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.