Some Account of a peculiar Species of Plague which depopulated West Barbary in 1799
and 1800, and to the Effects of which the Author was an eyewitness. By James G. Jackson, Mogodor/ Essaouira
From various circumstances and appearances, and from the character of the epidemical
distemper which raged lately in the south of Spain, there is every reason to suppose, it
was similar to that distemper or plague which depopulated West Barbary; for, whether
we call it by the more reconcilable appellation of the epidemy [sic], or yellow fever, it was
undoubtedly a plague, and a most destructive one; for wherever it prevailed, it invariably carried off, in a few months, onehalf, or onethird, of the population…
… It does not appear how the plague originated in Fas in the year 1799*. Some persons,
who were there at the time it broke out, have confidently ascribed it to infected merchandise imported into that place from the East; whilst others, of equal veracity and judgment, have not scrupled to ascribe it to the locusts which had infested West Barbary during the seven preceding years, the destruction of which was followed by the (jedrie) smallpox, which pervaded the country, and was generally fatal. The jedrie is supposed to be the forerunner of this species of epidemy, as appears by an ancient Arabic
manuscript, which gives an account of the same disorder having carried off two-thirds of the inhabitants of West Barbary about four centuries since.
* See the Author’s observations, in a letter to Mr. Willis, in Gentleman’s Magazine, February, 1805.
In the month of April, 1799, a dreadful plague, of a most destructive nature, manifested itself in the city of Old Fas, which soon after communicated itself to the new city. This unparalleled calamity, carried off one or two the first day, three or four the second day, six or eight the third day, and increasing progressively, until the mortality amounted to
two in the hundred of the aggregate population, continuing with unabating violence, ten, fifteen, or twenty days; being of longer duration in old than in new towns; then diminishing in a progressive proportion from one thousand a day to nine hundred, then to eight hundred, and so on until it disappeared.
Whatever recourse was had to medicine and to physicians was unavailing; so that such expedients were at length totally relinquished, and the people, overpowered by this terrible scourge, lost all hopes of surviving it…
The mask [of the above costume] had glass openings for the eyes and a curved beak shaped like that of a bird. Straps held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose. The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items. The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease in the miasma theory of infection, before it was disproved by germ theory. Doctors believed the herbs would counter the “evil” smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.
The beak doctor costume worn by plague doctors had a wide-brimmed leather hat to indicate their profession. They used wooden canes to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them. The canes were also used to keep people away, to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them, and to take a patient’s pulse
… Travelling through this province [Shelluh province of Haha] shortly after the
plague had exhausted itself, I saw many uninhabited ruins, which I had before
witnessed as flourishing villages; on making enquiry concerning the population of these
dismal remains, I was informed that in one village, which contained six hundred
inhabitants, four persons only had escaped the ravage. Other villages, which had
contained four or five hundred, had only seven or eight survivors left to relate the
calamities they had suffered…
… During the existence of the plague, I had been in the chambers of men on their deathbed: I had had Europeans at my table, who were infected, as well as Moors, who actually had buboes on them; I took no other precaution than that of separation, carefully avoiding to touch the hand, or inhale the breath; and, notwithstanding what may have been said, I am decidedly of opinion that the plague, at least this peculiar species of it, is not produced by any infectious principle in the atmosphere, but caught solely by touching infected substances, or inhaling the breath of those who are diseased…
...and that it must not be confounded with the common plague of Egypt, or Constantinople, being a malady of a much more desperate and destructive kind. It has been said, by persons who have discussed the nature and character of the plague, that the cultivation of a country, the draining of the lands, and other agricultural improvements, tend to eradicate or diminish it; but, at the same time, we have seen countries depopulated where there was no morass, or stagnate water for many days’ Journey …
… All regulations in matters of sepulture before observed were now no longer regarded; things sacred and things prophane had now lost their distinction, and universal despair pervaded mankind. Young, healthy, and robust persons of full stamina, were, for the most part, attacked first, then women and children, and lastly, thin, sickly, emaciated, and old people.
… I have been informed that there are still at Marocco, apartments wherein the dead were placed; and that after the whole family was swept away the doors were built up, and remain so to this day.
… There died, during the whole of the above periods, in the city of Marocco, 50,000; in Fas, 65,000; in Mogodor, 4500; and in Saffy, 5000; in all 124,500 souls!
After this violent and deadly calamity had subsided, we beheld a general alteration in
the fortunes and circumstances of men; we saw persons who before the plague were
common labourers, now in possession of thousands, and keeping horses without
knowing how to ride them. Parties of this description were met wherever we went, and
the men of family called them in derision el wuratu, the inheritors [Des gens parvenus, as the French express it; or upstarts].
Provisions also became extremely cheap and abundant; the flocks and herds had been left in the fields,and there was now no one to own them; and the propensity to plunder, so notoriously attached to the character of the Arab, as well as to the Shelluh and Moor, was
superseded by a conscientious regard to justice, originating from a continual apprehension of dissolution, and that the el khere [The good, or benediction], as the plague as now called,
was a judgment of the Omnipotent on the disobedience of man, and that it behoved every individual to amend his conduct, as a preparation to his departure for paradise..
The expense of labour at the same time increased enormously, and never was
equality in the human species more conspicuous than at this time; when corn was to be
ground, or bread baked, both were performed in the houses of the affluent, and prepared
by themselves, for the very few people whom the plague had spared, were insufficient
to administer to the wants of the rich and independent, and they were accordingly
compelled to work for themselves, performing personally the menial offices of their
The country being now depopulated, and much of the territory without owners, vast
tribes of Arabs emigrated from their abodes in the interior of Sahara, and took
possession of the country contiguous to the river Draha, as well as many districts in
Suse; and, in short, settling themselves, and pitching their tents wherever they found a
fertile country with little or no population.
The symptoms of this plague varied in different patients, the variety of age and constitution gave it a like variety of appearance and character. Those who enjoyed perfect health were suddenly seized with headaches and inflammations; the tongue and throat became of a vivid red, the breath was drawn with difficulty, and was succeeded by sneezing and hoarseness; when once settled in the stomach, it excited vomitings of black bile, attended with excessive torture, weakness, hiccough, and convulsion. Some were seized with sudden shivering, or delirium, and had a sensation of such intense inward heat, that they threw off their clothes, and would have walked about naked in quest of water wherein to plunge themselves. Cold water was eagerly resorted to by the unwary and imprudent, and proved fatal to those who indulged in its momentary relief.
Some had one, two, or more buboes, which formed themselves, and became often as large as a walnut, in the course of a day; others had a similar number of carbuncles; others had both buboes and carbuncles, which generally appeared in the groin, under the arm, or near the breast. Those who were affected with a shivering, having no buboe, carbuncle, spots, or any other exterior disfiguration, were invariably carried off in less than twenty four hours, and the body of the deceased became quickly putrified, so that it was indispensably necessary to bury it a few hours after dissolution.
It is remarkable, that the birds of the air fled away from the abode of men, for none were to be seen during this calamitous period; the hyænas, on the contrary, visited the cemeteries, and sought the dead bodies to devour them. I recommended Mr. Baldwin’s invaluable remedy of olive oil, applied according to his directions; several Jews, and some Muselmin, were induced to try it, and I was afterwards visited by many, to whom I had recommended it, and had given them written directions in Arabic how to apply it: and I do not know any instance of its failing when persevered in, even after the infection had manifested itself….
… We have been credibly informed, that it was communicated originally to Spain, by two infected persons, who went from Tangier to Estapona, a small village on the opposite shore; who, after eluding the vigilance of the guards, reached Cadiz. We have also been assured that it was communicated by some infected persons who landed in Spain, from a vessel that had loaded produce at L’Araiche in West Barbary. Another account was, that a Spanish privateer, which had occasion to land its crew for the purpose of procuring water in some part of West Barbary, caught the infection from communicating with the natives, and afterwards proceeding to Cadiz, and spread it in that town and the adjacent country…
… It should be observed, for the information of those who may be desirous of investigating the nature of this extraordinary distemper, that, from its character and its symptoms, approximating to the peculiar plague, which (according to the before mentioned Arabic record) ravaged and depopulated West Barbary four centuries since, the Arabs and Moors were of opinion it would subside after the first year, and not appear again the next, as the Egyptian plague does; and agreeably to this opinion, it did not reappear the second year…
… The old men seemed to indulge in a superstitious tradition, that when this peculiar kind of epidemy attacks a country, it does not return or continue for three or more years, but disappears altogether, (after the first year,) and is followed the seventh year by
contagious rheums and expectoration, the violence of which lasts from three to seven days, but is not fatal. Whether this opinion be in general founded in truth I cannot determine; but in the spring of the year 1806, which was the seventh year from the appearance of the plague at Fas in 1799, a species of influenza pervaded the whole country; the patient going to bed well, and, on rising in the morning, a thick phlegm was expectorated, accompanied by a distressing rheum, or cold in the head, with a cough, which quickly reduced those affected to extreme weakness, but was seldom fatal, continuing from three to seven days, with more or less violence, and then gradually disappearing.
During the plague at Mogodor, the European merchants shut themselves up in their
respective houses, as is the practice in the Levant; I did not take this precaution, but
occasionally rode out to take exercise on horseback. Riding one day out of the town, I
met the Governor’s brother, who asked me where I was going, when every other
European was shut up? “To the garden,” I answered.” And are you not aware that the
garden and the adjacent country is full of (Jinune) departed souls, who are busy in smiting with the plague every one they meet?”
Mogodor was covered with biers. My daily observations convinced me that the epidemy was not caught by approach, unless that approach was accompanied by an inhaling of the breath, or by touching the infected person; I therefore had a separation made across the gallery, inside of my house, between the kitchen and dining parlour, of the width of three feet, which is sufficiently wide to prevent the inhaling the breath of a person.
From this partition or table of separation I took the dishes, and after dinner returned them to the same place, suffering none of the servants to come near me; and in the counting house, I had a partition made to prevent the too near approach of any person who might call on business; and this precaution I firmly believe to be all that is necessary, added to that of receiving money through vinegar, and taking care not to touch or smell infectious substances.
Plaisters of gum ammoniac, and the juice of the leaves of the opuntia, or kermuse ensarrah, i.e. prickly pear, were universally applied to the carbuncles, as well as to the buboes, which quickly brought them to suppuration: many of the people of property took copious draughts of coffee and Peruvian bark. The Vinaigre de quatre voleurs, was used by many, also camphor, smoking tobacco, or fumigations of gum Sandrac; straw was also burned by some, who were of opinion, that any thing which produced abundance of smoke, was sufficient to purify the air of pestilential effluvia.
During the existence of the plague, I had been in the chambers of men on their deathbed: I had had Europeans at my table, who were infected, as well as Moors, who actually had buboes on them; I took no other precaution than that of separation, carefully avoiding to touch the hand, or inhale the breath; and, notwithstanding what may have been said, I am decidedly of opinion that the plague, at least this peculiar species of it, is not produced by any infectious principle in the atmosphere, but caught solely by touching infected substances, or inhaling the breath of those who are diseased; and that it must not be confounded with the common plague of Egypt, or Constantinople, being a malady of a much more desperate and destructive kind.
It has been said, by persons who have discussed the nature and character of the plague, that the cultivation of a country, the draining of the lands, and other agricultural improvements, tend to eradicate or diminish it; but, at the same time, we have seen countries depopulated where there was no morass, or stagnate water for many days’ Journey…
… I shall now subjoin a few cases for the further elucidation of this distemper,hoping that the medical reader will pardon any inaccuracy originating from my not being a professional man.
[NB – I have selected a few examples for this blog; more can be found in his book.]
Hamed ben A was smitten with the plague, which he compared to the sensation of two musket balls fired at him, one in each thigh; a giddiness and delirium succeeded, and immediately afterwards a green vomiting, and he fell senseless to the ground; a short time afterwards, on the two places where he had felt as if shot, biles or buboes formed, and on suppurating, discharged a foetid black pus; a (jimmera) carbuncle on the joint of the arm near the elbow was full of thin ichor, contained in an elevated skin, surrounded by a burning red colour; after three months’ confinement, being reduced to a skeleton, the disorder appeared to have exhausted itself, and he began to recover his strength, which in another month was fully reestablished.
It was reported that the Sultan had the plague twice during the season, as many others had; so that the idea of its attacking like the smallpox, a person but once in his life, is refuted: the Sultan was cured by large doses of Peruvian bark frequently repeated, and it was said that he found such infinite benefit from it, that he advised his brothers never to travel without having a good supply. The Emperor, since the plague, always has by him a sufficient quantity of quill bark to supply his emergency…
V.H.L. was smitten with the plague, which affected him by a pain similar to that of a long needle (as he expressed himself) repeatedly plunged into his groin. In an hour or two afterwards, a (jimmera) carbuncle appeared in the groin, which continued enlarging three days, at the expiration of which period he could neither support the pain, nor conceal his sensations; he laid himself down on a couch; an Arabian doctor, applied to the carbuncles the testicles of a ram cut in half, whilst the vital warmth was still in them; the carbuncle on the third day was encreased to the size of a small orange; the beforementioned remedy was daily applied during thirty days, after which he resorted to cataplasms of the juice of the (opuntia) prickly peartree, (feshook) gum ammoniac, and (zite el aud) oil of olives, of each one third; this was intended to promote suppuration, which was soon effected; there remained after the suppuration a large vacuity, which was daily filled with fine hemp dipped in honey; by means of this application the wound filled up, and the whole was well in thirty nine days.
El…Hte, a trading Jew of Mogodor, was sorely afflicted; he called upon me, and requested some remedy; I advised him to use oil of olives, and having Mr. Baldwin’s mode of administering it*, I transcribed it in the Arabic language, and gave it to him; he followed the prescription, and assured me, about six weeks afterwards, that (with the blessing of God) he had preserved his life by that remedy only; he said, that after having been anointed with oil, his skin became harsh and dry like the scales of a fish, but that in half an hour more, a profuse perspiration came on, and continued for another half hour, after which he experienced relief: this he repeated forty days, when, he was quite recovered.
* Mr. Baldwin observed, that, whilst the plague ravaged Egypt, the dealers in oil were not affected with the epidemy; and he accordingly recommended people to anoint themselves with oil every day as a remedy.
Mohm’d ben A fell – suddenly down in the street; he was conveyed home; three carbuncles and five buboes appeared soon after in his groin, under the joint of his knee, and armpits, and inside the elbow; he died in three hours after the attack.
L.R. was suddenly smitten with this dreadful calamity, whilst looking over some Marocco leather; he fell instantaneously; afterwards, when he had recovered his senses, he described the sensation as that of the pricking of needles, at every part wherein the carbuncles afterwards appeared: he died the same day in defiance of medicine.
The plague appears to visit this country about once in every twenty years 139: the last visitation was in 1799 and 1800, being more fatal than any ever before known.This opinion is confirmed by the plague, being now (1820) in Marocco just twenty years since the last plague. 65,000 persons have been lately carried off by this disease in the cities of Old and New Fas.
*Observations respecting the Plague that prevailed last Year in West Barbary, and which was imported from Egypt; communicated by the Author to the Editor of The Quarterly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Arts, edited at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, No, 15, published in October, 1819.
His Majesty’s ship, which was lying in the port of Alexandria, when Colonel Fitzclarence passed through Egypt, from India, on his way to England, convoyed to Tangier a vessel which had on board two of the sons of Muley Soliman, emperor of Marocco; on their arrival at Tangier, the princes immediately landed and proceeded to their father at Fas; but it was discovered by the governor or alkaid of Tangier, that during the passage some persons had died; and accordingly the alkaid would not suffer any of the passengers to land, except the princes, until he should have received orders from the Emperor how to act; he accordingly wrote to Fas, for the imperial orders, and in the mean time the princes arrived, and presented themselves to the emperor: the latter wrote to the alkaid, that as the princes had been suffered to land, it would be unjust to prohibit the other passengers from coming ashore also. He therefore ordered the alkaid to suffer all the passengers, together with their baggage, to be landed, and soon afterwards the plague appeared at Fas, and at Tangier.
Thus the contagion which is now ravaging West Barbary was imported from Egypt. It does not appear that the mortality is, or has been, during its acme at Fas, any thing comparable to what it was during the plague that ravaged this country in 1799*, and which carried off more than two-thirds of the population of the empire.
*It has been asserted by a physician who has lately written, Observations on contagion, as it relates to the plague and other epidemical diseases…
For the rest, such persons as are not compelled to associate with the infected, may effectually avoid the contagion, however violent and deadly it may be, by avoiding contact. I am so perfectly convinced of this fact, from the experience and observation I have made during my residence at Mogodor, whilst the plague raged there in 1799, that I would not object to go to any country, although it were rotten with the plague, provided my going ould benefit mankind, or serve any useful purpose; and I would use no fumigation, or any
other remedy but what I actually used at Mogodor in 1799.
I am so convinced from my own repeated and daily experience, that the most deadly plague is as easy to be avoided :
BY STRICTLY ADHERING TO THE PRINCIPLE OF AVOIDING PERSONAL CONTACT AND INHALATION, AND THE CONTACT OF INFECTIOUS SUBSTANCES,
- that I would ride or walk through the most populous and deeply-infected city, as I have done before, without any other precaution than that of a segar in my mouth, when, by avoiding contact and inhalation, I should most assuredly be free from the danger of infection!!
[In addition],Mr. Colaço, having lately observed that oil was used externally to
anoint the body, as a preservative against the plague; conceived the idea of administering this simple remedy internally to persons already infected; numerous experiments were made by this gentleman, who administered from four to eight oz. olive oil at a dose; and out of 300 individuals already infected, who resorted to this remedy, only twelve died.
When these precautions are strictly observed, I maintain, (in opposition to all the theoretical dogmas that have lately been propagated) that there is no more danger of
infection with the plague, than there is of infection from any common cold or rheum.
A few links about plagues: