Miss Tully: Letters from Tripoli during the plague epidemic of 1785 – June

June 28th, 1785

The organization of quarantine in Christian houses and the superior charity of the Muslims.

It is impossible to give you a just description of this place at present; the general horror that prevails cannot be described. Hadgi Abderrahman sailed from the harbour of Tripoli on the 20th of this month, as ambassador to Sweden and England. From the state Tripoli is in, sinking under plague and famine, the departure of the ambassador from his handsome Greek, Amnani, and her children was dreadful. He made up his mind to see but few of them again, and with reason; the dire infection had entered his walls, nor was it to be imagined that even his own suite could embark untainted with the same. If he is so fortunate as not to fall a victim to the plague before he reaches Malta, he will perform there a heavy quarantine of ninety days at least. They perceived, before they quitted the harbour, one of his people, a Jew broker, severely attacked with the plague; and they put him shore before they sailed. Abderrahman is so much beloved, that the people in general participate in his sufferings, and the screams for the calamity of his family, which began before he sailed from the harbour of Tripoli, have continued to the present moment, and are still augmenting from increasing deaths. At this awful period, the care of Lilla Amnani, his wife, and his favourite eldest daughter, devolves on his brother, Hadgi Mahmute, who is dying in torments unheard of, from the singular instance of the plague having at first seized him in his mouth, producing violent tumours, by which he is now starving; he is at times so raving that many people are required to secure him. Though none of his family were ill when his brother sailed to Europe, his wife and children (one already buried), with many more relations of Abderrahman’s family, are dying very fast. Lilla Amnani, Abderrahman’s daughter, and his niece, are all the ladies that remain of his family. Of his slaves and attendants only an old black eunuch lives, who is confined with the plague for the third time. In the short space that has elapsed since the ambassador left Tripoli, only eight days, nearly one hundred persons have died belonging to him; and consequently, it is thought, not one will remain of his family to give him an account of these sad times.

The plague now depopulating this place is said to be more severe than has been known at Constantinople for centuries past, and is proved by calculation to destroy twice the number of people in proportion to those who died of the same disorder lately at Tunis, when five hundred a day were carried out of that city. Today upwards of two hundred have passed the town gate. The city of Tripoli contains 14,000 inhabitants, and the city of Tunis 30,000.

Our house, the last of the Christian houses that remained in part open, on the 14th of this month commenced a complete quarantine. The hall on entering the house is parted into three divisions, and the door leading to the street is never unlocked but in the presence of the master of the house, who keeps the key in his own possession. It is opened but once in the day, when he goes himself as far as the first hall, and sends a servant to unlock and unbolt the door. The servant returns, and the person in the street waits until he is desired to enter with the provisions he has been commissioned to buy. He finds ready placed for him a vessel with vinegar and water to receive the meat, and another with water for the vegetables.

Among the very few articles which may be brought in without this precaution is cold bread, salt in bars, straw ropes, straw baskets, oil poured out of the jar to prevent contagion from the hemp with which it is covered, sugar without paper or box. When the person has brought in all the articles he has, he leaves by them the account, and the change out of the money given him, and retiring shuts the door. Straw previously placed in the hall is lighted at a considerable distance, by the means of a light at the end of a stick, and no person suffered to enter the hall till it is thought sufficiently purified by the fire; after which a servant with a long stick picks up the account and smokes it thoroughly over the straw still burning, and locking the door returns the key to his master, who has been present during the whole of these proceedings, lest any part of them should be neglected, as on the observance of them it may safely be said the life of every individual in the house depends.

Eight people in the last seven days, who were employed as providers for the house, have taken the plague and died. He who was too ill to return with what he had brought, consigned the articles to his next neighbour, who faithfully finishing his commission, as has always been done, of course succeeded his unfortunate friend in the same employment, if he wished it, or recommended another: it has happened that Moors, quite above such employment, have with an earnest charity delivered the provisions to the Christians who had sent for them. The Moors perform such acts of kindness at present, which if attended by such dreadful circumstances, would be very rarely met with in most parts of Christendom. An instance very lately occurred of their philanthropy. A Christian lay an object of misery, neglected and forsaken; self-preservation having taught every friend to fly from her pestilential bed, even her mother! But she found in the barbarian a paternal hand: passing by he heard her moans, and concluded she was the last of her family; and finding that not the case he beheld her with sentiments of compassion mixed with horror. He sought for assistance, and, till the plague had completed its ravages and put an end to her sufferings, he did not lose sight of her, distaining her Christian friends, who left her to his benevolent care.

The expense and danger of burying the dead has become so great, and the boards to make the coffins so very scarce, that the body is brought out of the house by friends to the door, and the first man they can prevail on carries it over his shoulder, or in his arms to the grave, endeavouring to keep pace with the long range of coffins that go to the burying ground at noon, to take advantage of the great mass [funeral prayers]. Today the dead amounted to two hundred and ninety.

A Genoese doctor, who has been here some years receiving a fixed salary from the court of Tripoli, and from all the Consuls residing here, had orders from the Bashaw to repair to the castle.  On his not immediately obeying the summons, a guard was appointed to bring him there by force; but the doctor being conscious he must immediately fall a victim to the plague, without a chance of mitigating its horrors in the castle, it being unfortunately a malady that rarely yields to medicine, determined to elude their search, and embarked without being discovered on board the vessel in which Hadgi Abderrahman sailed for Europe.

Miss Tully, Letters written during a ten years’ residence at the Court of Tripoli, 1783-1795, Hardinge Simpole, 2009; pp.94-6

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