The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

The 1676 plague in Malta

Noel Grima Monday, 19 June 2017, 14:37 Last update: about 4 years ago

On Christmas Eve 1675, Dr Giacomo Cassia was called in to examine an eleven-year old girl who was running a very high temperature. The girl, Anna, died on 28 December.

She was the first victim of a plague outbreak that was to kill around 11,300 persons over the next months.

Anna was not just the first victim but also an indicator of who caused the plague outbreak. Her father, Matteo Bonnici, was an importer of textiles. Six years earlier, he had gone to live in a big house situated between Republic, Old Bakery, St Nicholas and St Dominic streets together with his second wife and their five children and together with his two children from his first marriage, one a priest and the other a lawyer.

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Next, on 10 January 1676, Anna's small brother, Giacchino, two years old, died. Then a woman slave in the Bonnici household fell ill, but did not die. Till then the people involved and the doctors themselves did not realize this was the plague. In the case of Giacchino, the doctors thought he died of toothache.

Then on 13 January, Teresa, Anna's sister, aged 7, died suffering from the same symptoms. So far, the dead had been buried in the St Dominic parish church. But now the authorities, thoroughly alarmed, ordered the Bonnici house to be closed up. On 25 January, Matteo himself died.

On 28 January, the Protomedico (the chief government doctor) consulted his colleagues and sent a report to the grandmaster and the Order's council. A Public Health Tribunal was set up and ordered that the remaining members of the Bonnici and a related family be taken to Manoel Island's Lazzaretto. In spite of everything, Matteo's wife and one of her sons, Fabrizio, survived the plague.

There is an indication, at least according to this book, that the plague may have been brought to Malta by none other than British ships.

The knights had from many years previously adopted the Lazzaretto principle but over time the rules had been relaxed. Some used the ecclesiastical immunity to all who sought refuge in a church to avoid punishment and the grand master Nicolas Cottoner himself wrote to the bishop asking for a suspension of the immunity for 10 years because of the plague around the Mediterranean. Plague cases were reported in Constantinople, Rhodes, Tripoli and Tunis.

The common opinion in those days was that the plague had been brought to Malta by the many British ships engaged in a war with Tripoli. At one point there were no less than 17 British ships in the Grand Harbour, many with slaves captured in Libya.

But according to historian Giovan Francesco Buonamico, writing some years later, it could very well be the plague was brought to Malta in a cargo of textiles brought to Malta by a Maltese vessel. Matteo Bonnici had received a consignment of cloth from this same vessel.

The plague spread - around Valletta at first, then on 8 February the first victim died at Attard, in the house of a woman who had entered the Bonnici house at the height of the plague. Then on 14 February the plague reached Senglea, on 8 March Cospicua, on 10 March Birkirkara, on 11 March Vittoriosa and Rabat, then Kirkop, Qrendi, Qormi, Balzan, Zebbug, Zurrieq, Lija, Tarxien, Luqa, Gharghur, Mqabba, Gudja and Zejtun in quick succession and lastly, on 21 May, Mosta.

The first deaths caused a widespread flight to the countryside. Some barricaded themselves in their houses and never came out ... and lived. Among these, the afore-mentioned Buonamico. Mattia Preti himself left Valletta and sought refuge in Zurrieq. Some even left Malta.

But others continued with their life as before - visiting notaries in Velletta or Vittoriosa, baptising their children in Valletta churches and even getting married. Farmers continued to sell their produce or animals to houses. Money lenders were still open for business.

In all this, the Order's medical authorities were not always convinced it was the plague. The doctor Giuseppe del Cosso kept insisting it was not the plague and remained adamant in his opinion. He is certainly responsible for the deaths of so many thousands.

Otherwise, the order and its doctors came up with plans to circumscribe the spread. They sectioned Valletta and put a knight in charge of each quarter, enforced the rules and tried to stop the movement of people from one village to the next.

At the same time they ensured the distribution of bread and food to all those in need. Temporary hospitals were set up in every town and village, ships were used as temporary quarantine. A great problem was caused by so many sudden deaths and the need to bury the dead. Special cemeteries, which can still be seen around the countryside were set up.

People adapted to the grave situation and crated a way how to avoid contagion through the use of long tongs to handle anything and avoid touching the plague victims, even in the distribution of the Eucharist.

In such a dramatic situation, people turned to implore divine help. Churches dedicated to St Roque, the patron saint against the plague was built in Birkirkara and Qormi. The church built as a plea for the end of the plague is the Sarria church in Floriana, designed by Mattia Preti, the only building he ever designed. Pilgrimages were held and vows made.

During this time, the Sicilian exporters of wheat stopped sending provisions to Malta and so added to the dramatic situation of the island.

People made their last wills. Priests became notaries in many cases, writing down the last wishes. And there are at least two cases of lay people, a man and even a woman, who began hearing the confessions of those about to die.

The history of the plague tells us many stories of heroism, especially among doctors and priests as well as knights. There were also cases of pure cowardice. The parish priest of Ghaxaq Don Mario Bellia was so scared he resigned from his office. The Birkirkara provost sought refuge in two rooms in a field.

There were innumerable cases of thefts from the houses of the sick and the dead. In many cases, the beccamorti (carriers of the dead) were blamed.

Rather strange to say, Gozo was not infected, nor was Mdina and strangely Safi.

While 29,000 people were estimated to live in the countryside, some 2,000 (6.9%) died. But from the 22,000 who lived in the cities, 9,000 (41%) died. Valletta lost one third of its inhabitants, Senglea and Cospicua lost half. Vittoriosa lost more than one half. From 800 families, 700 suffered the infection and only 10 families were not infected.

By 24 June, St John's feastday, the plague started to recede. The last to die was Elena Bartolo who died on 15 July. The work of reconstruction could begin. And in another reconstruction, the number of marriages exploded in the months to follow, most times involving widows or widowers.

It was in 1813 that the plague revisited Malta, killing 4,500. It is clear that hygiene (or lack of it) and people living in crammed houses helped the spread of the plague.

I distinctly remember the author, Fr Joseph Micallef, from Luqa, as a teacher of Maths at the Lyseum. A humble, quiet priest who also wrote the history of Luqa, his town. This book is a translation of the original book, translated by Joseph F Grima.

 

 

Joseph Micallef

Il-Pesta tal-1676

BDL Publishing

2015

192pp


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