The tale of the plague that ravaged Barbary in 1799
From the eyewitness account of James Jackson,
an European merchant,
resident throughout in the port city of Mogodor
"Mogodor, April 31, 1799.
A violent fever now rages at Fas: some assert it to be the plague, but that is Moorish report, and little
to be depended on . . .
The small-pox rages violently throughout this country, and is of a most virulent kind: its origin is
ascribed to the famine that has of late pervaded this country, and which was produced by the incredible
devastation of the devouring locusts; the dregs of olives, after the oil had been extracted, has been the
only food that could be procured by many thousands.
"June 14. Various reports reach us daily from the city of Marocco, respecting the epidemy that prevails there, some say 200 die, some say 100, others limit the daily mortality to 50, in a population, according to the imperial register, of 270,000.
"When any light rain falls, as is the case at Marocco at this season of the year, the mortality increases.
Mr. Francisco Chiappe, an Italian merchant, is just arrived from Marocco, and is performing
quarantine, by his own desire, at the Emperor's garden. This gentleman reports, that the greater
portion of the people die of fear, from hunger, or bad food, or from the small-pox, which latter has
raged at Marocco the last month or two; but he had not been able to ascertain, so various were the
reports, whether it was the plague or not. The emperor's army, a division of which passed through this
country, and encamped at the river, had the distemper with it. We have been assured, that the soldiers
who died, were immediately buried within the tents, so that, by this stratagem, the mortality was not
perceived by the public; it was apprehended that, if the mortality were known, the kabyls <or local
tribes>, through which the army passed from Mequinas to Marocco, would not have supplied the
troops with provision. This detachment consisted of 20,000 horse and 10,000 foot. No disorder has
yet appeared here, nor in the adjacent provinces of Shedma and Haha.
We dispatched the Spanish brig yesterday; but she is still at anchor in the road, waiting for passengers,
who fly from hence with precipitation, from fear of the fever or plague, which prevails at Fas and at
Marocco, and which, it is reported, has made its appearance at the port of Saffy. We have, however,
nothing of the kind here yet, though we expect we shall not escape the general scourge.
"July 13. The epidemy in the interior provinces has greatly augmented, insomuch, that the demand for linen to bury the dead rapidly increases, and the stock is almost exhausted. The article has risen to an unprecedented price . . .
"We cannot ascertain if the disorder prevails in the outer town, and in the Jew's quarter, or not; it is
certain, however, that eight or ten die daily of the small-pox, and as many more of fevers and other
disorders, as report proclaims.
We are so much engaged in making arrangements against the epidemy, which is now confidently
reported to us to be the plague, of a most deadly species, that we have only time to refer you to the
captain of the Aurora, to whom we have communicated every particular, and who is extremely anxious
to be off for England. The deaths in this town, which contained a population of 10,000, according to
the imperial register, are from forty to fifty each day.
As the plague now rages violently here, no one thinks of business or the affairs of this world; but each
individual anticipates that he will be next called away. I sent the enclosed, to be forwarded to Mr.
Andrea de Christo, of Amsterdam, to announce to him the sudden death of his partner, Mr. J. Pacifico,
who is lately dead of the plague. I paid him a visit a few hours before his death; I met there Don Pedro
de Victoria, who was smoking a segar; he offered me one, and urged me to smoke it. I believe that the
smoke of tobacco is anti-pestilential; this, added to the precaution of avoiding contact, and inhalation of
the breath of the person infected, appears to be quite sufficient to secure a person from infection.
The best gum is selling at Akka for six dollars a quintal: they will not bring it here, fearing the infection.
A large Brazil ship has been wrecked off Cape Noon, her cargo, consisting for the most part of silks
and linens, is estimated at half a million of dollars. The Arabs of Sahara convert the most beautiful lace
into bridles for their horses, by twisting it; and superior silk stockings are selling at Wedinoon at a dollar
per dozen pair. The plague is rapidly diminishing from 100 deaths to 20 or 30 per day. Meeman
Corcoes is dead, as well as most of the principal tradesmen of Marocco and Fas; whole families have
been swept off, and there is none left to inherit their property. Immense droves of horses, mules, and
cattle of every description stray in the plains without owners.
The plague continues to decrease; and in another month we expect to be quite free from it. Signor
Conton died this morning of the epidemy; yesterday he was apparently quite well, and paid me a visit.
He wished me to shake hands with him, which I declined, alleging as an excuse, that I would dispense
with that custom till the plague should pass over. He drank a glass of wine, and appeared cheerful and
in good health. I have had fixed on my dining room, a table that extends from one end to the other. I
walk or sit on one side of the table, my visitors on the other. I am only cautious to avoid personal
contact. All the houses of the other merchants are closely barricaded or bolted. A fumigating pot of
gum sandrac stands at the corner of my house, continually burning, which diffuses an agreeable
perfume, but is not, as I apprehend, an antidote to the epidemy.
We have to apprise you of the decease of L'Hage Abdallah El Harieshy, most of whose relations are
dead. His brother is the only one of the family besides himself that remains: he has inherited
considerable property, and thence will be enabled to pay your bill on him in our favour.
The plague appears to have ceased in this town. All the merchants have opened their houses; but the
disorder continues in the provinces, from whence there is little or no communication with the town.
The kabyls seem to be wholly engaged in burying their dead, in arranging the affairs of their respective
families, in dividing the property inherited by them, and in administering consolation to the sick.
The plague having committed incalculable ravages throughout this country, had put a stop to all
commerce, which now begins to revive, in proportion as that calamity subsides. Linens are selling to
great advantage, a cargo would now render 60 per cent. profit, clear of all charges.
The deadly epidemy that has lately visited us, and which at one period carried off above 100 each
day, has now confined its daily mortality to two or three; some days none. When, however, the Arabs
of Shedma, and the Shelluhs of Haha come to town, and bring the clothes of their deceased relations
for sale, the epidemy increases to three, four, and five a day; then, in three or four days, it declines
again to its former number, one, two, or three. We have reason to expect, that, before the vessels
which we expect from London shall arrive, the plague will have subsided entirely.
"Mogodor, Dec. 12, 1799.
The plague or morality of this town is now reduced to three or four weekly."
This epidemic, which devastated West Barbary in 1799, was considered quite different than the
common plague of Turkey, or Syria, or Egypt . . . which may have been cholera; this 'common plague'
was supposed to breed where drinking water was contaminated and stagnant. (What was called the
Egyptian plague, for instance, struck yearly and may have decreased when the trade winds blew.) But
this plague was supposed to have come to the city of Fas, carried on infected merchandise from the
east; this plague was preceded by a seven-year infestation of locusts (which ravaged the crops of West
Barbary and produced widespread famine) and then an epidemic of jedrie--that is, the small-pox--which pervaded the country and was generally fatal. (The local people tried to immunize themselves
against the small-pox by putting infected matter on bread, and eating it.) The same country wisdom
predicted that when plague struck preceded by small-pox, it would die away within the year, but seven
years later there would be widespread influenza. Jackson writes that sure enough, in 1806 a wave of
sickness swept West Barbary and laid the whole country low; the sufferers coughed and wheezed and
hacked up phlegm for four to seven days, but no one died of it. According to ancient Arabic
manuscripts, a similar double epidemic, four centuries before--a wave of small-pox acting as the
forerunner for a wave of deadly plague--had killed three-quarters of the inhabitants of West Barbary.
The plague struck Old Fas in April 1799, and then spread to New Fas, and then raced through the
country. It lasted longer in old than in new towns; it left some towns alone for months, and then hit
them and killed everyone in them. But wherever it struck, its pattern was the same: it carried off one
or two the first day; then three or four; then six or eight; twice as much every day it lasted, till each day
it would destroy two in the hundred of the population. That is, if there were fifty thousand people in a
city, a thousand a day would die . . . and at its peak, that many would die every day, for ten or twenty
days at a stretch. Then it would gradually diminish until it vanished, leaving an empty town and a few
shattered survivors in its wake.
While the plague ravaged the town of Mogodor, a small nearby village named Diabet remained at first
completely unaffected. This village was just two miles from Mogodor, and communications between
the two stayed open, but there were no cases of plague there until thirty-four days after the epidemic
struck Mogodor. Then the plague raged in Diabet for twenty-one days; it killed one hundred out of the
original population of one hundred and thirty-three; after this it abated, though a few people still caught
it and were sick up to two months, none dying, but some losing the use of an eye or a leg or arm.
Other villages were reduced to uninhabited ruins. In one, six hundred inhabitants were reduced to
four; in another, five hundred people might be reduced to seven or eight. In Marocco, at the height of
the plague, one thousand died each day; in each of the cities of Old Fas and New Fas, twelve to fifteen
hundred died daily. The dead were thrown into holes and covered with earth; there was no way to
bury them. El Khere, 'the judgement', the plague was called. Those who fled to the country and
survived, were struck by it the instant they returned to the cities--even if the epidemic had seemed to be
over there. It attacked young and healthy men first, and then the women and children, and then the
thin, the sickly, the unhealthy and the old.
In all, about two-thirds of the population of West Barbary perished.
What seems to have been the same sickness attacked the south of Spain in 1799 and 1800, appearing
just as the plague in South Barbary subsided; it hit Cadiz and ravaged the whole southern coast of
Spain. In Africa, the epidemic appeared to visit a vicinity every twenty years or so; it struck West
Barbary again in 1820, and carried off sixty-five thousand victims from Old and New Fas alone.
Its symptoms varied, as if it was not one epidemic but several.
This is how it affected the healthy: it struck suddenly, giving them headaches and inflammations. Their
throats and tongues became bright red, they found it hard to breath, they sneezed and became hoarse.
Then they began to vomit black bile, complaining of weakness, pain, hiccoughs and convulsions.
Some had such fever that they threw off their clothes and went naked in search of water to plunge into;
but those who did cool themselves in cold water invariably died of it.
Jackson spoke to people who said they felt the plague strike like a red-hot blade plunged into their
bodies; where the pain needled in, that was where buboes and carbuncles rose. Some had one or
several buboes, which appeared and grew to the size of walnuts in a day; some had carbuncles; some
had buboes and carbuncles both, generally in the groin, under the arms, or in the breast. Those who
had carbuncles or buboes rimmed with black, all died. Some found their skin peppered all over with
small black spots, and these people also all died.
Some who were infected, had no buboes or carbuncles or spots (or other exterior disfigurations) but
knew themselves sick, being afflicted by shivering. These all died in less than twenty-four hours, and
their bodies putrefied so quickly that they seemed to be decomposing while their horrified relatives
Jackson says he felt himself safe from infection as long as he kept from touching other people or inhaling
their breath. He knew two Jews who volunteered to wash and prepare the dead, who never caught
the plague until after the epidemic was almost over, and who then survived. Others oiled their bodies
with olive oil and seemed safe. Still others smoked cigars and swore the smoke kept infection away.
Jackson himself was never touched by plague. These were the precautions he took: he put a barrier
three feet wide across his dining room, and stayed on one side of it while his visitors and servants
stayed throughout on the other. When he ate, he had the servants put the dishes of food down and
retreat before he approached, and he sent the dishes back the same way afterward. In his counting-house, he kept a barrier between himself and those he did business with. He received all money
through a bath of vinegar. (Presumably, this money was all coins--no banknotes!) And he took care
not to touch or smell infectious substances.
During this same time, he was in the chambers of men on their death-beds, and in the presence of men
with visible buboes and carbuncles; his cook took ill and died overnight; and he was never infected.
Other people said that great fear prepared the body to receive the infection. Those who most
dreaded the plague, caught it and died of it. There were no European doctors in West Barbary
throughout. The native treatments were various. They drank coffee and infusions of Peruvian bark,
and used the Vinaigre de quatre voleurs: Four Thieves Vinegar, that is, a very old remedy against plague.
The carbuncles and buboes were treated with plasters
of gum ammoniac, and the juice of the prickly pear; the idea was to bring them quickly to suppuration.
Some said vast quantities of
smoke were what held the infection away: they fumigated with camphor or gum Sandrac, smoked
tobacco, or just burned straw to clear the air.
This was the experience of those who witnessed the plague: those who felt nausea at the onset of the
sickness and vomited green or yellow bile, recovered eventually. Those who became dizzy and then
vomited black bile, invariably died after about three days; they remained rational until the hour of death,
but their bodies were covered with small black spots similar to grains of gun-powder. Those with no
outward marks, were attacked internally and died within twenty-four hours.
Following are specific cases witnessed by Jackson:
Case 1. Jackson went into his kitchen one afternoon and found his cook making bread, quite calmly
and cheerfully; he was reading a book in the parlor just half an hour later, when the cook appeared in
the doorway carrying his belongings, saying, "Open the gate for me, for I am smitten." Astonished,
Jackson let him out of the house. (Moroccan houses are walled, with gates that lock.) The next
morning the cook felt well enough to half-dress and appear at the gate, asking to be let back in as he
was completely recovered. Jackson sent him home to rest for a few days more. He died that
evening, and by morning his body was already so far decomposed that the feet were actually putrefied.
His wife caught the infection from him, had a carbuncle and also buboes, and was confined for two
months before she recovered.
Case 2. L'Hajj Hamed O Bryhim, once governor of Mogodor, had four wives and twelve or more
children, all of whom were infected, and also his whole household of concubines and slaves. All his
children and all but one wife died, along with every single member of his household; only the governor
and that one young wife survived. The governor helped to wash the bodies of every one of his dead
(as was his religious duty) but was never infected.
Case 3. A man known to Jackson was struck with the plague, and compared the sensation to having
two musket balls fired at him, one into each thigh. He became giddy and delirious, vomited green
matter, and fainted on the spot. Shortly after, on the places where he had felt shot, buboes formed and
suppurated, discharging a foetid black pus. He had a carbuncle on the joint of one arm: it was a
swollen mass, surrounded by burning red skin, and full of thin ichor. He was confined for three
months and reduced to a living skeleton, and was sick a month longer before his strength fully returned.
Case 4. The Sultan of the city had the plague twice during its season, as did many others. This distinguished the
plague from small-pox, which attacks only once in a lifetime. He cured himself by taking Peruvian
bark in large, frequent doses.
Case 5. A man known to Jackson was smitten. He said the pain he felt was like having a long needle
plunged repeatedly into his groin. In about two hours, the spot formed a carbuncle. This carbuncle
grew for three days, at the end of which carbuncle was the size of a small orange and the pain of it was
unendurable. An Arab doctor treated the carbuncle, applying the testicles of a ram cut in half, used while still
hot. He repeated this treatment for thirty days, and then used cataplasms of the juice of the prickly
pear tree, gum ammoniac, and olive oil mixed in equal proportions; this made the carbuncle suppurate,
leaving a hole which the doctor filled daily with fine hemp dipped in honey. The wound filled up and
had healed by this treatment, in just thirty-nine days.
Case 6. A trading Jew of Mogodor was badly afflicted, and asked Jackson for advice. Jackson told
him to anoint himself with olive oil. This was the remedy advised by one Baldwin, who had witnessed
the ravages of plague in Egypt; he had noticed that dealers in oil were never infected, and began
suggesting that people oil themselves all over. The Jewish sufferer survived; he said that when he oiled
himself, his skin became harsh and dry like fish-scales, then in half an hour he began to sweat profusely,
and continued for half an hour longer, after which he felt relief. He repeated this forty days, after
which he was quite recovered.
Case 7. A man fell suddenly down on the street and was carried home sick. Three carbuncles and
five buboes appeared soon after, in his groin, under the joint of his knee and inside his elbow, and in his
arm-pits. He died within three hours.
Case 8. A man known to Jackson was struck and instantly fell fainting. When he regained
consciousness, he said the sensation was like being pricked all over with needles. At every spot
where the needles stabbed, carbuncles appeared. No medicine helped him. He died the same day.
Case 9. Mr. Pacifico, a merchant, was attacked and took to his bed. Jackson visited his sickbed the
next day, and Pacifico warned him not to come too close; he said he knew he did not have the plague,
but thought it best to be careful. Don Pedro de Victoria, a Spanish gentleman, was also visiting, and
offered Jackson a cigar to smoke as a precaution. Jackson smoked it and then departed. Pacifico
died the next day. He was attended through his illness by the philanthropic Monsieur Soubremon, who
stayed with him every moment but escaped infection--the cause of his immunity being, he thought, the
pipe which never left his lips throughout.
Case 10. Two of the leading Jews in Mogodor volunteered to wash and bury the bodies of plague
victims, and this they did for thirty or forty days. During this time, neither one caught the epidemic.
When the plague finally subsided, they began to cherish hopes of surviving untouched. At this point,
both were smitten. Both were ill for a few days only, and then recovered completely.
The Arabs and Moors of West Barbary believed that the plague was the work of Allah. It was
destiny's hand, a blessing send from God to clear the world of superfluous population. No medication
could cure what was God's will, and everyone doomed to die of it, had their names written beforehand
in the Book of Fate. The word for the plague in Arabic was l'amer, 'destiny'. The word for the
affected, m'drob, meant 'shot'; of a plague victim, they would say, 'he is shot', and if he died, they
would say 'his destiny is completed'; the word for carbuncles was jimmera, which seems derived from
jinn. As for the shooting itself, it was done by Genii or jinune (departed souls) which many had actually
seen: they were supernatural creatures which often appeared in rivers, they could assume many forms
but often had legs like those of fowls, and Jackson says he never met a Muslim who did not say he had
set eyes upon one once; but their business was attending to the fate of men.
During the epidemic, all birds vanished from the vicinity; and if Mogodor was a typical Arabic town, it
would have been the home of countless small birds, doves and pigeons, and a great many storks. They
may also have been affected by the plague? However, hyenas were seen haunting the graveyards and
digging up corpses to devour.
After the plague subsided, the countryside was largely depopulated; Jackson reports that literally
thousands of animals belonging to the pastoral nomads of the area were roaming at large, abandoned.
Former beggars became landowners and those who had never before sat on a horse, now owned vast
herds; in the cities, wealthy people baked their own bread, because those of their servants who had
survived, were now as rich as their masters. A murrain then attacked the cattle. Many died, of all breeds apparently--not only cows, but goats,
sheep and horses-- and their numbers were reduced in the same proportion as the plague deaths
among human beings. And vast numbers of Arab nomads who lived in the
Sahara desert emigrated into West Barbary, bringing their own flocks, and
settling their tents wherever they found fertile pasture-land with
no inhabitants to claim it.
All this is taken from An Account of Timbuctoo and Housa, by James Grey Jackson, originally
published in 1820.
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