An Account of the Plague in Barbary, North Africa, 1799 – Part I

Plagues have been important – and often deadly – aspect of long distance trade and travel for millennia.   As we enter into the 21st century plague that is now gripping West Africa, what can be learned from reports of ‘the plague’ in these past times?

To address this question I am extracting relevant portions of a manuscript on ‘the plague’ as experienced  in 1799 in northwest Africa.   The manuscript is by James G. Jackson, whom we have met before.

I will be posting Part II of this blog tomorrow, and addressing several key issues thereafter.

Historic routes of camel caravans across the Sahara.  Source - Wikipedia

Historic routes of camel and donkey caravans across the Sahara. Source – Wikipedia

That ravaged Barbary in 1799;
EPIDEMY [sic].

When the Emperor’s army proceeded from Fas [Fez] to Marocco [Morocco] in the summer of 1799, a detachment of which passed by Mogodor [Mogador/Essaouira]*, consisting of 20,000 horse and 10,000 foot, it had the plague with it; so that, wherever it passed, the plague uniformly appeared three days after its arrival at the respective douars near which it encamped; those who died were  buried in the tents, and the people of the provinces knew little about it.

* Mogodor/Mogador/Essaouira – the city in which the author was residing; an important caravan depot as well as a harbour linked to international trade, see below two  pictures:

The old Kayaky

The old Ramparts_of_Essaouira/Mogodor,.by Kayaky

Shows the location of Mogador/Ess  , as an important part of trade with both Europe an the Americas.  source:

Shows the location of Mogador/Essaouira , as an important part of trade with both Europe an the Americas. Essaouira is represented by the large, black dot in N.W. Africa.  Source:

A large akkaba*, consisting of upwards of 1700 camels, arrived 23d August, 1799, at Akka from Timbuctoo, laden with gumsudan, ostrichfeathers, and gold dust, which had brought also many slaves; this akkaba had deposited its merchandize at Akka** , till the plague should disappear and the country become healthy; as the people of that territory, unlike Muhamedans in general, will hold no communication with the infected, nor will they admit any one from these parts.

* An akkaba is an accumulated caravan as pictured below; merchants and others wishing to travel in the same direction could join or disband from an akkaba:

Caravan travelling in the region of Algeria.  Source -

Caravan on the march in the region of Algeria, 1896. Source – Royal Geographical Society

** Akka in southern Morocco was an important stop-over for caravans travelling through the long north-south caravan routes :

Akka  Oasis in southern Morocco.  Source -

Akka Oasis in southern Morocco. an important waylay for long distance caravans traversing the Sahel/Sahara.  Source –

A violent fever now rages at Fas [Fez]: some assert it to be the plague, but that is [a] Moorish report, and little to be depended on; the European consuls at Tangier [northern Morocco], and the Spanish ambassador, who, having terminated his embassy, has lately left Mequinas, mention it as an epidemical disorder.

May 20. The smallpox rages violently throughout this country, and is of a most virulent kind: its origin is ascribed to the famine that has of late pervaded this country, and which was produced by the incredible devastation of the devouring locusts; the dregs of olives, after the oil had been extracted, has been the only food that could be procured by many thousands.

July 25. We are so much engaged in making arrangements against the epidemy [sic], which is now confidently reported to us to be the plague, of a most deadly species, that we have only time to refer you to the captain of the Aurora, to whom we have communicated every particular, and who is extremely anxious to be off for England. The deaths in this town, which contained a population of 10,000, according to the imperial register, are from forty to fifty each day.

Aug. 1. As the plague now rages violently here, no one thinks of business or the affairs of this world; but each individual anticipates that he will be next called away. I send the inclosed, to be forwarded to Mr. Andrea de Christo, at Amsterdam, to announce to him the sudden death of his partner, Mr. J. Pacifico, who is lately dead of the plague. I paid him a visit a few hours before his death;

I met there Don Pedro de Victoria, who was smoking a segar [cigar]; he offered me one, and urged me to smoke it. I believe that the smoke of tobacco is antipestilential; this, added to the precaution of avoiding contact, and inhalation of the breath of the person infected, appears to be quite sufficient to secure a person from infection.

August 23. The best gum is selling at Akka for six dollars a quintal*: they will not bring
it here, fearing the infection. … The plague is rapidly diminishing from 100 deaths to 20 or 30 per day. Meeman Corcoes is dead, as well as most of the principal tradesmen of Marocco and Fas; whole families have been swept off, and there is none left to inherit their property.
Immense droves of horses, mules, and cattle of every description stray in the plains without owners. September 5.

* The quintal or centner, from Latin centenarius (“hundredlike”), is a historical unit of mass in many countries, which is usually defined as 100 base units of either pounds or kilograms.

The plague continues to decrease; and in another month we expect  to be quite free from it. Signor Conton died this morning of the epidemy; yesterday afternoon he was apparently quite well, and paid me a visit. He wished me to shake hands with him, which I declined, alleging as an excuse, that I would dispense with that custom till the plague should pass over. He drank a glass of wine, and appeared cheerful and in good health.

I have had fixed in my dining room, a table that extends from one end to the other. I walk or sit on one side of the table, my visitors on the other. I am only cautious to avoid personal contact. All the houses of the other merchants are closely barricaded or bolted. A fumigating pot of gum sandrac* stands at the entrance of my house, continually burning, which diffuses an agreeable perfume, but is not, as I apprehend, an antidote to the epidemy.

* Gum sandrac – Although it is not very strongly aromatic, sandarac resin was and is also used as an incense. The aroma has been compared to balsam.

Sandarac 'tears' - Historically sandarac was also used as a remedy for diarrhea, particularly in the Middle East, but today this has no medicinal advantage over various other therapies. Furthermore, calligraphers may sprinkle powdered sandarac gum on paper or vellum to help writing thinner lines. Source - Wikipedia

Sandarac ‘tears’ – Historically sandarac was also used as a remedy for diarrhea, particularly in the Middle East, but today this has no medicinal advantage over various other therapies. Furthermore, calligraphers may sprinkle powdered sandarac gum on paper or vellum to help writing thinner lines. Source – Wikipedia

October 1. We have to apprise you of the decease of L’Hage Abdallah El Hareishy, most of whose relations are dead. His brother is the only one of the family besides himself that remains: he has inherited considerable property, and thence will be enabled to pay your bill on him in our favour.

October 29. The plague appears to have ceased in this town. All the merchants have opened their houses; but the disorder continues in the provinces, from whence there is little or no communication with the town. The kabyls seem to be wholly engaged in burying their dead, in arranging the affairs of their respective families, in dividing the property inherited by them, and in administering consolation to the sick.

Nov. 11. The plague having committed incalculable ravages throughout this country, had put a stop to all commerce, which now begins to revive, in proportion as that calamity subsides. Linens are selling to great advantage, a cargo would now render 60 per cent. profit, clear of all charges.

Nov. 29. The deadly epidemy that has lately visited us, and which at one period carried off above 100 each day, has now confined its daily mortality to two or three; some days none. When, however, the Arabs of Shedma, and the Shelluhs of Haha come to town, and bring the clothes of their deceased relations for sale, the epidemy increases to three, four, and five a day; then, in three or four days, it declines again to its former number, one, two, or three. We have reason to expect, that, before the vessels which we expect from London shall arrive, the plague will have subsided entirely

Letter from His Excellency James M. Matra to Mr. Jackson


Gibraltar, 28th Oct. 1799.

I never could understand the drift of the people either at Tangier or Mogodor, in asserting that my report of the plague was political.

God knows, that our politics in Barbary are never remarkable for refinement: they are, if any thing, rather too much in the John Bull style; and the finesse they gave me such credit for, was absolutely beyond my comprehension, as I never could discover what advantage a genuine well-established plague in Barbary could be to our country.

Of its existence I had not the shadow of doubt, for more than eight months before it was talked of; and when Doctor Bell was going that way, I begged of him to be particular in his enquiries, which he, as usual, neglected.

When John Salmon* was up, he was very particular, and I of course was laughed at. Here I saw politics, and told all the  gentlemen, that when Salmon** arrived at Tariffa, then, and not till then, we should have the plague in Barbary; and just so it turned out.

*John Salmon was Spanish envoy to the emperor of Marocco, and was at this time up at      Fas, i.e. on his embassy.

** Arrived at Tariffa, and so secured his admission into Spain on his return from his embassy. …

Ever truly thine,

Trade of Essaouira [Mogodor]:

Important Jewish merchant families:

Important Moroccan Jewish merchant families *: were recruited by the sultan to take charge of developing trade and relations in Mogador in relation to Europe.

* The Sultan´s merchants: “tujjar as-sultan”

The extraordinary and privileged Jewish tujjar elite controlled all of the major imports of Mogador and other Moroccan trade centers where their influence was gradually extended. These included sugar, tea, metals, gunpowder, and tobacco. The tujjar also managed such vital exports as wheat, hides, cereals, and wool, items which became government monopolies at the time.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to the vast forests around the town.

Tujjar – Merchants:

The tujjar declined in influence after the 1890s with the aggressive penetration of the European powers into the Sharifian Empire of Morocco. By the early part of the 20th century, and certainly following the formation of the French protectorate (1912), they disappeared from the scene.

A new elite of Jewish entrepreneurs, recruited by the French, Spaniards, Italians, and British commercial houses replaced them, as did foreign merchants who settled in Mogador and other parts of the country, controlling commerce until Moroccan independence in 1956.

“The port of Timbuktu”

From the Middle Ages to the 17th century there were sugar-cane refineries in the province of Mogador. Other local products were fish and cereals but Mogador exported also items coming from Africa with the caravan trade.

The merchants of the souk traded salt, camel skins,
gold, slaves……..for European cloth and Chinese tea.

Essaouira attracted pirates and the inhabitants of Diabet lived close to the sea and the bay and was used by the Sultan to fight the pirates.
For this task they were supplied with goods and military services.

See also:


Barbary Corsairs

The Sugar Refinery

The Consulates of the Medina

The Port

The Jews



Source: Essaouira, on Trade



About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-North, Africa-West, Caravan routes, Colonialism, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Niger River and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Account of the Plague in Barbary, North Africa, 1799 – Part I

  1. Pingback: Rare gulls in Morocco | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. It’s remarkable that the army was able to continue on while transmitting the plague. I’m not familiar with how the plague works, but I suppose those within the caravan who had been exposed to the disease and survived would continue to spread it to the unaffected in each area they came upon.

    Liked by 1 person

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