The People of Gibraltar
1804 - Yellow Fever - An Accumulation of Dirt and Filth

Santo, Fenton and Boyd - Eliza and Sarah Fyers 
Mrs Geddes and Mrs Baynes - Mr Frome and Mrs Fletcher
Mrs Jephson and Mrs Brown - Dr Pym, Mr Ross and Mr Smith 
Mr Sweetland, Mr Allerdyce and Mr Rankin - Campbell, Fox and Trigge
And Mr John Cortes

On a hot and sticky 28th of August 1804, a shopkeeper from Gibraltar called Santo found himself walking slowly up Engineer's Lane on his way to his house in Gunner's Parade. He was in a bad mood. His trip to Cadiz had not been much of a success and the journey back on board a horrible little Portuguese boat , the Concepcion, had proved worse than he had expected. 

The officials at Waterport had been even more disagreeable than usual. Apparently the authorities had ordered all communications by land and by sea to be cut that same day and he had only just managed to get across in time. But the worst of it was that he wasn't feeling very well. 

The headache that had started while he was in Cadiz several weeks ago had refused to go away and he was now convinced that his last bocadillo on board the ship had been a big mistake. He had a terrible stomach ache.

Gritting his teeth as he struggled up towards his house which was just next to Boyd's Building  his nose was assaulted by a variety of unpleasant smells.  

'Map' of the 1804 yellow fever epidemic  ( 1815 - Sir James Fellowes  ) (See LINK)
1. Gunner's Parade, 2 Boyd's Building 3. Santo's house, 4 Tavern, 5. Coelho's house, 6. Bertoloso's house 7. Scarnichi's house, 8. Royal Artillery Barracks, (see LINK) 9. The Blue Barracks, 10. Town Range Barracks, 11. Sheds where poorest people lived, 12. Garrison Library and garden (See LINK

Boyd's was reputed to be the filthiest place on the Rock, and that night it lived up to its reputation. It was enough, he thought, to make him reconsider getting out of Gibraltar and moving permanently to Cadiz. 

As he moved onwards he noticed that the candles were still lit in Bombardier Fenton's rooms. He hoped that Mrs Fenton would have been able to put her young son Roland to sleep and that he wouldn't wake up bawling in the middle of the night. He really needed a good night's sleep. At least there were no signs of any activity from next door. Mr and Mrs Boyd were hopefully asleep and the rooms of the Spinola family also seemed darkened . . . .

Unfortunately for Santo he got far more rest than he might really have wished for. Roughly two weeks later he, bombardier Fenton, his wife and child, Mr. and Mrs Boyd and most of the Spinola family were all dead of yellow fever. What followed during the next quarter of a century was undoubtedly one of the most catastrophic series of events ever to befall Gibraltar. 

A graphic  description of the first few months following Santo's return to Gibraltar appears in the Journal of their Family History written by Charlotte and Sarah Mann: (see LINK
This day is five weeks since we came to our encampment at lower Europa. The doctors think we are safe here, the air being so perfectly pure; we are also they say, so much more liable to get the fever after leaving this, than those that have been the whole time in the putrid air of Gibraltar which is so offensive. 
Eliza is now very near her confinement; she has no idea of fear although the wind blows their tent pins out of the ground at night, and the goats run about and nibble at the cords. Besides she knows that both Doctor and Mrs Geddes are dead, and at present we do not know of anyone to supply their place.  
Mrs Baynes was obliged to put both Mr. Frome and his wife in their coffins, not having any creature near her, nor could she get them buried till the Governor ordered some men who were then in the street to be pressed for that purpose. 
How the town is to be cleansed we can scarcely tell, we fear dead bodies are at this moment shut up, our men at the sick lines need to be forever running to the main guard to beg them to remove the dead from our street, there being six persons lying there, and there was no other chance of getting their dead buried but by doing so. Mrs Fletcher who is now a very pretty young woman, was seen throwing her father out of the chamber window.  
. .  we have only 30 artificers who have not had fever, 106 have died. Mrs Brown, who was the daughter of General Spry, was buried yesterday in South Port Ditch which the beautiful Mrs Jephson and many others lay. . . . 

Military tents set up in the supposedly healthier southern part of the Rock   ( Laurent )

But the history of yellow fever in Gibraltar is a long one. It first appeared in the 17th century allegedly brought in by slave ships en route to the West Indies from Africa or returning from there. Some were of the opinion that it had been imported directly from Havana others that Gibraltar itself was to blame. Yet even by the middle of the 19th century everybody was still at a loss as to its epidemiology. 

A chronological list of Gibraltar's several 19th century yellow fever epidemics and their effects on the population can be summarised as follows.

In 1804 around 1000 people belonging to the Garrison and their families were killed by the disease. Nearly 5000 civilians also died from it that year. Intermittent epidemics from 1810, through to 1811 were slightly less virulent. The 1810 epidemic was relatively mild - It only killed 6 soldiers and 17 civilians. In 1813 nearly 1400 lives were lost, including that of the Governor, Lieutenant General Colin Campbell. In 1814 another 100 odd each of both the military and the civilian population were also killed.

The progress of yellow fever  on a young nobleman  ( Unknown )

It 1828 it returned with a vengeance A private observer counted  over 1600 deaths, a somewhat higher figure than the official one, although this discrepancy between official and private statistics simply reflects a tendency by the authorities to understate the severity of the epidemics. Modern estimates suggest a figure in excess of 2300. 

This last outbreak began in the month of August towards the close of an averagely warm summer. It ended four months later in December following a violent storm.  Perhaps an indication of the general feeling of desperation in trying to understand the underlying reasons for the disease is that both these relatively innocuous climatic events where thought to have had a bearing on its progress - the first responsible for it, the second bringing it to an end. 

In fact the 'great' debate after 1828 among the medical profession was between the contagionists, who believed the disease was transmitted from person to person by contact, and the anti-contagionists who thought that all diseases were caused by environmental factors such as infectious airs or miasmas.

In both cases the lifestyle of the local inhabitants was held to be responsible. For the contagionists the disease was being spread by people living in close contact in an overcrowded town. For the anti-contagionists it was the filth and squalor in which these same people lived in that gave rise to those infectious airs that they were convinced were the cause.  

Frontier shenanigans in the Neutral Ground - the contagionist's response after a cholera epidemic. This time they got it right   ( late 19th century - The Graphic Magazine )

Whichever side they took, the result was an orgy of local resident bashing in which the Jews took the brunt of the assault. Richard Ford (See LINK) called it the ‘Gibraltar fever’,’ It was, he wrote, ‘nurtured in Hebrew filth, fed by want of circulation of the air’ and by ‘offensive sewers at low tide', the blame for which he lay squarely on the locals. The Spaniards, he observed, knew it as ‘vómito negro’, but the patients of which ever nationality, died ‘como chinches’.  

The Scottish writer Thomas Hamilton (see LINK) wrote that it was quite common for ‘one hundred individuals’ to congregate beneath a single roof and that a great proportion of these were foreigners who were so unhygienic that it was hardly surprising that ‘all human endeavours’ had failed ‘to arrest the progress of the pestilence.’ The troops, of course, were moved to a camp away from the town and to the south on the theory that it would be healthier there. It did them little good. 

The Methodist preacher William Harris Rule (see LINK) draws back from actually blaming the locals for the outbreak of yellow fever in 1804 but his comments on their behaviour confirms the general rule. It was, he wrote, an ‘excess of wretchedness’ that ‘steeled the hearts’ of the lower classes and changed them into savages’. They refused to help the sick unless they were paid ‘exorbitant wages’ and only supplied food and drink to them at ‘arbitrary and daily-increasing prices.’ 

The locals, he wrote, refused to produce coffins, funeral rites were abandoned and it required a visit from the military to get the ‘panic-struck natives to carry out the corpses of their relatives’ out of their houses and into trenches which were dug every day to receive the dead.

Robert Martin (see LINK) in his History of the British Colonies was one of many who were of the opinion that yellow fever actually originated in Gibraltar, a place 
famous for its filth: without sufficient common sewers, without an efficient scavenging department, without pavements or proper principles. 
In fact it was renowned as the dirtiest Garrison under the British Crown. Anybody landing at the New Mole was faced with mountains of rubbish which had been placed there over a period of time to be ‘removed at leisure. The smell was revolting.

Perhaps uniquely among contemporary observers, Martin was not convinced that a lack of hygiene as such was responsible for the fever. Old inhabitants of Gibraltar for example pointed out that there were many places which within the past quarter of a century ‘had been free from nuisance’ - in other words yellow fever free - ‘yet had previously from time immemorial been immense reservoirs of filth.’

Other writers tried to make the point that the plague did not distinguish between nationalities, or between the rich or poor. This was of course technically true. The only proviso was that most of the non-military British-born locals had fled 'back home' to Britain while others rich enough to afford it had managed to cross over into Spain just before the border had closed. The bulk of the population couldn't afford to move.

During the long history of 18th and 19th century British mismanagement of - or general indifference to - all civilian affairs the Rock, whenever something went well one could be sure that British historians would be quick to attribute it to the genius of their own countrymen. The corollary of course is that they have tended to find it irresistible  not to blame non-British residents when things were not as they should be. Yellow fever was no exception.

Lawrence Sawchuck's impressive joint paper on Gibraltar's 1804 Yellow fever Scourge is nicely sub-titled - The Search for Scapegoats. It could have read - if rather less elegantly - It was the dirty locals what did it.

The medical men were just as much inclined to this kind of thinking as the ordinary punter spouting their unconsidered opinions. Dr Pym, Chief medical Officer in Gibraltar at the time and perhaps one of the staunchest supporters of the contagion theory, saw fit to write as follows to a newly arrived Governor General Henry Edward Fox;
I don't wonder at all when the fever gets into the town of Gibraltar at its making sad ravages, for they are so dirty and live so many in one house, that it is enough to breed any disorder.

General Henry Edward Fox

During the secondary epidemics of 1813 and 1814 the Governor General Don (see LINK) managed to persuade General Alos, his Spanish counterpart in the Campo Area, to allow a large number of the civilian population to move out of their overcrowded houses and set themselves up temporarily on the Neutral ground between the two countries. The Spanish General not only agreed but generously supplied the civilians with food.

General George Don

Yet even in the midst of this traumatic upheaval, the British authorities were unable to resist  a bout of character assassination to add to insults on their unhygienic habits. General Don insisted that he have full authority over the people camped in the Neutral ground because ‘without the restraint of laws and regulations’ these ‘wretches of the worst description’, would have succumbed to ‘every evil of licentiousness.’  

Yellow fever was not the only disease to cause problem on the Rock over the years. Here are a number of British travellers avoiding Gibraltar during a cholera epidemic - and who could blame them   ( Graphic Magazine - late 19th century )

When Nelson was taken on a slumming tour by his Gibraltarian friend Aaron Cardozo (see LINK) he was told that the small dwellings at the back of the town were mainly housed by the crews that manned the privateers employed by local merchants to attack enemy shipping.  He was horrified and offered the opinion that it would be best if these houses were all burnt to the ground. He also thought that it would be better ‘if perhaps half the town went with them. 

In 1804 a Committee for the preservation of Public Health made up of five of the most respectable inhabitants volunteered to assume certain rather drastic responsibilities such as the power to break into people's houses in order to look for and remove dead bodies. The Governor of the day, Sir Thomas Trigge gave his enthusiastic approval and was soon at the receiving end of a series of reports criticising the local population. One of these included the following;
In spite of all their efforts to oblige the Jews to carry away their Dead and clear their houses of filth., they have not been successful . . .  The committee yesterday visited some of their houses on one of which they found the Body of a man in a high state of Purification; five more breathing their last and one at the point of Death  . . . the above place exhibited a scene of filth scarcely to be described . . 
The five respectable inhabitants were John Ross, John Smith, William Sweetland, George Allerdyce and Rankin. In other words not a single non-British member, not a single Jew. A small but significant clue as to why much of the criticism directed at the locals was not entirely justified can be read from this end of the year Government proclamation.
In spite of every exertion  . . an accumulation of dirt and filth still continues, which principally arises from a great number of houses and huts being absolutely without necessaries. 
In other word - no toilets. 

Any defense of the local population must begin with the fundamental problem of overcrowding which in turn was not brought about by choice but by draconian - sometimes illogical - regulations on the size, type and kind of housing permitted on the Rock for civilian use and the places in which they were allowed to be built. 

Because of this the vast majority of the civilian population lived within the confines of what is still known as 'the town' extending from Landport (see LINK) to South Port Gates. (See LINK) That people tended to live in 'patio de vecinos' sharing amenities such as courtyards and stairs - as well as toilets and water tanks - can be easily proved by checking the census statistics for as late as 1878 by which time one would have imagined that things should have improved since the end of the last epidemic. 

Typical 'patio de vecinos' ( Unknown )

A single 'patio' in City Mill Lane was home sweet home to no less that 63 people belonging to 25 families with the following surnames - Balderrama, Benhayon, Bezzina, Carrara, Cunliffe, Dyer, Gustavino, Labarez, Lavagna, Levy, Lopez, Luna, Marache, Murphy, Negrete, Ocaña, Olivari, Paya, Pitto, Roca,  Sabareh, Sander, Stark, Torello and Torres - a veritable hodgepodge of names of Jewish, Spanish, Genoese and English origin.

Most of these places were not just overcrowded - they were badly built and highly unsuitable for Gibraltar's climate. Richard Ford, (see LINK) a writer who was always scathing and invariably wrong about all matters concerning Gibraltar, managed to get at least one of his observations right - he disapproved of both the outward architectural design of the houses - which he considered to be built on the ‘stuffy Wapping principle with a Genoese exterior’ - and their interiors, which he claimed were filled by their occupiers 'with curtains and carpets, He then rather spoils it all by adding that the curtains and carpets 'were there on purpose to breed vermin and fever  . .  fit only for salamanders and scorpions'. 

He was almost certainly wrong. From a social point of view non-British born Gibraltarians have always been swayed by what is essentially a Mediterranean social  perspective. There is always a clearly defined line drawn between one's responsibility and that which is somebody else's. Undoubtedly those encircled courtyards must have been both a mess and the source of endless friction. Frederick Sayer, (see LINK) writing nearly fifty years after the first epidemic tells us that :
Most patios are crowded with lumber, water-butts, casks, and even animals; whole kennels of dogs and even mules and asses are sometimes kept in these yards. Such are some of the local causes of sickness. 
To give Sayer's his due he does redeem himself by including a footnote with a quote from Dr. Hennen's book on Gibraltar's yellow fever epidemics; (see LINK
So long as ground rents remain high, landlords will make the most of the space they possess, and when avarice is in full operation upon the poverty, the wretched tenants will crowd together into small dark and ill ventilated cellars and corners of a very similar character, which so far from giving them accommodation, scarcely afford space for them to lie down. In fact when the weather is fine, the open street is much more desirable than many of the lodgings of the lower orders of the inhabitants of Gibraltar. 
A perceptive and sympathetic view  - but one that fails to identify those avaricious landlords. Some may possibly have been from the ranks of the wealthier Jewish and non-British merchants but the vast majority were either British or British born residents to a man, all of them of the same type and class as those I have quoted above. For all of them cleanliness was next to godliness and filth the domain of the foreigner. 

Today the causes of yellow fever are better understood. Apparently it is an endemic disease which affects monkeys and it is spread from them to humans and from humans to other humans by bites from female mosquitoes. In Gibraltar the introduction of the vector mosquito 'Aedes aegypti' may have arrived on board ships from Africa. 

As so rightly suggested by Sawchuck and Padiak in an article on colonial management - perhaps it should also have been re-titled 'Colonial Mismanagement' - the mosquito would have found 'the still, warm, stagnant waters' of the 'tinajas' and 'cisternas' of the town 'perfect for multiplying and the close proximity of Gibraltarians perfect for meals.'

But perhaps it would be appropriate to end with John Cortes, a local man who while not a qualified doctor could well have been described as a laboratory technician or perhaps even as a superior type of paramedic.

Cortes was in charge of an isolation hospital in 1813 - of which there were two on the Rock at the time - and wrote an extensive medical report on his observations on the symptoms of patients suffering from the fever and on several autopsies which he carried out himself

In this he made the intriguing observation that the victims were usually 'attacked' at night.  One wonders how close he was to anticipating by nearly 70 years, the Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay's thesis, that the infectious agent was transmitted by a mosquito.

Dr. Carlos Finlay

In 1813, Cortes wrote a letter to Dr. Joseph D. Gilpin - Inspector to the Army Hospitals in Gibraltar - in which he outlined his thoughts as to how and where the fever might have been introduced into Gibraltar. The letter appears in an article in an Edinburgh Medical Journal in which he is identified as 'a Spanish physician ' - presumably on the grounds that no native born Gibraltarian could possibly have written it.