William Gell was a celebrated antiquarian and classical scholar who was born in 1777. He was a great friend of Thomas Moore, Walter Scott and Lord Byron and wrote innumerable books, most of them illustrated with his own sketches. It is his Narrative of a Tour through the Morea, an account of his travels through Greece, that concerns this article. Although he never actually put foot on the Rock:
. . . the voyage with which I begin this narrative, in 1804, was not so unfortunate . . . our first resting place, Gibraltar, afforded us neither welcome or repose, for the yellow. fever, prevailing in the garrison, prevented us from landing . . .
. . . he nevertheless seems to have produced a number of sketches of Gibraltar and, more importantly, given us what must have been the considered opinion of many a well-to-do English travellers on the quarantine regulations of the day.
Sir William Gell ( Thomas Unwins )
After his contretemp at Gibraltar, he was held up in Malta for 30 days, which he considered both an imposition and absurd. According to Gell, the laws that governed quarantine were upheld either by superstition or corrupt practices. Being cooped up for forty days or more in considerable discomfort only benefitted those from whom one was forced to buy supplies at grossly inflated prices. To make matters worse, it had become common practice to enforce quarantine even in places where there was no plague.
The North and the Neutral ground ( Cropped detail )
One serious consequence was that the price of imports was forced up by the additional expense brought about by these delays although it would seem that the inhabitants of the shores of the Mediterranean were either unaware of the consequences, or too carefree or ignorant to bother too much about it. More importantly in his eyes, British commerce was suffering the consequences.
The North West ( Cropped detail )
In a word, Sir William was incensed by the injustice of it all - especially when foreigners tried to blame the English for allowing the introduction of the plague into Malta because of their rather lax quarantine regulations. And yet, he argued, had it not also seriously affected Naples, a place where the rules were rigidly applied?
The South West ( Cropped detail )
Unaware of the real causes of the fever, Gell blames the smugglers - 'for no human prudence' he suggests 'can prevent smuggling.' The English colonies' - by which he must surely have included Gibraltar - followed the custom of their neighbours by putting into practice unnecessarily long periods of quarantine - which of course all the local doctors agreed to as their fees were always regulated by the length of time that the quarantine was in force. Besides doctors were held in such poor esteem in southern Europe that in many ways it didn't really matter a damn what they had to say about the matter.
The South East
Ironically, despite his unreasonable attitude - and the rest of his book confirms him as a die-hard Englishman who despised all things not English - he was of course quite right - those quarantine regulations in as much as they were supposed to reduce the risks of contracting yellow fever - were a complete waste of time. But perhaps that is not necessarily true of this essay. Sir William Gell may never have set foot on the Rock but his carefully annotated sketches are well worth a good look.
The view towards Africa ( Cropped detail )