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Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Tenerife and yellow fever

Cementerio de San Rafael y San Roque Photo: Mataparda / Public domain

In the capital of Tenerife, it was yellow fever or "black vomit" that caused one of the greatest catastrophes in its history when, between 1810 and 1811, a ship from Cádiz spread the disease and left some 1,400 dead, 20 percent of the population, which forced the opening of a new cemetery, that of San Rafael and San Roque.


From the moment of the conquest, Tenerife has faced terrible epidemics that, on the vast majority of occasions, arrived by sea. Santa Cruz and Garachico, a port of great importance between the 16th and 18th centuries, were the gateways to infectious and contagious diseases that repeatedly scourged the island's population. The plague, the typhus epidemic, influenza, smallpox and, of course, the much feared yellow fever, among others, plagued Tenerife in a cruel way on many occasions. The worst of these calamities is that, not infrequently, they were joined by the recurrent droughts and famines produced in the archipelago, which favored the immigration to the capital island of many inhabitants of other islands in search of better fortune. This fact caused the impact of these epidemics to be even worse due to the increase in population density and the unhealthiness of inhabited places due to poverty, as well as the weakness caused by hunger in many people (especially the most vulnerable population: children and the elderly).

Some of the most serious outbreaks in all the Canary Islands, and especially in Tenerife, were those of yellow fever (a term coined by the Welsh cleric and naturalist Griffin Hughes in 1750). Yellow fever has been given more than 150 different names throughout history, the best known being "black vomit", "Siam disease", "Barbados disease" or "American plague". The virus that caused it ended the lives of thousands of Tenerife residents in the successive outbreaks that occurred from the beginning of the 18th century to the 19th.

The impact of yellow fever in Tenerife


According to some historians of medicine and epidemiology, in 1494, the first cases appeared with a clinical presentation similar to that of yellow fever outside Africa ... and where? Well, no more and no less than in the Canary Islands. Obviously, the data from that time are not reliable and, therefore, they must be quarantined (never better said), but it is not surprising - due to the maritime traffic between the islands and the African continent - that this disease could be involved. (Remember that Tenerife had not yet been conquered).

The first contact of our island with yellow fever took place in 1701, being the first place in Europe to suffer the terrible disease. The epidemic was imported from Cuba and the final balance of deaths was truly terrifying, fluctuating between 6,000 and 9,000 throughout the island, which barely exceeded 50,000 inhabitants, that is, the virus killed between 12 and 18% of the total population. Luis Cola reminds us, in his book Santa Cruz, bandera amarilla (1996) that the epidemic coincided with a tremendous famine that afflicted the archipelago, which contributed to the immigration of other islands to it and the crowding of people, a perfect cocktail for the outbreak's greater expansion and demographic impact. Unfortunately for our island, its effects would be further aggravated two years later by an outbreak of epidemic typhus that would cost many lives.

The second epidemic of "black vomiting" occurred seventy years after the first, between 1771 and 1772, coinciding, as in the previous, with a major famine episode. Also this time the outbreak came from Havana, Cuba. Its balance was not as terrifying as the previous one, but it cost 700 dead in Santa Cruz alone, approximately 12% of the people.

Hospital Civil de Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados 1893

The third outbreak occurred between 1810 and 1811 and, for all the island's historians, this was one of the greatest health, demographic and social catastrophes suffered by the Tenerife capital in its more than five centuries of history. Once again, the disease entered the port of Santa Cruz on a ship from Cádiz that arrived on September 11. In the first weeks it caused more than 2,600 patients (more than 85% of the inhabitants) who overwhelmed the hospitals of the capital - the Hospital Civil de Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados (now Museum of Nature and Archeology (MUNA), and the Military Hospital, the Hospice of San Carlos and other places adapted to the function of lazarettos. The number of deceased rose, just in the capital - which had about 3,000 inhabitants at that time because the rest had fled - to more than 1,300 (almost 45% of the population and more than 50% of those affected). So many died that the first cemetery in our city, that of San Rafael and San Roque, had to be built in 1811. The problem, as had happened with other epidemics previously in many places in our country, was the late declaration by the capital's authorities and the very low effectiveness of the preventive measures that were applied. This fact brought about what almost always happened (and still happens, as we have been able to verify so recently) in these cases as we have already commented above: the massive flight of residents to other places on the island and even to other islands, calculating that more than half of the inhabitants of Santa Cruz fled the capital, especially towards San Cristóbal de La Laguna. By the time total isolation was decreed, with controls at La Cuesta, it was too late and, logically, the spread of the disease throughout the rest of the island was almost immediate. Two other places especially castigated by this outbreak were La Orotava and its Port (current Puerto de la Cruz), losing between them, almost 700 people. The epidemic was officially terminated in late January 1811.

The fourth episode on the Tenerife island happened in 1846 - coinciding once again with a time of scarcity and famine throughout the archipelago - and, again, the source of it was a ship from Havana. As almost always, the declaration of an epidemic was made very late by the civil governor. Although its final balance in deaths did not have the demographic impact of the previous ones, causing less than a hundred fatalities, its attack rate was terrifying since it affected to a greater or lesser extent three-quarters of the population in Santa Cruz, that is to say around 7000 people, although with not too many serious cases. This didn't stop major problems ocurring, due to subsequently overwhelming hospitals, quarantine centers and medical care.

After arriving in the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the frigate "Nivaria" carried out loading and unloading activities. On September 2, after one of the sailors became ill, the entire crew gradually died. A month later, belatedly, the civil governor declared the existence of a yellow fever epidemic that caused 540 deaths on the island. Half the nearly 11 thousand inhabitants that the capital had fled to the interior. In March 1863 the extinction of the epidemic was declared.
The fifth and last encounter Tenerife had with yellow fever occurred between 1862 and 1863 with the arrival of the now famous frigate Nivaria from Havana (Cuba) and Vigo, at the end of August, flying a yellow flag. Given the infected patent status of the ship, it was forced to anchor in the bay to carry out quarantine, but contacts between crew members of the frigate and inhabitants of the city caused the outbreak. Despite the fact that Doctor Vergara Díaz correctly diagnosed the first cases that appeared in Santa Cruz, once again, the declaration of an epidemic was made late (contrary to the opinion of the doctors in the capital who supported Vergara). This, again, motivated the flight of more than half of the inhabitants to other areas of the island, leaving the city with less than 6,000 people and, of course, contributing to the spread of the epidemic for practically all of the insular territory. Hospitals and the lazaretto were reused and the final result was about 2,200 patients, of whom around 550 died, exactly 40% of those infected. The episode ended in March 1863, after more than half a year battling disease.

Tenerife has never had to face this much-feared calamity again.

«Tenerife y la fiebre amarilla» (I)«Tenerife y la fiebre amarilla» (II)«Tenerife y la fiebre amarilla» (III)

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