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

May 27th, 1785

A royal funeral and the Christians prepare for quarantine.

The prime minister Mustapha Scriven’s house is at present as much in a state of quarantine as he can put it, consistent with the ideas of the Moors; yet he will not admit to any one, nor to the Bashaw, the necessity of taking precautions at the castle, where he alleges sovereignty is the greatest shield, and whence he says it is necessary to give the Moors an example, no to try to resist the hand of fate.

It is against the Mussulman’s faith to number the dead; they are not, therefore, exactly aware of the increasing mortality; but the castle is much infected, one of the princesses, a child of six years old, died two days since, and one of the three remaining queens of the last sovereign was buried today. By the Bashaw’s order, her funeral was attended by the several of the officers of state, and by four black slaves, freed by him in compliment to this relict of his father; she was buried in very rich clothes, and with all the jewels found in her possession. The four enfranchised slaves who followed her were about four hundred pounds; they cost from about two to three hundred maboobs each.

A long succession of coffins, purposely kept back for some hours, were carried close after the queen’s funeral, to profit by the mass (much grander than usual) that was to be performed for her. From the richness of most of these coffins, they appeared, in the bright glare of the sun, a line of burnished gold, too dazzling for the sight. The castle gates were, for the first time closed today, allowing only a partial admittance. Four people who were perfectly well I the morning were taken ill there yesterday afternoon; they were brought out of the castle last night at ten, and died at midnight. Two of them went raving mad, and they were all afflicted with large swellings on different parts of the body when they died.

The symptoms of the plague at present are, that of the person being seized with a sort of stupor, which immediately increases to madness, and violent swellings and excruciating pains in a few hours terminate in death.

The Bashaw expresses great regret at the thought of the Christians shutting their houses so soon., as the country is in so famished a state; for he says that it will declare it in a state of infection, and prevent the arrival of grain. The Christians’ houses will, however, all be closed in about a week, each one hiring a set of servants to remain with them imprisoned until the plague is over. Halls, windows, and terraces are undergoing a scrutiny for a strict, and we fear a long, quarantine. The windows and terraces fronting the street are to be secured from the servants, and the halls prepared for a mode of receiving what is wanted with safety to the family. Should it be necessary to change servants, or to take in additional ones, it can only be done on condition they relinquish the cloaths they have on; go into a bath prepared for them in the skiffer or hall of the consular house, and submit to remain in one room a fortnight to ascertain their not having the plague. Many jars, containing several pounds each, are prepared with ingredients for fumigating the apartments, two-thirds of which are bran, and the rest equal parts of camphire, myrrh, and aloes. This perfume, and small quantities of gunpowder, are burnt daily throughout the houses. All animals and fowls whatever are sent out of the Christian houses, for fear of the infection being communicated by their hair or feathers.

The present moment is the most dangerous period of the disorder for the Christians. When once the houses are shut, their safety will depend greatly on the strictness of the quarantine they keep. No business is now transacted but with a blaze of straw kept burning between the person admitted into the house and the one he is speaking to. A friend is admitted only into a matted apartment, where he retires to the further end of the room to a straw seat, which is not touched after his departure till it is fumigated. The keys of all the ways into the house are kept by the master of the family only. If any of the Christian gentlemen are obliged to go out on business during this interval, before the houses are closed, a guard walks before and one behind, to prevent any person approaching to near, and, on returning, the guards are put into quarantine for some days. Without these precautions, it would be impossible to escape this dreadful disorder, the rage of which increases every hour.

Miss Tully, Letters written during a ten years’ residence at the Court of Tripoli, 1783-1795, Hardinge Simpole, 2009; pp.92-3

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