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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Yellow Fever Arrives in Tenerife in 1802

Those who are curious about history know that events are repeated over and over again. If 2020-21 will be remembered for COVID, more than two hundred years ago the islands lived on permanent guard against epidemics that were unleashed recurrently in Europe or America because people knew that sooner or later some ship would bring them here.

In 1795 New York suffered a severe yellow fever epidemic [The epidemic which lasted until 1803, reached epidemic proportions three times: in 1795, 1799, and 1803 claiming thousands of lives over the course of its presence in NYC] and one historian stated:

“When a ship docked in New York that July with cases of yellow fever, New York merchants were unwilling to admit it was a problem, as even the rumor of illness could affect trade. In correspondence now in the New York Historical Society, merchant Isaac Hicks wrote that most merchants “are willing that [the ship] should enter New York so that the disease would not bog down business and be let your shipment be sold."

In 1792, the command of the Canary Islands was held by the general commander José de Perlasca, a substitute for the beloved Antonio Gutiérrez y Otero (the Spanish Lieutenant general best known for repelling Admiral Nelson's attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, was named Commander-General of the Canary Islands in 1791, who had died in 1799.) 

At that time, the fluid exchange of ships between Tenerife and New York, caused great fear that the island would be infected with yellow fever. The health certificates, like the current PCR tests, were the only thing that allowed to allow a ship to anchor and, if it didn't have one, it went directly to quarantine. Notice how the Commander, an incontestable authority, ordered that a merchant from Tenerife comply with the rules.

"My Dear Sir:

As New York is one of the places where yellow fever has wreaked the greatest damage, it demands that the interests of Public Health be carried out with the greatest circumspection with the ships that come from that area: because taking into account that the American Frigate, that Your Grace speaks to me in your letter yesterday, brings a Letter of Health and that there is nothing new [no symptoms] in your crew; I have arranged for it to only do the ten-day quarantine, which is the only thing that is possible to prevent any occurrence; For in matters of Health, discretion is not possible, as I wish to have it in as much as it can please Your Grace, whose life I pray to God that He will keep many years.

Santa Cruz de Santiago, February 8, 1802"

When there is a single command and rules that are strictly applied, epidemic crises are stopped, first with information and then with determination.

Carlos Cólogan Soriano

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