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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Tenerife and the plague

Plague Doctor Mask

As in countless places discovered and conquered during the period of European colonial expansion, the Canary Islands were not immune to the arrival of pathogens totally unknown to them and for which their population did not have any defense. Plague, typhus, yellow fever, influenza and other communicable diseases ravaged them during and after the Castilian conquest. Here we refer to the different plague epidemics suffered by Tenerife since the conquest and subsequent centuries.


From 1513, when a ship reached the anchorage of Santa Cruz, nobody could go ashore without a health certificate. The History of Epidemics in Tenerife

The first outbreak of plague on our island took place in 1506, just 10 years after the conquest ended, when the disease spread freely in Spain. Although the island prepared as well as it could to try to protect itself, the arrival was inevitable and it did so by sea from Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, which, in turn, had been exposed by the ships that reached them and brought with them the pathogens that plagued the Peninsula. When the ports were closed it was too late and the disease spread rapidly throughout the island. This first outbreak would last two years and would especially affect the recently founded Santa Cruz de Tenerife and also La Laguna, where the sick were isolated in the Bufadero and San Andrés valleys. From this epidemic the first Lazaretto (quarantine station) of the city would be built, in 1512, in the area known as Puerto Caballo, located next to the port. One of the hardest hit areas was Anaga, where many Guanches still lived, who suffered the disease in a terrible way because they did not have any immune mechanism to protect them. The number of victims is unknown but it must have been very high.

The word "quarantine" originates from quarantena,
the Venetian language form, meaning "forty days"

Thereafter, various outbreaks of plague of greater or less virulence, alternating with long periods of famine and other major epidemics, would alter the life of the island until 1648, the year of the last epidemic of this disease. The most important of them all was, without any doubt, the one of 1582 that began in San Cristóbal de La laguna, later spreading over a large part of the island. This epidemic is considered in several historical-medical texts as one of the most serious outbreaks in relation to the number of inhabitants anywhere on the planet. Apparently it was caused by tapestries that brought the rat flea and that came from Flanders (hence this episode is also known as "the plague of Flanders"). It began around the Corpus Day of that year when the new governor of the Canary Islands hung them from the balconies giving rise to the development of the outbreak that in a couple of weeks had killed more than 2000 people in La Laguna alone. Such was the number of deceased that places had to be made available for new burials because there was no longer any space in churches (where they were usually buried at that time). It is calculated that the final balance of deaths was  between 7500 and 9000, only in what we now call the metropolitan area, which represented, more than half of the population of Santa Cruz and La Laguna together, a true demographic cataclysm. When the epidemic began to show signs of remission in the then capital of the Canary Islands, it was exacerbated in Santa Cruz, so a sanitary cordon, guarded by the army, had to be established around it to prevent further expansion. Our current capital, a small urban nucleus at that time, lost almost two thirds of its population. After a few months, as early as 1583, the disease was receding but its balance was terrifying and it would take Tenerife decades to recover from the tragedy.

Ermita de San Roque in Garachico
Paweł 'pbm' Szubert / CC BY-SA The origin of the temple is linked to an epidemic of bubonic plague that devastated Garachico between 1601 and 1606 (PDF).
The third outbreak in chronological order was that of 1601 that began in Garachico, a port of great importance at that time and in years to come until its destruction in May 1706 by the eruption of the Trevejo Volcano that would bury much of the city and all of its sea port. Its origin was a ship from Seville with infected merchandise. Soon the epidemic spread to the whole north of Tenerife, reaching Santa Cruz after a few weeks, where it was very severe. Curiously, La Laguna was not affected at all on this occasion. Once again a sanitary cordon was installed to isolate Santa Cruz and a death penalty was established for anyone who dared cross it. The final balance of victims is not known exactly, but it reached several thousand, causing a very large loss on an island that less than twenty years before, as we have seen previously, had lost almost half of its inhabitants.
The plague of 1601The disobedience of the crew of a ship from Seville was the cause of a new plague episode in Tenerife in 1601. Two boats arrived at the port of Garachico at that time from Seville. They were forbidden to enter, but one of them disobeyed. The disease did not take long to spread through the municipalities of Los Realejos, Icod, Los Silos and the port of Santa Cruz. From Tenerife, it spread to Gran Canaria and from there to Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.
The last date of the plague in Tenerife took place in the year 1648 and it affected again, although in a much less virulent way and without causing the terrible effects of the previous outbreaks, the area of Santa Cruz - La Laguna.

«La peste» (IV) «La peste» (III)«La peste» (II)«La peste» (I)

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