Miss Tully: Letters from Tripoli during the plague epidemic of 1785-6 December and January


Exploration of Africa foiled by the plague

December 18th, 1785

Yesterday, Baron de Haslien, a German nobleman, arrived here, to see if it were practicable to go from hence to Fezzan. He has left two brothers at Tunis, whose intentions are, if possible, to proceed this way to the coast of Guinea. Should they succeed, they will have the merit of being the first Europeans ever remembered to have crossed in any direction over Africa. The additional circumstance of the plague, with other difficulties, renders the Baron’s intention impracticable at present, and everybody seems disappointed at the thought of his not being able to perform this perilous journey.

A second wave of infection

December 31st, 1785

The plague does not finish with the year: it has been very severe this month, and nearly all the horrors of the last plague have been revived in the present. An imaginary security, which unfortunately led the principal Moors to neglect the few precautions they had taken in the beginning of the disease, has caused a greater number of the higher class to fall victims to it at present, than on the former occasion. The Bey yesterday had two of his children seized with the infection; and they are now at the point of death.  They have taken the plague from a little black female slave, who had lately been admitted to play with them; and the castle having been tolerably clean for some weeks, is expected, from the great number of its inhabitants, to be thrown again into a dreadful state

January 12th, 1786

Exploration foiled and the danger of second-hand clothes

The reappearance of this dreadful disorder has determined Baron Haslien, who has been here for some time, to relinquish his intention of proceeding to the interior of the country; he will embark in a few days for Europe; and the state of this place altogether seems to prevent his ever expecting to effect the researches he had planned.


The Jews are at present loading vessels with the clothes of those who died of the plague, and are exporting them to Europe and Egypt: extraordinary precautions are, therefore, necessary in Europe, to prevent the effects of importing such cargoes.

The Jewish community frequently dealt in second hand clothing and this goes some way to explain why they were so often accused of deliberately infecting communities. It was not, of course, malice – no-one understood the mechanism of transmission.

The letter goes on to speak of Muslim and Jewish reactions to the plague and a description of the Mamlukes and their clothing.

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

Hardinge Simpole, 2009, pp.116, 117, 118

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