The Malta Independent 30 November 2022, Wednesday
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The plague 200 years ago

Malta Independent Sunday, 9 June 2013, 07:13 Last update: about 9 years ago

Anna Maria Borg was eight years old when she died on 19 April 1813. For a couple of days her little body had been showing obvious symptoms of plague contagion, but Dott. Francesco Gravagna, the doctor who called upon her, possibly led astray by the fact that for well over a century plague had been virtually non-existent on these islands, had simply, and against all better judgement, put down the girl’s suffering to typhoid fever. She was given Extreme Unction and buried the following day in the crypt beneath the church of the Franciscan Minors, Ta’ Giezu, Valletta. It was more than Anna Maria could have ever hoped for. In a little while all hell would break loose and disease would strike down thousands of people. Many hardly managed to make a surreptitious entry into their parish’s death ledger let alone a dignified burial in a hallowed crypt.

Anna Maria’s father, Salvatore, a shoemaker and, as wagging tongues would have it, a small time crook, died a few days later. He could be partly to blame for unleashing the catastrophe. Rumour had it that he repeatedly dabbled in stolen goods and the loot he acquired in late March or early April 1813, deriving from the San Niccolo’, a brig that had just sailed into Marsamxett from plague-infected Alexandria, was to prove his undoing. It was no secret that the San Niccolo’ was infected; within a short time, while in quarantine at the Lazaretto, the plague-hospital, the ship’s captain and his servant, both Maltese, had died. But Borg still went on and recklessly bought the looted cargo. For the life of him he could never have imagined the horrific consequences of his little misdemeanour.  

In the following 12 months, the plague claimed more than 4,500 victims (about a 100 of whom were Gozitans) out of a population of some 100,000 people. A heavy toll indeed, even without factoring in all those people whose death was never really properly diagnosed as plague related, and all the others who, although evidently infected, would have been hidden away by their next of kin so as to spare them the indignity of being carted away to some plague hospital where death would have awaited them anyway.

In Malta, as in all other Catholic countries, death was big business. People were taught that life was but a brief interlude; its only purpose was to allow for the dutiful preparation of one’s own death. At least since the first publication of San Roberto Bellarmino’s De Arte Bene Moriendi in 1619, this idea was promoted from myriad pulpits, and in times of plague one would have been hard pressed to think of life any differently. In calmer times, preparation for one’s death would have surely included membership in some confraternity, which would have, at the very least, ensured one of a decent burial and of reasonable suffrages carried out on one’s behalf after death. In Malta and Gozo there were scores of such confraternities whose main aim, such as the one set up in Xaghra (Casal Caccia) in 1718 and named the Sodalita’ del SS. Anime del Purgatorio e dell' Agonia, was to take care of the dead and the dying. The preparation of a properly drawn last will, which at the time was still endowed with a sacramental quality and thus a far cry from today’s prosaic legal document, was another precious step in the direction of blessed eternity. Yet, in times of sickness and disease such niceties were time and again done away with and it would often prove impossible even to find a group of beccamorti ready to cart away the body and to give it a proper burial in some out of the way infetti cemetery. Rather than having a dignified, Catholic send-off to the next world, with one’s body snugly fit in a sturdy coffin and with family, friends and confraternal brothers carrying out the necessary praying and mourning, those dying during times of plague had to make do with next to nothing. The infected bodies of the dead were unceremoniously hurled in plague-hearses, a dozen or so at one go, and without much ado dumped into shallow tombs. One such hearse survives in the Zabbar parish museum. In a votive 1814 painting at Mensija’s sanctuary, San Gwann, beccamorti, their mouths and noses covered in a mild attempt to ward off contagion, are depicted carrying infected corpses (this time, rather incongruously, wrapped in winding sheets) in such a hearse. Some plague cemeteries, or clausure as they were known, such as the one in Lija, would in time be turned into proper cemeteries. Others, though later rehabilitated to serve as proper cemeteries and sites of remembrance, such as the one known as ta’ Gadaf in the limits of Naxxar, never really caught on and today lie in sad dereliction. 

In one of his many writings, Can. Fortunato Panzavecchia (1797-1850) records that another prelate, Don Salvatore Costu’, right in the midst of this bout of plague, had told him that the 13th year of each century is to be feared for it tends to bring bad tidings. It may well have been the case but, Panzavecchia, born and bred in Isla, had to acknowledge that, if nothing else, that century’s annus horribilis had spared his hometown. He records a blackly humorous rhyme that must have been quite popular at the time – tal belt l-irvinati; tal Birgu l’impestati; ta Bormla l’attacati u tal Isla l-irvellati. But to this he added his own verse that determinedly gave a valedictory shot to the couplet – tal Isla IIliberati (the people from Valletta are ruined, those from Birgu are contagious; those from Bormla are besieged and those from Isla are out of control – those from Isla are liberated)


I would like to thank Can. Vincent Borg, Robert Cassar, David Agius Muscat, Mario Gauci, Fr Raymond Bonnici and Mario Micallef

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