Thursday, February 06, 2014

In Memory Of The Son Servera Plague

Each year, to coincide with the feast of Sant Ignasi (of Antioch), the town hall in Son Servera makes an award of 1,000 euros. It is named the Premi Metge Joan Lliteras, after a doctor who was active some 200 years ago. In 2006 the prize was given to Dr. Alfonso Ballesteros, the president of the Royal Academy of Medicine in the Balearic Islands. Dr. Ballesteros, in turn, gave the mayor of Son Servera a facsimile of a document held by the academy. It was the copy of a document from what is an archive which contains all the documentation related to the last great outbreak of the plague in Europe and in Mallorca.

In the document in question, dated 4 August 1820, Dr. Lliteras, who had the unenviable task of trying to treat the plague and stop its spreading, noted the number of people who had not by then been affected by the plague. 1,040 out of a total population of 1,808 inhabitants of the village eventually fell victim. In neighbouring Artà 1,267 people died, while Capdepera got off more lightly; there were a mere 112 deaths.

The reason for making the award on Sant Ignasi's day is that it was 1 February (the feast) in 1821 when a military cordon that had been put in place around Son Servera in June was finally lifted. The cordon did help to limit the spread of the disease. By the time that Dr. Lliteras wrote out his inventory of the still healthy (and alive) the worst of the plague was over, though it was still to be six months before the all-clear could be given and the cordon lifted.

The history of Mallorca's plagues is replete with stories and tall tales as to how the plagues took hold and how they were remedied. The most outlandish is the Sant Sebastià bone remedy that brought an end to the great plague of Palma in 1523. Less outlandish, probably because it was true, was the story of another Sebastià, the abbott of the hermitage in Betlem, who, on learning that the people of Artà were struck down by the 1820 plague, headed off to Artà in order to help (quite how he planned on helping isn't entirely clear), but succeeded only in being affected by the plague himself, returning to the hermitage, dying and managing to spread it a tad more in the process.

As far as the cause of the outbreak of the 1820 plague is concerned, there are two versions of events. One has it that the body of a plague victim on a boat from Tangiers was buried on the Port Vell beach in Son Servera and that a cloak belonging to the victim was picked up by a passing shepherd who became the first carrier of the disease. This is the legend version. The more scientific one, on account of scientists at the time having said so, was that there had been a small rodent among bags of grain that had been on board a vessel of the type which occasionally anchored in the bay off Son Servera and that it had been this rodent which had started the plague off. The legend version is, though, a rather more dramatic version, and helps to explain why there is a sculpture of a shepherd in the town's Plaça Abeurador, one that was done by one-time mayor, Eduardo Servera (appropriately enough).

By the time of the last plague in 1820, medical science hadn't advanced enormously. Dr. Lliteras, and it is remarkable that he seemingly survived, had potions and lotions involving quinine and vinegar to dispense. When these failed, and they probably did, the dead were buried in quicklime and their bodies were cremated. But measures to prevent the spread of disease were taken seriously across Spain. There was, for example, an order of 16 June 1820 by the authorities in Extremadura, about as far from Mallorca as it is possible to get in Spain, which dealt with the scare.

Though the plague did not return to Mallorca or Spain, there were other health scares. Yellow fever affected Mallorca in 1821 and again in 1870. But one of the the biggest health problems became cholera; there were three epidemics between 1832 and 1865. It was poor sanitary conditions in general, along with regular wars, which contributed to the fact that in Mallorca, in keeping with the rest of Spain, life expectancy, even as late as 1887, was only 29. It was vastly lower than mostly anywhere else in Europe.

How times do of course change. Though Chopin had in the first half of the nineteenth century come to Mallorca in the misguided belief that this would help his tuberculosis, the island wouldn't have typically been high on the list of destinations for the health tourist. Now, though, health tourism is looked upon as a growth sector by the regional government.

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