On May 25 the The Grand Saint Antoine was in sight at the port of Marseille.The port authorities had been waiting for the ship feverishly for hours, till they eventually saw it approach slowly. Everything was ready. It was not the precious cargo of fine cotton, silk and other goods their main concern, but rather, the ghost of the bacteria Yersinia pestis the ship carried on-board.
The vessel had sailed from the Lebanon to reach Smyrna, Tripoli and Cyprus months before collecting goods destined for a trade fair that took place each year in the commune of Beaucaire. They had been informed that a Turkish passenger had been infected and died, but soon some crew members and even the ship’s surgeon had followed his destiny. Once in Livorno the ship was refused entry to the port and now there it was, in all its frightening aura. Yet, they knew they were ready this time. Everything had been prepared meticulously for decades.
Since the end of the plague of 1580, the people of Marseille had taken important measures to attempt to control a future spread of the disease. It was not certainly the first time that the plague had made its devastating appearance in the continent. A sanitation board was established by the city council, and it was put in charge of the health of the city. Public infrastructures were built, like the public hospital of Marseille, furthermore, the sanitation board was responsible for the accreditation of local doctors too.
A control and quarantine system was also defined. Members of the board were to inspect all incoming ships and only the ships with no signs of disease were allowed to dock, but if the ship’s itinerary included a city with documented plague activity, it was sent to the lazarets (quarantine stations) for a minimum of 18 days. When The Grand Saint Antoine gently steered towards one of them, the members of the board couldn’t but smile with relief and satisfaction.
But, what about the fair? What about all those who had invested all their money on the goods kept on-board? Could such an important event like the fair be cancelled? You know the answer too well. It couldn’t. Powerful city merchants, in fact, wanted the silk and cotton cargo of the ship for the fair at Beaucaire and pressured authorities to lift the quarantine. The city’s primary municipal magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, who owned part of the ship as well as a large portion of its lucrative cargo used all his influence to organize the premature unloading of the cargo into the city’s warehouses, so that the goods could be sold soon at the trade fair.
What happened afterwards can be easily imagined: the number of infections and deaths began to climb within days exponentially. This pandemic had become a serious threat to the entire economy, hence, instead of undertaking emergency measures to try to contain the infection, officials launched an elaborate campaign of disinformation, going as far as hiring doctors to diagnose the disease as only a malignant fever instead of the plague. Yet, the truth couldn’t be hidden for long as hospitals were quickly overwhelmed, residents carried the sick out of the city, mass graves were dug and the number of dead was so high that thousands of corpses lay scattered around the city. The tragedy was now visible.
It wasn’t until two months after the first cases of bubonic plague appeared in Marseille that appropriate measures were undertaken such as: trade embargoes, quarantines, the prompt burial of corpses, the distribution of food and aid, and disinfection campaigns using fire, smoke, vinegar, or herbs. At last the Grand Saint-Antoine was burned and sunk off the coast of Marseille.
The disease killed about 126.000 people. While economic activity took only a few years to recover, as trade expanded to the West Indies and Latin America, it was not until 1765 that the population returned to its pre-1720 level.
If we want to make a parallel with our equally “contaminated” times, nothing apparently seems to have changed, in the main dynamics at least: lies, the prevalence of economic interests over those of people, mystification, corruption, ignorance, disinformation.
As philosopher Giovanbattista Vico claimed, man’s attitude remains always the same, even if historical situations and behaviours change. What seems new in history is only comparable by analogy to what has already manifested itself as if in an eternal circular motion in which nations rise and fall. Nations eternally course and recourse through this cycle passing through these eras over and over again. So, if he is right, we are done.
If you want even more stuff to worry about, based on current consumption of all manner of resources, and considering population growth, education, social and political unrest, there are some experts who estimate civilization as we know it won’t make it to the 2050s.
What takes its place? Probably nothing good.
Of course, some say the liquid effluent will make contact with the rapidly spinning blades much sooner.
Me? I don’t know, but I’m hoping the breakdown of social and economic infrastructures will have the decency to wait until after I’m gone.
Also, if you want to really be depressed:
Now, the guy does map out what we need to do to avoid the apocalypse . . . hence why I’m pessimistic. His plan involves people acting rationally and investing in things that — if they work — won’t actually be needed (a catch-22 we — individuals — face every day).
History teaches that people act rationally when there is no other option left.
Are we there yet?
No, not yet.
I’m not a pessimist by nature, more an optimistic realist, but I fear for the future that is awaiting not just up and coming generations but the world right now. Heat waves in the UK, floods in Central Europe, California and Australia ablaze more years, far right authoritarian governments deliberately letting huge swathes of their populations die and giant corporations devastate nature. What is the matter with humans who learn nothing from history?
You know how much I love Swift’s “Gulliver ‘S Travels” , but he was actually a forerunner in this matter. Men are irrational, greedy, respond to their basic needs and are far from being wise . We are exactly Yahoos, and those who believe to be a little bit more advanced can’t but put a tobacco leaf under their nose and go to sleep in the stables like Gulliver did, as there is no way to change the course of events. Not yet.
This is a fine essay and your historical example gets right to the nub of the current European debate about the pandemic. The low-grade mysticism of many followers of Adam Smith which holds that the market is governed by some “invisible hand” is revealed to be little more than the consequence of action taken by the powerful to further their own private interests. M. Estelle is an example of such a powerful person. The powerful rarely take interest in those who are weaker than they are except as consumers of their products and even that interest is rarely more than short term as your devastating example shows. There are many Estelles around us today all trying to further their own short term interests while the rest of us can just go to hell. Sadly they are able to appeal to the lowest instincts in us and there always seem to be enough people willing to go to their stalls at the market to eat, drink and be merry even if tomorrow we will die.
You are perfectly right, there are far too many Estelles everywhere today.
It appears that M. Estelle has enthusiastic followers among the psychopaths currently in government in France and the UK.
Lives are irrelevant, money is god.
It has always been so. Any era.
A sad truth, but the re-emergence of fascism gives cause for greater concern.
Sadly, the greatest lesson from history, is that we don’t learn from history. Sigh.
Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
Thank you Stefie, for a brilliant tale…