Gibraltar,’ Medical Times and Gazette (1865).

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5. Bringing up the Utopia’s Dead (1891)

On the night of 17 March, 1891 the SS Utopia, a British passenger ship carrying over five hundred Italian immigrants, collided with the battleship HMS Anson in stormy seas just off Gibraltar harbour. Within minutes the Utopia tipped backwards and quickly began to sink, sending the panicking passengers rushing to the vessel’s foredeck. Meanwhile, a large crowd of curious onlookers had gathered onshore on Grand Parade, from where they could see the floodlights of the rescue boats and hear the screams of the terrified passengers. By the end of the night a total of 535 people had drowned, among them 520 immigrants and 12 crew members, transforming the sinking of the Utopia into one of the worst maritime disasters on record. Over the next few days many grisly reminders of the tragedy began to wash up onshore – including, so it was said, a ‘pargo’ (or red snapper) containing a baby’s hand in its belly. When the Utopia was finally refloated with the aid of a specially constructed cofferdam several weeks later, a large number of corpses were discovered in its interior, all of them in an advanced state of decomposition. The Gibraltar Chronicle’s daily reports give us a step-by-step account of the unsavoury work facing the Royal Navy salvage teams.

21 March, 1891: We understand that by 2.15 p.m. today 17 bodies had been recovered from the ‘Utopia.’ The divers appear to have experienced great difficulty in removing the bodies owing to the number of orange boxes and amount of luggage floating about below, which might cut or entangle their air pipes.

25 March, 1891: The 59 bodies (including that of Mr. Lee, 2nd officer of the ship) recovered yesterday morning from the ‘Utopia’ were in the afternoon placed in a lighter, each body wrapped in canvas and weighed with shot, and towed out by the steam tug ‘Jackal’ some two and a half miles off Europa point and buried at sea. Among those present were the venerable archdeacon, Mr. Seed, chief of Police, Major Duke, Port Surgeon, and the Chief Officer and 3rd Officer of the ‘Utopia.’

20 July, 1891: The ‘Utopia’ was again successfully floated in presence of His Excellency the Governor and a vast concourse of spectators on Saturday afternoon. Towards midnight she was towed into about four fathoms of water, where she was scuttled. The great inrush of water has had the beneficial effect of removing much of the offensive smell arising from her decomposed cargo, which will now be immediately dealt with. The decks and what can be seen of the inside of the vessel presents a weird spectacle. No one has yet ventured into the lower holds on account of the deadly gas, so that it may be some days before it can be known how many bodies remain inside. Seven were discovered in the fore part of the ship yesterday and it is believed that as the ship is cleared others will be found.

28 July, 1891: Up to the present the number of bodies recovered from the ‘Utopia’ since her removal to quarantine ground is 13 males and 7 females. The delay in recovering those who still remain is caused by the deadly gases within the ship. The water in the lowest holds is so heavily charged with gas that the centrifugal pumps are almost brought to a standstill. Chemicals are being freely used but to little purpose. A painfully touching picture was presented in the case of a woman found clasping an infant to her breast, while a second child was clinging to the mother’s garments. All the bodies recovered are beyond recognition, but it is some consolation to think that the Medical Staff Corps are conducting their sickening work with all the tenderness and humanity that circumstances will permit. 


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