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The History of Epidemics in Tenerife: Darwin and Freycinet's quarantines in Santa Cruz

HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego - Conrad Martens (1801 - 21 August 1878) / Public domain.
On 6 January it reached Tenerife in the Canary Islands, but was quarantined there because of cholera in England. Although tantalisingly near to the town of Santa Cruz, to Darwin's intense disappointment, they were denied landing. 

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

English and French scientific institutions carried out exploration and research campaigns in the new territories discovered in the Americas. Naturalists, geologists, draftsmen and painters traveled with the sailors who would provide important documentation on the natural history, ethnography and volcanology of the areas visited. For these maritime expeditions a stop off in the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife was required, for supplies; water, fresh fruits, live animals, fish, cured meats, cheeses and firewood. Tenerife was also considered an attractive scientific stop, due to its peculiar vegetation and volcanic nature.


Charles Darwin
The scientist who would discover the evolution of species, revolutionizing traditional ideas about the origin of man, felt great attraction for the island of Tenerife, after having read in Humboldt's books what the tropical vegetation was like, the dragon tree of La Orotava, the volcanic mountains and the ascent to the Teide peak; therefore, he wanted to see for himself and began to learn the Spanish language.

Opportunity came in 1831, when, at the age of 21, Darwin received a letter from his friend Henslow, informing him that Captain Robert FitzRoy was looking for a volunteer to go as a naturalist, without any pay, on a scientific expedition of the British Admiralty, in which for five years they would carry out chronometric observations along the coasts of Patagonia, Tierra de Fuego, Chile, Peru and some Pacific islands.

"The consul declared we must perform a rigorous quarantine of twelve days. Those who have never experienced it can scarcely conceive what a gloom it cast on everyone ..." - First Sight of Tenerife
On December 27, 1831, Darwin set sail from Devonport aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, arriving at the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife on January 6, 1832. Just as the anchor hit bottom in the bay of the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a maritime health boat carrying the British Vice Consul, several quarantine officers and the doctor approached, who, after hearing where they came from, told them that it would be impossible to grant permission to disembark until they carried out a strict quarantine for twelve days, because they came from England where there was a cholera epidemic, sending them to stay in front of the Lazaretto.

The captain, in the face of this first failure of the expedition, when his geographers could not use Mount Teide to calculate longditude, nor use the coast for observations, shouted: "up the jib", raising anchor and setting sail for the Cape Verde Islands.
"We have left perhaps one of the most interesting places in the world, just at the moment when we were near enough for every object to create, without satisfying, our utmost curiosity."
Darwin's frustrated visit to Tenerife


Louis Claude de Saulces de Freycinet
The sailor, naturalist, geologist, geographer and botanist Louis de Freycinet left the port of Toulon (France) on September 17, 1817, in command of the corvette Uranie on a scientific expedition whose mission was to determine the shape of the terrestrial globe, study terrestrial magnetism, meteorology in the South Pacific, and collect materials for France's Natural History museums.

On their return they were shipwrecked near the Falkland Islands, losing the natural history material they had collected. They were eventually rescued by an American ship, the Mercury, which was flying the flag of the rebel colonists of Buenos Aires. The Mercury was first chartered and then, when at sea, purchased by, Louis de Freycinet, who renamed her La Physicienne, in which they arrived at the port of Cherbourg on November 13, 1820, after a long journey of more than three years.

From this moment on, Freycinet dedicated himself to the writing of his work: Journey around the World; which, in its Chapter I.- Quarantine in Tenerife, states: “We had barely entered the Atlantic Ocean when several of the crew found themselves unwell with general malaise and stomach aches. I attributed this state to the fairly cold rain that had fallen on the last day and to which many sailors were exposed, discomfort with which they continued even on October 22, 1817, when we reached the area of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

The Canary Islands were not the Fortunate Islands for us, as entry to the city was relentlessly forbidden. This was what the health guard told us when he approached us at the maritime health station, as we were anchoring.

Although I tried to convince him that we were not plagued, we had to be quarantined, as Santa Cruz had just suffered an epidemic of yellow fever or black vomit that had caused 9,000 victims. At first they wanted to prescribe quarantine of twenty-five days, but they reduced it to eight. Therefore, while on board they took care of the shipment of water and the provisions of meat, wine, fruits and vegetables that this place could provide us, and as my intention was not to stay idle for so long, through the mediation of a man who claimed here the functions of French consul, I contacted the Spanish governor to allow me to make some observations of physics, authorizing me to do them without leaving the limits of the Lazaretto, which was south of the city.

Access to this establishment was difficult and dangerous, due to the force of the waves that break on the rocks of the coast where I landed from the launch that brought me closer to land, and the slope that I then had to climb until I reached the establishment, whose patio was full of rubble.

Seeing us arrive, the guard and the sentry backed away and threw the keys at us, gesturing to the doors that we had to open, because in this miserable building the rooms were closed. There were also rooms without frames in the windows, where you could protect yourself from the inclement weather.

The soldiers were housed in a shack, while in the guard corps there were only two old rifles and as many worn uniform suits, which each soldier wore when he had to make his round.

We learned from one of the sentries that most of the soldiers on the islands belong to the Canary Militias, people from different professions recruited from the population who renew themselves every four months. They never carry out maneuvers and they assured us that some of them have never seen gunpowder in their life.

In this place we stayed on October 25, 26 and 27, carrying out the magnetic experiments that were the object of our stopover. In the lands that surrounded the exterior, where pebbles marked the limits that we could not cross, we could observe that the inclination of the magnetized needle was 57º 58´ 49´´ and its declination of 21º 3´55´´ Northwest. We also collected several pieces of volcanic rocks, which seemed to contain a lot of iron.

To one of the sentries who stood guard with his gun on his shoulder, while he ate a ball of paste, which he kneaded with his hand, I asked:

-What are you eating, comrade? "Gofio."

-It's good? "Excellent, give it a try."

-It sticks to my palate!

-How much does your pay amount to? "To this meal."

-And money? "Never."

-So you don't have money?

"For 10 reales I would walk around the island."

-Would you accept this half piastre to drink to my health?

"It is too much, they are going to think that I have stolen it."

-Accept, please!

"Upon my faith, sir, I was afraid I would not hear you repeat your generous offer."

"A thousand thanks."

Freycinet's expedition left Tenerife on 28 October, at eleven am.

The visit of Louis de Freycinet to Tenerife


The 'health visit' was the first formality that, from 1513, was made to ships when they arrived at the anchorage of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, as nobody could go ashore without the approval of the health certificate. To avoid possible contagions, the health card was placed on the end of a rod for the health guard to pick up, who checked it after passing it through vinegar, and allowed or prevented the disembarcation onto the island of people traveling on the boat. In the event that they were denied entry, and the captain chose to remain at anchor, they had to be quarantined in the Lazaretto (a quarantine station for maritime travellers) of Puerto Caballo, guarded and incommunicado. In 1523, the Cabildo agreed that in order to maintain the health of the town, 47 possible landing points on the island were guarded by two watchmen each with the mission of warning, with a code of smoke signals, the arrival of ships with a yellow flag; that is, carriers of epidemics. The Captain General of the Canary Islands, Marqués de Branciforte, demanded that the Cabildo pay a doctor to accompany the two deputies who were on the boat.

Las cuarentenas de Darwin y Freycinet en Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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