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

July 20th, 1785

The plague reaches its zenith and all hope it is beginning to abate.

In the beginning of the month, owing to the increased ravages of the plague, the events connected with it assumed a more horrid character, and instead of shining coffins, imams and friends, to make up the sad procession, five or six corpses were bound together, all of them fastened on one animal, and hurried away to the grave! Collogees (soldiers) were appointed to go through the town, and clear it of objects who had died in the streets and were laying about. A female in the agonies of death they would have seized upon, while the spark of life was still lingering, had not the frightened victim with great exertion extended a feeble arm, and resisted the disturbers of her last moments, imploring the patience of the collogees till they came their next round.

A circumstance has just been fortunately discovered which was adding dreadfully to the increase of plague and the foulness of the air. The Cyde, or governor of the Jews, had laid a tax of twenty pataques (five pounds) additional on all burials, to defray the expenses of interring the poorer people; and in consequence of this, in order to avoid the tax, a very great number of bodies were buried in the Jews’ premises. These people dug graves in the yards belonging to their houses, and from the necessity of making them only at night, for fear of discovery, the bodies became so offensive, as to betray them during their operations, and to occasion the death of numbers by this dreadful proceeding. Many poor wretches, who had no friends to lament or bury them, flocked round the consular houses and died under their walls, and many bodies were laid there by their surviving friends, whence they were removed with great inconvenience and expense. Madness continued till lately to prevail in those attacked with the plague. A slave in a state of delirium escaped from the castle, and the poor wretch running through the town before the people could prevent him jumped over the battlements and was dashed to pieces: many people, in the same deranged state, were met in different parts of town. The castle has exhibited a much more melancholy scene of destruction than any other part of the city, which was accounted for by the immense number of people, it contained. Almost all the chief officers of state are dead. The Bey has lost two fine boys. For the eldest all the flags of the consular houses were half-masted, and the vessels in the harbour fired minute guns till lazero (or afternoon), when the body being buried, the flags were all hoisted, and the ships fired twenty-one guns each.

In the last six weeks, this dreadful pestilence has carried off two-fifths of the Moors, half the Jews, and nine-tenths of the Christians, who could not procure the conveniences necessary for a quarantine; but the violence of the contagion has decreased so much, that for some time past not more than seven or eight have died in a day, and we therefore flatter ourselves it is nearly over. Notwithstanding this happy change, the consular houses are not yet all opened, and those who have relaxed their quarantine have paid severely for doing so, by the alarm occasioned in the family from the infection and death among the servants.

In fact, the plague returned in a second wave and the Tully household did not lift their quarantine for almost another year – June 16th, 1786

Miss Tully: Letters written during a ten years, residence at the Court of Tripoli, 1783-1795

Hardinge Simpole, 2009, pp. 103-4

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