Reminders Of Rats – A City Betrayed: The Great Plague Of Marseilles (Part One)

I was running through the old historic quarter of Marseilles, Le Panier. Following the twisting and turning streets I climbed stone stairways and then just as quickly plunged back down another set of steps again. I lost my way, rounding what seemed to be a thousand corners. I followed quaint, cobbled paths through narrow passageways to nowhere in particular. At times it felt as though I had covered every street, every alleyway, every impasse and every square Le Panier offered, but then I would suddenly realize a new route or perhaps an old one I had misremembered. Everything looked different and alike all at once. I spent much of the run in a blissful confusion, lost in the maze of Old Marseilles. Then suddenly something squished beneath my right foot, transporting me back to the present.

Looking down I noticed a fat, fleshy rat, lifeless and rubbery. I leapt in a sudden fright. I had stepped on a large dead rat. I noticed another one nearby. My pace quickened as I hurried away, turning at the next corner. Then the fear left me as quickly as it had arrived though the experience was embedded in my memory. Le Panier may have been quaint, cozy and historic, but in the early morning it was also pungent and dirty, covered with the residue of late night activities. From this a scent, a sight, a hint of the past came to me. A reminder of what Marseilles was like for more centuries than I could possibly imagine. Centuries past when a lack of hygiene brought deadly diseases that laid the entire city’s population waste.  Death was sometimes brought by ships unknowingly transporting a lethal cargo, which would then lead to a dreaded plague. The worst outbreak to hit the city was also one of the last major plagues in Europe, devastating the populace from 1720-1722 during what came to be known as the Great Plague of Marseilles.

Le Panier - the maze of Old Marseilles

Le Panier – the maze of Old Marseilles

Quarantine In Marseilles – The Power Of Life & Death
On my last day in Marseilles I was walking back from Fort St. Jean toward the Vieux Port (Old Port) area. During that short, pleasant stroll along the Quai des Ports I suddenly came upon a long stone building. The structure had obviously stood the test of time and could rightly be termed “historic.” While studying the building I came across an information sign in French. Instantly I recognized the word “quarantine.” Then it dawned on me that this building had been a make or break point for any ship that wanted to enter the port of Marseilles. The building had once held the power of life and death over the city, both economic and biological. Such structures were part of lazarets, quarantine facilities such as buildings or islands for seafaring crews and cargo. Captains would enter the building to present their ships’ manifests. These would be carefully studied by personnel who worked for the city’s sanitation board to make sure a ship did not transport a dreaded disease to Marseilles. If anything was found that constituted a threat to public health, the ship would be turned away. Conversely, if the ship was given a clean bill of health, then it would be allowed to enter the port.

The consequences of each decision on whether to allow a ship to pass into the port or not were huge. The ships bringing goods to or from the port were the lifeblood of commerce for the city.  Ironically, these same ships could bring untold devastation. That stone building along the Quai des Ports is one of the few physical remnants left of the quarantine system setup to protect Marseilles from the plague. The system was a response to a deadly outbreak that struck the city in 1580. The quarantine consisted of three tiers that would scrutinize and confine the cargo and crew of every ship that arrived in the harbor. Any hint of plague uncovered during an inspection would result in the ship being isolated at an island well outside the harbor.

An 18th century perspective of the Great Plague Of Marseilles

An 18th century perspective of the Great Plague Of Marseilles

Captains also had to present detailed logs to sanitation officials. These documented each city their ship had visited prior to arrival in Marseilles. If one of those cities was known to have had an outbreak of plague, the ship would then be confined to the second part of the quarantine system with facilities on another group of islands just off the coast of Marseilles. The crew, along with their ship, would then be forced to wait for several weeks. If no signs of plague were found then entry would be allowed. Even ships deemed disease free would have to wait for two and a half weeks before they could enter the port. The quarantine system did a good job of protecting Marseilles from plague for well over a hundred years. Then in the early 18th century the system suddenly broke down as pressure from commercial interests led to a sidestepping of the usual regulations. This proved to be a fatal mistake.

A Fatal Passage – The Grand-Saint-Antoine’s Deadly Cargo
In 1720 a merchant ship, the Grand-Saint-Antoine, was sailing around the eastern Mediterranean making multiple ports of call. In Syria and Lebanon the ship took on fabrics and cotton that were likely contaminated with the plague bacillus Yersina pestis. This was the same extremely virulent form of plague that had caused the infamous Black Death in the 14th century.  While the Grand-Saint-Antoine was traveling to Cyprus in early April, a Turkish passenger on board died. His body was thrown into the sea, but soon thereafter several crew members also succumbed. At the northern Italian port of Livorno the ship was denied entry. When it arrived on May 25th in Marseilles it was immediately put into quarantine.

Scene of the plague in Marseilles

Scene of the plague in Marseilles (Credit: Michel Serre)

A decision was then made that the ship and its cargo should be sent to a nearby island. That decision would soon be changed. The wealthy commercial interests in the city wanted the silk and cotton offloaded. A popular trade fair was due to take place at the town of Beaucaire in July. Getting the ship’s valuable cargo in the hands of powerful merchants took precedence over the imminent danger of plague to the inhabitants of the city. Thus the cargo came ashore and with it the plague. Exactly a month after the Grand-Saint-Antoine had first called at Marseilles, several porters who had offloaded bales of cotton died. These were the first of tens of thousands of deaths to come, not only in Marseilles, but also Provence. One of the last great outbreaks of plague in Europe was underway.

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