Malta Diary A history of plagues and epidemics over many decades – restrictions are endemic in the DNA of the people of the Maltese Islands
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Yep, Christmas is coming and we should be hearing the tinkling of bells and the rustling of holly and ivy – but the pandemic is still very much with us.
However, a recent international report stated that the people of Malta and Gozo have least protested and shown the least resistance to the Government and Health Authorities’ imposed measures – including lockdowns – to curb the spread of Covid-19. That comes as no surprise and there are many valid reasons for the general meticulous obedience to restrictions. Delving back into the history of this Central Mediterranean cluster of rocks underlines why.
Epidemics have a long and sorrowful history in the islands, seafaring hubs for much of the world’s shipping in the past but equally central at present in addition to aerial traffic.
Yellow Fever, Typhoid Fever, Cholera and the Black Plague have all taken their toll, transported to the islands by seamen and in the Middle Ages causing the reigning Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knight Hospitaliers because of their advanced medical knowledge and practices) to construct the Lazzaret isolation hospital on tiny Manoel Island (named after one of the Grandmasters).
However, the first serious widespread epidemic to hit Malta was the Black Plague in 1813 just as the Knights relinquished Malta to the French and in quick succession the islands requested British protection to become part of the British Empire.
Its origins in the islands were attributed to one Salvatore Borg who was a shoemaker but was also known to dabble in stolen goods. He is said to have bought some illicit material off a ship that had just sailed in from Alexandria and some of the sailors were diagnosed with the dreaded plague. A few days later his eight-year-old daughter Anna Maria died of plague and a few days later, Salvatore himself perished.
The Head of Police was one Francesco Rivarola, and he was charged with taking all the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the disease. On 21st May , 1813, he ordered the “Militia” (as the police were then known) to make sure that hairs, pieces of paper, feathers and fragments of straw in infected areas were to be removed by means of tongs or pincers so that they would not be touched by hand, thus avoiding the risk of infection to the handler.
The movement of the inhabitants and of domestic animals was restricted. Pigeons, birds and poultry were to be confined to their cages; dogs and cats were to be restrained to the owner’s home and not allowed to leave their houses and roam about in the streets. People disregarding these orders were to be placed under arrest.
Various barriers were set up in the streets of four major cities (Valletta, Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa) in order to restrict the movement of the population. Selling and buying of foodstuffs was limited from 6am to 10am.
Anybody disobeying these instructions was to be immediately arrested and edicts were issued for the enforcement of capital punishment which so impressed the people that a short time afterwards, a low-ranking member of the police force shot himself when he discovered he was struck by the plague and had been concealing this for some days.
On the 17th August, 1813, Anthony Borg was executed in Merchants Street, Valletta, for knowingly concealing the fact that he was suffering from the plague. Borg was the driver of the carriage of the Ospizio (a home for the aged and infirm at Floriana).
On 13th March, 1814, Joseph Said from Xagħra, who was known to be infected with the plague, wandered out of his home while in a state of delirium from the disease and was shot dead by the adjutant of police.
Despite all these precautions, the Black Plague quickly spread to Qormi, Birkirkara and Zebbug, three of the larger villages. At the time, household sanitation was almost non-existent and dirt abounded.
The epidemic began to subside after 12 months, leaving 4,668 people in Malta and 96 in Gozo dead from the plague from a then total population of 120,000 people.
Barely had 25 years passed when a cholera epidemic hit the islands and was first diagnosed on 9th June 1837 when two inmates from the Floriana Hospital for the elderly and infirm were diagnosed with the disease after bouts of severe vomiting and diarrhea. Within two weeks 17 patients died.
The Governor General ordered the transfer of over 600 patients to isolation wards in Fort Ricasoli. In spite of this precaution the epidemic exploded and it soon became impossible to keep order at Ricasoli and insubordination was rampant.
With little regard for their own health and safety 18 convicts were discharged from prison on 18th June to transport and bury the dead, but had to be re-imprisoned because of various contraventions committed by them. Another nine convicts were liberated next day, but they also proved to be unreliable and were re-imprisoned.
In the meantime the epidemic had now spread to Floriana, Senglea, Birkirkara, and the military and naval hospitals,
The disease caused havoc and panic in Malta. The epidemic reached its peak in July when 6,286 cases were known to have occurred with 2,743 deaths. On 6th July the disease reached Gozo where 510 cases with 183 fatalities were registered by the end of the month.
A total of 8,785 cases are known to have occurred in Malta and Gozo between 9th June and 10th October 1837, of whom 4,252 lost their lives.
This epidemic gave rise to the legend of the Kalkara cemetery at Wied Ghammieq. It is said that at the height of the panic a number of cholera victims were rounded up, taken to the cemetery and hastily buried alive. If that did happen, they probably originated from Fort Ricasoli. In addition, hundreds of cholera victims were buried at this cemetery, most of them from Ricasoli.
From that incident onwards there were regular reports from people living in the vicinity of Wied Ghammieq that at night there were clear sounds of anguished wails and screams from the “living dead” and these were certainly frequent enough to ensure the cemetery was given a very wide berth at night. Lights of lanterns at night were also reported.
My own late father Frank had a fear imbued by this legend and would often make us promise to ensure that he was really deceased before burial as he had traumas about being buried alive!
To further strengthen the legend of Wied Ghammieq being “The Cemetery of The Damned” as recently as the 1980s tragedy struck in the area when two brothers and two girls lost their lives from drowning and shortly after a construction worker also lost his life in a work accident.
The epidemic was extinguished within a year but further cholera outbreaks took place in 1847, 1850, 1854, 1856, 1865, 1867, 1887 and 1911.
Equally macabre was the Valletta locality of the mysterious Chapel of Bones built by the monk Knight Fra Giorgio Nibbia at the Sacred Infirmary of the Order’s hospital and dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy. Nibbia decreed that the walls of the chapel be adorned and decorated with the skulls and bones of people who died at the hospital. The chapel was destroyed by German bombing during the Second World War and has not been rebuilt.
As I write this in late November 2020, 130 persons in Malta and Gozo have succumbed to Covid-19 from a population of 420,000 since the infection broke out in March, the vast majority elderly and many suffering the infection on top of other lung and heart complications which they already had. Thankfully this is a mere drop in the ocean when compared to other epidemics that have swept the islands over the decades.
Therefore, understandably enough, the people of Malta and Gozo have plague/epidemic awareness in their DNA and follow directives assiduously, except for some members of the teen generations and the presence of foreigners who think they are above local directives because they are smarter than the locals.
“To be sanctimonious, you yourself have to be pure”
The equivalent of ‘people in glass houses should not throw stones’. Don’t criticise the faults of others when you have the same faults yourself.