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.