Miss Tully: Letters from Tripoli during the plague epidemic 1785-6


In subsequent letters, Miss Tully reports on corsair attacks; cases of the same person enduring repeated bouts of the plague; the Tully family’s friend Hadgi Abderrahman’s 104-day quarantine off Malta, and the doctor who fled with him’s method of treating the plague, learned from a Moorish woman, which “gained him great popularity in Malta.”

October 28th, 1785

The hope the quarantine can be lifted

Several periods have been fixed on to open the consular houses; but a circumstance so desirable would have been most unfortunate at the present moment, as the plague still rages in and out of town, and the cause as yet is undiscovered. A Christian rode out some days ago to the Friday bazaar, which is about two miles from the town, since which his horse has had three swellings resembling the plague, and is expected to die.

In the beginning of this dreadful infection, the cattle appear to be seized before the human species…..

Crime rises as a result of the social dislocation caused by the epidemic, but diplomatic negotiations continue.

October 31st, 1785

On further precautions taken to observe quarantine

Tremendous as it may seem, to be in the same room with one who has just passed through a multitude of martyrs to the plague, many of whom were expiring in his sight, yet with proper care, danger may be avoided. When any person visits us, the greatest precautions are mutually observed. The drawing room has neither linen, silk, nor carpets; no other furniture than tables and matted chairs: the floor is also matted. Every visitor is his own valet; he is not admitted but in the presence of the master of the house; no servant is permitted to attend him or hand him a chair; and he helps himself to refreshments, which are brought to a corridor, or anti-chamber. This is done to prevent a servant, by inattention, going too near his person; and whatever he has handled, or the chair he has occupied, is not touched for hours after his departure. Such purity in quarantines is taught, and only to be found complete in the singular lazarettos at Leghorn, built by the present Grand Duke Leopold, whose protection of the commerce and comforts of the inhabitants of Tuscany is unequalled. The alterations and additions he has made in the lazarettos have been the salvation of Europe.

To return to the dangers of the plague. To be secure in the midst of this dire contagion, requires a thorough knowledge of its effects. Many who have seen its ravages lull themselves into a false security, while many who are strangers to it cannot believe there is in any safety in the country where it exists. It is certainly necessary to become perfectly acquainted with the different articles which will imbibe the particles of this fatal disorder in order to be safe from its effects.

Most of them are well known, as cotton, woollens, linen, hides with the hair on, hemp, hops, etc., while corn, barley, fruit, vegetable, and meat are deemed incapable of taking or communicating the infection. But to these articles there are both additions and exceptions: bread, though perfectly safe having been baked some hours, is fatally dangerous if handled while hot or warm. A peach, or any downy fruit or vegetable, such as unshelled filberts or almonds, have been known to communicate the plague. This disorder has been conveyed from friend to friend in a highly scented bouquet of flowers; and most perfumes are considered as propagators of this infectious disorder. Whenever it is requisite to commence a quarantine, it cannot be secure, whatever precautions may be taken, unless all animals are made away with that can possibly wander unnoticed from the house, and return again, such as pigeons, cats, etc.

Miss Tully, Letters written during a ten years’ residence at the Court of Tripoli, 1783-1795, Hardinge Simpole, 2009; pp.108 and 111-112

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

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

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

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

April 29th, 1785

The plague reaches Tripoli and the members of the royal family go to the tomb of the local marabut [saint] to pray for his intercession.

In the last few weeks, several couriers have crossed the deserts from Tunis to this city, disseminating the plague on their way; and consequently the country round us is everywhere infected. Even the Moors now allow it; but their precautions are rendered useless by not continuing them; for though from circumstances they are induced at one moment to check an indiscriminate intercourse between the sick and the healthy, they give way to it the next.

Last night, a little before midnight, the wife of the Bey, Lilla Aisha, with the three eldest princesses, Lilla Udacia, Lilla Howisha, and Lilla Fatima, walked through the streets by torch-light, from the castle to a mosque, to make offerings and worship at the shrine of one of their great marabuts. They were completely surrounded by their ladies, who were again encircled by black slaves, round whom proceeded the eunuchs and mameluks of the castle, while the hampers, or Bashaw’s [Pasha] body guards, followed. The princesses were accompanied by their brothers, the two youngest princes, Sidy Hamet and Sidy Useph, with their suite. It was one of those fine calm nights, with a clear brilliant sky, peculiar to the Mediterranean. Not a breath of air disturbed the cloud rising from the aromatic vapour that enveloped this body, as it moved slowly along. Some minutes before it approached, a warning cry was heard from the chaoux (heralds), who carried a decisive denunciation of death to all who might attempt to view this sacred procession. Guards hurried through the streets to clear the way, and the loud cheers or song of Loo, loo, loo [ululating], sung by a great number of their best female voices selected for that purpose, were heard at a great distance. The princes, their suits, and all their male attendants, waited at the gates of the mosque till the princesses had finished their oblations, which lasted about half an hour, when they all returned to the castle in the same order in which they had left it.

The present state of the castle, menacing all its inhabitants in so dreadful a manner, is the cause of this royal nocturnal visit to the shrine of the marabut.

Miss Tully, Letters written during a ten years’ residence at the Court of Tripoli, 1783-1795, Hardinge Simpole, 2009; p.91

Lament for the Makers

I that in heill was and gladnes,

Am trublit now with gret serknes,

And feblit with infermite;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Our plesance heir is all vane glory,

This fals warld is bot transitory,

The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

The stait of men does change and vary,

Now sound, now seik, now blith, now sary,

Now dansand mery, now like to dee

Timor mortis conturbat me.

No stait in erd heir standis sickir;

As with the wynd waves the wickir.

Wavis this world’s vainite.

Timor mortis conturbat me.

On to the ded gois all estatis,

Princis, prelotis and potestatis,

Baith rich and pur of al degre;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the knychtis in to feild,

Anarmit under helme and scheild;

Victour he is at all mellie;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

That strang unmercifull tyrand

Takis, on the moderis breist sowkand,

The bab full of benignite;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the campion in the stour,

The capitane closit in the tour.

The lady in bour full of bewtie;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spares no lord for his puisence,

Nor clerk for his intelligence;

His awfull strak may no man fle;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Art magicians and astrologgis,

Rhetoris, logicianis and theologgis,

Thame helpis no conclusions sle;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

In medicyne the most practicianis,

Lechis, surrgianis and phisicianis,

Thame self from ded may not supple;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

I see that makiris anong the laif,

Playis heir their pageant, syne gois to graif;

Sparit is nocht ther faculte.

Timor mortis conturbat me.

He has done petuously devour.

Chaucer, of makaris floure,

The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

The gude Syr Hew of Eglintoun,

And eik Heryot and Wyntoun.

He has tane out of this cuntre;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

That scorpion fell hes done infeck

Maister John Clerk and Jame Afflek,

Fra balat making and tragidie;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Holland and barbour he hes berevit;

Allace! that he nocht with us levit

Schir Mungo Lokert of the Le; 

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Clerk of Tranent eik he has tane,

That maid the Anteris of Gawane;

Schir Gilbert Hay endit has he;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Hary and Sandy Traill

Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,

Quhilk Patrik Johnestoun myght not fle;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes reft Merseir his endite.

That did of luf so lifly write,

So schort, so quyk, of sentence hie;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

He has tane Roull of Aerdebe,

And gentle Roull of Corstorphine;

Two bettir fallowis did no man se;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

In Dumphermelyne he hes done roune

With Maister Robert Henrisoun;

Schir John the Ros embrast has he;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

And hes now tane, last of aw,

Gud gentill Stobo and Quintyne Schaw,

Of quham all wichtis hes pete:

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Gud Maister Walter Kennedy

In poynt of dede lyis veraly,

Gret ruth it wer that so suld be:

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sin he has all my brether tane,

He will nocht lat me lif alane,

On forse I man his nyxt pray be;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sen for the deid remeid is none,

Best is that we for dede dispone,

Eftir our deid that lif may we;

Timor mortis conturbat me.

William Dunbar, c.1459-1530

Probably the most famous poem on the plague in the English (or Scots) language. There are versions with modernized spellings available on-line and wikipedia has a good article with notes on all the “makers” or poets mentioned in the text.

A Prayer By Pope Francis

Tonight before falling asleep think about when we will return to the street.
When we hug again, when all the shopping together will seem like a party.
Let’s think about when the coffees will return to the bar, the small talk, the photos close to each other.
We think about when it will all be a memory but normality will seem an unexpected and beautiful gift.
We will love everything that has so far seemed futile to us.
Every second will be precious.
Swims at the sea, the sun until late, sunsets, toasts, laughter.
We will go back to laughing together.
Strength and courage.