This is a comprehensive look at the Great Plague of Marseille. It reexamines the sequence of events and decisions that led to the outbreak of the Great Plague of Marseille between 1720 and 1723.

Quite a fascinating read, packed full of rich lessons relevant to the current pandemic. And it is particularly useful for governments of countries, states, and localities who are contemplating reopening, or have already reopened, their societies post COVID-19.

The take home message is poignant.

When crass concerns for business and commerce trump careful considerations for public health and safety, in the decisions to reopen the society while a pandemic continues to rage and kill, calamity always follows. When profit supersedes protection of human lives, even greater death and destruction are the certain outcome.

Lastly, scapegoating, blame shifting, stereotyping, and irrational xenophobia are not novel ideas, they've always been in the toolbox of demagogues.

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are most definitely doomed to repeat them.

Interactive complex of economic, social, political, and biological parameters led to the Great Plague of Marseille
The first element to blame for the Great Plague of Marseille is trading and the greed of ship owners. The fair of Beaucaire was held annually on the right bank of the Rhône, 82 km from Marseille. The event was sociologically and economically unique in Europe. Thanks to a total tax-free policy on products during 6 days in the last week of July, Beaucaire was the largest market in southern Europe. Ships from all ports of the Mediterranean, -the tartans of Africa, the xebecs from North African kingdoms, the Genoese feluccas, the pinks of Catalonia, all kinds of boats, barges, and even improvised rafts-, converged to the twin towns of Tarascon and Beaucaire, near the city of Arles.

The African brought their dates, the Moroccans their hides, Turks and Egyptians their spices, their carpets, their dyes and their perfumes, the Spanish their oranges. On the main plaza of Beaucaire, the merchants set up their shops grouped by specialty: wool, linen, spices, wines, nuts, etc., and then began a picturesque trade with a huge mixture of people from all social backgrounds. The merchants from the coast of “Barbarie” (North African Kingdoms) returned to their cities with the holds full of consumer products such as salt fish from Britain, manufactured goods from England, and typically French products that included wine from Languedoc and oil of Provence.

Marseille traders had set up a very active business, importing twice as many goods from the Mediterranean trading desks as they exported, and the fair of Beaucaire was a hotspot to sell their goods. To feed their trade, it was common that merchant ships belonging to traders of Marseille stopped in the so-called “Comptoirs des Echelles” (“Echelles de Barbarie” referred to trading posts of Tripoli, Tunis, and Alger), to achieve their trading desks with La Calle near Alger, and then traveled to Tunis and/or Tripoli before returning to Marseille with their cargo. On their trip to North Africa, cargo ships were carrying away woolen cloth, coral, articles of metallurgy, foodstuffs (wheat, sugar, jams). Some Captains further extended their sea route to Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria and also stopped in Italy to stock up mirrors, marble, and/or many consumer products such as fruits (oranges, lemons), rice, semolina, and anchovies. All these unarmed ships laden with goods were easy prey for pirates crossing in the vicinity of the French coastlines. To prevent these unpleasant encounters, a galley under the command of the Chevalier d’Orléans was usually armed in Marseille (Marseille was the great port of the royal galleys under King Louis XIV and his successor Philippe d’Orléans), at the expense of the Chamber of Commerce, to protect convoys of merchant ships returning from Mediterranean maritime trade counters on their way to Beaucaire. For the French owners of commercial vessels bringing back their large cargoes to Marseille, it was unthinkable to be absent from the exceptional week during which Beaucaire become a gigantic open-air bazaar, where to find goods plied with scents of East and Africa and all kinds of Mediterranean products, and it was safer to synchronize their transports under the protection of the royal galley.

At that time, the plague had virtually disappeared from France for several decades and only a few cases were reported from time to time in port cities. Health checks tended to release and smuggling tended to increase. However, it is known that the plague was circulating in maritime trade counters of the “Echelles de Barbarie” at that time. For example, in the city of Alger, plague had wreaked havoc in the population between 1698 and 1702, among both Muslims and their Christians slaves, and it probably caused the death of El Hadj Ahmed, the Dey of Alger. Next, sporadic plague outbreaks existed until 1720. It is in this context of trade with the “Comptoirs des Echelles” that a series of negligence have caused a health catastrophe in Marseille in 1720.

A merchant ship more dangerous than an enemy warship in Marseille’s harbor
Almost 1500 merchant ships arrived at the entrance of Marseille every year, one third coming from the counters of “Les Echelles”. Maritime traffic between Marseille and the ports of North Africa in the 17th century is fairly well documented due to the existence of records for a tax called “Cottimo” levied on goods (but from which transaction of wheat was excluded) that was established by the State Secretary of Navy, Louis de Pontchartrain; for example, the “Cottimo” registers concerning transactions between Marseille and the trading desk of La Calle allowed to estimate that, every month, six to twelve ships exchanged goods between the two cities. Health authorities at Marseille had to pay special attention to these ships returning from kingdoms where plague was present. Implementation of safety in Marseille was provided by a Board of Health composed of 16 representatives elected among merchants, traders and doctors of the city. Neither the sitting judges of the Admiralty, nor the Captain of the port had the right to attend the deliberation of the Health Office. The Health unit was placed under the sole responsibility of the City Council which included Jean-Pierre Moustiers, Jean-Baptiste Audimar, Balthazar Dieudé, and the deputy mayor Jean-Basptiste Estelle, owner of a ship named “Grand Saint-Antoine”.

Upon arrival in the harbor of Marseille, each master mariner had to report to the Health Office located near the “Saint Jean” fortress and identify himself, exhibit the ship’s papers, provide letters from Health offices from Mediterranean ports visited, and declare the passengers. A ship that had cases of plague on board, was forced to spend at least half of its quarantine on the island of Jarre, 20 miles away from Marseille. However, it was still possible to elude or shorten quarantine by obtaining a clean bill, for example, during a stop in Italy. In this case, the island of Pomègues was used to quarantine the ships and its crew whereas the new Lazaretto of Arenc, located 300 m from the Gate of “La Joliette”, was used to quarantine passengers and goods.

The ship “Grand Saint-Antoine”, a three-masted boat of Marseille, carrying a precious loaded (evaluated at 100,000 crowns), arrived in the vicinity of the harbor of Marseille on May 25, 1720. The ship had left Marseille in July 1719 and arrived to Smyrne at the end of August 1719. It then went onto Mosconissy, Cyprus and Seyde where it stopped between October and December 1719. Historians do not all agree on the sea route chosen by the captain but it is generally accepted that the ship had left Seyde (Lebanon) on January 31, 1720 and next went for a refit to Tripoli (Syria), before continuing its route to Cyprus on April 3 1720. Fifteen passengers had boarded the “Grand Saint Antoine” during the stopover in Tripoli. After a few days at sea, a passenger getting on board in Tripoli was ill and died. The body was quickly thrown to sea before a stop in Cyprus. The ship left Cyprus on April 18, 1720. Seven sailors had died under suspicious circumstances within the next days, forcing the ship to stop in Livorno (Italy). The ship left Livorno on May 17, 1720, stopped in Le Brusc on May 21, 1720, and finally arrived in Marseille (Pomègues Island) on May 25, 1720.

Warning had been given by health authorities of Livorno about the sanitary conditions on board of the “Grand Saint Antoine”. The ship, should have been immediately rerouted to the island of Jarre, an island ranging between the inlet of Callelongue (at the South of the mountain of Marseilleveyre) and the island of Riou, to be burned with its goods. However, its Captain, Jean-Christophe Chataud, requested to drop anchor at Pomègues in the archipelago of Frioul, where the “Grand Saint Antoine” was quarantined as ordinary. There, the crew unloaded the ship cargo (then transported to the new lazaretto at “La Joliette”), before returning to the island of Jarre. The reason behind this unusual conduct was that the owner of the ship, deputy mayor of the city of Marseille, influenced the decision of health office because he wanted to sell its cargo as soon as possible at the fairs in the South of France (so-called Provence), especially that of Beaucaire.

Introducing a lot of cloth infested with fleas carrying the plague bacillus into a working-class neighborhood on May 29th 1720, was enough to spread plague throughout the city. The “Grand Saint Antoine” was ultimately burned near the island of Jarre on September 26th, 1720 (it is worth noting that the wreck of the “Grand Saint Antoine”, was discovered a few years ago – on May 30th, 1978, in a northwest creek of the island of Jarron close to the Island of Jarre). For its part, the Captain Chataud was jailed at “Château d’If”.

Spring 1720: Marseille facing an epidemic; fear and social perception
From the goods imported by the “Grand Saint Antoine” and ultimately stored at the new lazaretto, plague entered Marseille by the gate of “La Joliette”. The first case of infection occurred on June 20, 1720; a woman living on a street called “Escale” fell hill. On June 28, 1720, a tailor who worked at the square called “Place du Palais” (Palace Square) was infected and died as well as other family members. On July 1, 1720, another woman who lived in the street “Escale” was victim to the epidemic, followed by one of her neighbors. Fear began to win the district. On July 9, 1720, Dr. Peyssonel, who worked in Marseille, reported the case of a child with plague symptoms who resided on the square called “Place de Linche”. The boy’s family was quarantined. Much more disturbing was the observation that the scourge now affected different parts of the city. On July 21st, a passenger of the “Grand Saint Antoine” who had been kept in quarantine died of the disease. Next, all the people from the city who showed symptoms were immediately quarantined. On July 18th, 1720, Dr. Sicard tried in vain to alert the aldermen of the city that the danger was becoming more important from day to day. On July 23rd, plague struck fourteen people who lived in the street “Escale”. From there, the plague epidemic quickly spread throughout the city and next out into Provence. The fact that the streets of Marseille were particularly dirty favored the proliferation of rats thus contributing to increase the risks of plague dissemination.

At certain times of history, epidemics were interpreted as divine punishments with all the irrational behavior that accompany such perception. Thus, far back in history, when Black death appeared in Marseille in 1347, and spread rapidly in Provence, France, and Europe, it triggered extremely violent anti-Jewish riots. The perception of the disease as a divine punishment was still common in the 18th century. In addition to historical reports and books, an original approach to understand the anxiety of individuals that faced plague, lies in the testimony of painters acting as witnesses of history. There is a real art of the plague epidemic that illustrates these tragic episodes. During the 17th and 18th centuries, 173 baroque art works on the theme of the plague were listed. What emerges from these paintings is that plague is well described in an urban context but not in the countryside. The message passed on by many artists is the momentary triumph of barbarism at the heart of humanity, the return of a scourge of another age in the setting of urban modernity of the baroque. In the representation of characters, there is a marked contrast between the poor people who are sick, and important persons who are healthy and well clothed. Plague patients, the dying and the dead, the galley slaves, are presented with their skin tinged with greenish colors. On the contrary, representatives of civil, military and religious authorities are depicted in their best outfits. We will see later in this document that important actors in the Marseille Great plague, such as Bishop of Marseille “Monseigneur de Belsunce” and the “Chevalier de Roze” representing the army, were often represented by painters in blue silk cassock bringing spiritual and on horseback and dressed in red, respectively. The Chevalier de Roze was sometimes represented accompanied by armed soldiers to commemorate the restoration of authority.

On July 2, 1720, the Parliament of Aix issued a decree prohibiting contact between the inhabitants of Marseille and people living in Provence. However, this decision led to famine threatening the city and inhabitants began to revolt. The city was quickly plunged into total chaos, with hospitals overwhelmed, high number of casualties (even among physicians, 25 of which died), and a shortage of supply. Interestingly, Geneva (Switzerland) was informed on July 31, 1720 of the possible emergence of an infectious disease in the south of France in a letter sent by the Swiss authorities in Chambery. In the month of August, the aggravation of the situation in the South of France led to the decision to build a “lazaret” for goods in the village called Châtelaine, and another for people in the place named Sécheron. Specific protective health measures were then ordered.

Christian A. Devaux. “Small oversights that led to the Great Plague of Marseille (1720–1723): Lessons from the past.” Infection, Genetics and Evolution. Volume 14, March 2013, Pages 169-185


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