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The cholera epidemic of 1893 in Santa Cruz

The Lazareto in Santa Cruz de Tenerife that was used as a hospital
Image]V[orlock Zernebock Some rights reserved

In the autumn of 1893, alarming news arrived of the existence of a cholera epidemic in the Spanish peninsula and europe, which would lead to the application of preventive measures in the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, forcing ships from infected ports into quarantine. Thus, when the Italian steamship Remo, with infected patients on board, arrived on September 29 that year, it was diverted into quarantine in the Lazareto (a quarantine station for maritime travellers), in the Los Llanos neighborhood of Santa Cruz, where it was anchored, isolated and guarded. The ship had sailed from Rio Grande to Genoa and carried 60 passengers in first class and 900 in third. (It is reported that, in 1893, the ship suffered 96 deaths from cholera and diphtheria, and was rejected by Brazil.) But the recklessness of some in violating the quarantine rules would cause that, on October 11, the first cases of cholera occurred in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and that days later the city would face an epidemic that would affect hundreds of homes.

Juan Bethencourt Alfonso (1847-1913)
Canarian doctor, historian, teacher,
journalist and anthropologist who
was born in San Miguel de Abona
Quickly, the rest of the islands and the towns of the interior were cut off from Santa Cruz. Pitchforks were placed on the security cordons to execute those who violated the ban. The panic was so great that the residents of Güímar erected a dry stone wall on the road to cut off the path, although it was of no use to them since the epidemic spread to Arona, Vilaflor, La Zarza, etc. In these towns, the work carried out by Dr. Juan Bethencourt Alfonso was immeasurable, as he was rendering his services alone. After the first moments of stupor were over, the people's reaction was immediate and, far from falling prey to discouragement, residents took to the streets to help the authorities as much as they could.

Health, subsistence and charity commissions were formed. In the Health Department, doctors Diego Costa, Juan Febles, Diego Guigou, Ángel María Izquierdo, Eduardo Domínguez and Agustín Pisaca, while publishing instructions and recommendations to the population, would install isolation hospitals in the hermitages of San Telmo, Regla and Sebastián, with the collaboration of the municipal guards, who delivered the lime to disinfect houses, citadels and latrines, selfless work that some paid for with their lives. Doctor Pisaca, as a hygienist doctor in the city, organized the entire health service and assisted more than 3,000 patients at his home, reducing mortality from 17% to 3%.

The subsistence sector opened public subscriptions for the most urgent cases, reaching 65,000 pesetas, with which it was able to distribute clothing and food and, the charity established kitchens in the hermitage of San Telmo and in Calle del Pilar to serve those most in need. Due to the state of incommunicado, charcoal, essential to heat food, and ice, necessary for the relief of those affected, began to become scarce. These deficiencies were solved with the mineral coal ceded by the shipping agent, Hamilton, and the ice donated by ships in the port, and sent by La Orotava City Council, brought from the Teide ice fields.

The neighbourhood of El Cabo in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1869. Public domain. Photo taken from the Church of the Conception, on the right the iron bridge, opposite the old hospital building, on the left above the hermitage of San Telmo and the arches are of the barracks of San Carlos.

The disease especially affected the most depressed areas of the population, especially the towns of San Andrés and Igueste, and the neighborhoods of Los Llanos, El Cabo and El Toscal, being felt especially in the streets of Humo, San Carlos, San Sebastián, San Juan Bautista, Ferrer, San Antonio, San Martín and Oriente. As the death toll had been very high on this last street, the Municipal Plenary on January 4, 1894, at the request of the parish priest of San Francisco, Santiago Beyro, agreed to change the name of Oriente street to Señor de las Tribulaciones (Lord of the Tribulations) because, according to popular tradition, the spread of the disease stopped in this place shortly after the icon had passed through the streets of the neighborhood. On January 14, the icon would be taken again in a solemn procession, from the church of San Francisco to the Toscal neighborhood, a celebration that is repeated every Easter.

On January 4, 1894, after three distressing months, the Official Gazette published the news that the choleric epidemic had ended, and declared the province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife “clean”. Classes were resumed in schools.

As a sign of joy, the bells rang, there was music in the streets, rockets were fired, and hangings of flags were placed on public buildings; but while this was happening, a caravan of women, men, and children from the town of San Andrés crossed the city on a pilgrimage to the Christ of La Laguna, to fulfil the promise they had made to him. At the solemn funeral for the souls of the deceased, officiated by the bishop in the church of La Concepción, attended by all the authorities, the Santa Cecilia Philharmonic Society orchestra performed a solemn Te Deum, the work of maestro Juan Padrón, sung by the artists of the lyrical company that performed in the Municipal Theatre.

Out of a population of 19,722 inhabitants, 1,744 contracted cholera, of whom 382 died; of these, 40 were from San Andrés, where a new cemetery had to be made.

When the epidemic was declared extinguished, and the national press echoed the evidence of self-denial and heroism demonstrated by the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, a newspaper said “… that the behaviour of the municipality, doctors and neighbourhood had bordered on heroism, and if it were possible to reward so many virtues, there would not be enough crosses and commissions for each of those deserving them, so it was necessary to invent a formula that would perpetuate the brilliant behaviour of a people with all their hearts ... " While a local newspaper published "that the municipal corporation had managed in a few days to turn the old Lazaretto into an epidemic hospital, of the best of its kind, despite the few resources it had."

The Plaza de La Candelaria in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1890

These circumstances would be officially recognized on April 23, 1894, when the Council of Ministers granted Santa Cruz the title of Very Beneficial, with the First Class Cross of the Civil Order of Charity, with an award and ribbon. At the festivities of May of that year 1894, also the 400th Anniversary of the Foundation of the City, it was commemorated, with a most solemn event held in the Plaza de La Candelaria, with the presence of the Municipal Corporation, when the civil governor read the Royal Decree by which Santa Cruz was granted the title of Very Beneficial, signed by Queen Regent María Cristina de Austria, mother of Alfonso XIII, while the bishop blessed the Cross First Class of the Civil Order of Charity, the civil governor placed it on the Banner.

After the epidemic ended, doctors in Santa Cruz organized a banquet-tribute to all the authorities, in recognition of the collaboration and support they had received, although from the testimonies that we have verified, the celebration could have been the other way around, since the dedication and behavior of doctors Diego Costa, Juan Febles, Diego Guigou, Ángel María Izquierdo, Eduardo Dominguez and Agustín Pisaca was exceptional, alleviating the suffering of the needy without the most basic means. * Official chronicler of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

La epidemia de cólera de 1893 en Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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