18 April 2020

Lockdown 1800: the yellow fever epidemic in Alcalá

As we approach week 6 of confinement in an effort to stop the spread of a deadly virus, it seems timely to take a look at another virus that devastated the population of Alcalá over two hundred years ago, killing over a fifth of the population. Information on that epidemic comes from an article in Spanish by Ismael Almagro Montes de Oca on his blog Historia de Alcalá de los Gazules.

Yellow fever is spread when a mosquito feeds on blood from an infected person and transfers the virus to its next meal.  However at the time of the 1800 epidemic in Spain contagious diseases were believed to originate in "miasmas", toxic vapours emanating from decaying matter, then passed directly from one human to another.  Viruses were not identified until the late 19th century, the first vaccines arrived soon after, and the discovery of the role of the mosquito in propagating yellow fever was made in 1900.

Symptoms of yellow fever start to appear within about five days.  These include fever, nausea, headache, muscle pain and vomiting. Most people recover after a few days but around 15% move to a second, far more dangerous stage with liver damage and gastrointestinal bleeding. Once jaundice sets in the skin turns yellow, giving the disease its common name. It is also known as vómito negro in Spanish, due to bloodstained vomit.


The virus originated in Africa, probably passing from primates to humans, and the mosquitoes which carried it were transferred to the Americas and the Caribbean via slave ships when mosquitoes bred in kegs of water stored on board. The first recorded outbreak was in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1649 and it gradually spread northwards into the USA via river or coastal traffic. In Philadelphia in 1793 it killed 5,000 people, ten per cent of the population. Large numbers of British soldiers sent to Haiti in the 1790s succumbed to it, and it also ravaged Napoleon's troops sent there in 1802 to suppress the slave revolt. The virus found its way into Europe in the 18th century via ships arriving in Spanish and Portuguese ports from the Americas.  In 1730 there was an outbreak in the port city of Cádiz with 2,200 reported deaths.

The epidemic which devastated Alcalá along with the rest of southern Spain in 1800 was probably down to a ship from Cuba which docked in Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 30 June. Several crew members had died during the crossing; others made their way to the capital and elsewhere in the province.  As it had not been seen in the area for 70 years local doctors were unfamiliar with the disease and did not know whether it was contagious or seasonal. They treated the symptoms as best they could but did not immediately raise the alarm bells, so valuable time was lost in stopping the spread.

On 29 August a letter reached the Ayuntamiento of Alcalá de los Gazules from the Commander General of the Campo de Gibraltar, under whose jurisdiction Alcalá fell, ordering the cessation of all communications with the city of Cádiz in order to stop the disease spreading. This was read and approved by the town council at a meeting on 31 August.

The first steps taken by the council, as usual in the face of calamity, was to petition the town's patroness, Nuestra Señora de los Santos, to intercede and protect her flock.  However instead of making the usual pilgrimage to the Sanctuary where the Virgin resided, it was decided to bring her into Alcalá so as to avoid an influx of strangers.

Troops quickly arrived from the barracks on the Campo de Gibraltar and worked with residents to blockade all the entrances into the town. The containment measures were rigorously enforced, and notices were posted warning that the punishment for breaking the blockade was the death sentence.  Soldiers were authorised to use firearms or bayonets to stop anyone entering the town.  On 11 September a house in Patriste, La Gitana, was requisitioned as a quarantine station, and on 22 September further troops arrived to reinforce the cordon sanitaire.

The old hospital, La Misericordia, on the Plaza Alta
But despite all these measures the number of cases in the town continued to rise.  Residents who owned property in the campo, including several councillors, moved there with their families to escape the danger.  The 12-bed hospital on the Plaza Alta, La Misericordia, struggled to cope with the increasing number of patients. In total 817 deaths were recorded in three months, out of a population of around 4,000.

This figure was much higher than in Medina (136) or Paterna (86). Clearly the virus had already been present in the town before the blockade was set up. The town's medical officer, José Sánchez Aznar, wrote in a report published in 1822 that early in the summer of 1800 he had treated two men recently arrived from Cádiz showing the typical symptoms, which he treated in the usual way, but he did not recognise the disease at the time. They both recovered but it wasn't until later that he realised they must have been contagious. Then he treated a man who had been sharing a hut in the campo with some muleteers; he did not recover, and soon afterwards most of his family fell sick and died.

Travelling salesman c. 1800 - inadvertent carrier?
It is more than likely that the muleteers, who travelled from town to town with their goods, were unknowingly carrying the virus. The doctor also reported that there was a period of exceptionally hot and humid weather at the time which he believed must have helped the disease to become more virulent. In those days the connection between yellow fever and mosquitoes was unknown but in retrospect it is possible that these weather conditions provided ideal breeding conditions for the insect.

As numbers of victims continued to rise it became evident that the cordon sanitaire was not working. At the end of September the Commander General issued a new order, punishable by a prison sentence, preventing people from inviting outsiders into their homes.  But the council was depleted because most of its members had fled to the country, and the mayor himself had given up his civic duties and locked himself into his house within the castle walls, only talking to people from upper-floor windows. The running of the town in its state of emergency was left to the few remaining councillors.  Houses vacated by those who had fled to the country were being looted and the bailiff pleaded with the mayor for more resources to guard them, but his pleas were ignored.  Eventually the mayor was held to account for his negligence and ingmominiously banished from the town.

The first victims of the epidemic were buried in the Pantheon where the Beaterio is now, next to the castle, but this quickly became impractical as the bodies were piling up.  Five mass graves were dug around the outskirts of the pueblo, using gunpowder to break the rock and prisoners to dig the ditches.


Alcalá was hit by several more epidemics during the 19th century which reduced its population. Yellow fever returned in 1802, 1804 and 1820 (60 deaths), while in 1834 cholera took 158 lives. Typhus struck in the 1840s and further cholera epidemics occurred in 1854, 1864 and 1892, following which a vaccine became available.

In 1900 research by the US military in Cuba proved that yellow fever was transmitted via mosquitoes, and soon afterwards the specific mosquito Aedes aegypti was identified as the carrier.  A vaccine finally came into use in 1938.





14 April 2020

New book about Alcalá in the 20th Century



I'm delighted to announce that the book I've been working on for the past year, Winds of Change: Alcalá de los Gazules in the 20th Century, is now available worldwide on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback format, price £5 and £8.50 respectively (if you are in the UK, or the equivalent in other currencies elsewhere).  Any profits will go to the Cruz Roja (Red Cross) in Spain to help run food banks for people who don't have enough to eat. 

As with all the historical material on this blog, I have not done original research myself but instead translated the works of real historians who have slogged through dusty archives to bring the past to life.  Until now none of their work has been available in English; my aim in publishing this book is to make the fascinating history of the pueblo during that turbulent century available to a wider audience.

 Click here to read the full description, download a sample, or buy a copy.  Thanks!









Why the French cut people's throats and blew up the castle: Alcalá in the War of Independence

When I first came to Alcalá I learned two rather scary things about the activities of the French here during the Napoleonic occupation; firstly that they cut the throats of all its inhabitants in retaliation for a guerrilla attack, and secondly that they blew up the castle. During this period of enforced confinement I've taken the opportunity to find out a bit more about these events.  What follows is extracted from detailed research on Alcalá's role in the Guerra de Independencia by local historian Ismael Almagro Montes de Oca (available in Spanish on his excellent blog Historia de Alcalá de los Gazules).


Napoleon Bonaparte did not originally enter Spain as a hostile invader, but was invited in after a deal with King Carlos IV in 1807 so their combined forces could invade Portugal and divide up the spoils (including Brazil). This plan failed, thanks mainly to the Portuguese royal family being whisked away to safety by British ships. So Napoleon decided to concentrate his efforts on Spain and its American colonies instead. In February 1808 he marched his Grande Armée across the Pyrenees, taking the Spanish by surprise as he was supposed to be their ally.  He swiftly dismantled the government and installed his brother Joseph on the throne.  

The citizens of Madrid staged an uprising against their new masters on 2 May 1808, other cities followed suit and thus began the Guerra de Independencia. Anyone suspected of being afrancesado - a supporter of French liberal values and the progressive legal framework known as the Napoleonic Code - was persecuted and punished.  A few years earlier, Spaniards had complained about the Bourbon monarchs because of their absolute power.  Now they couldn't wait to get them back.

As soon as news of the revolt reached Alcalá a recruitment drive was held and the town sent men and arms to support the Spanish army.  An early victory over the French at the Battle of Bailén (Jaén province) helped boost morale, more men enlisted and the town council sent more funds and supplies. Soon the town was left with virtually no able-bodied men, and by the end of 1808 there were no horses or mules left either.  All blacksmiths and craftsmen were ordered to make supplies for the war effort to the exclusion of everything else.  

The first sight of French troops in Alcalá was at the beginning of 1809, described by a local observer as follows:
There arrived in the pueblo at this time a large platoon of French officers taken prisoner at Bailén, who marched proudly through the town two by two, villainously ignoring the terms of the surrender in which it was agreed to transfer them to France from the port of Cádiz. They held these starving and naked wretches in the gloomy uninhabited cloisters of the lower part of Santo Domingo, roaring like beasts and rebuking their keepers terribly for their inhumanity and lack of faith. 
In December 1809 the Spanish court moved to Cádiz, the only part of the country Napoleon hadn't taken over. The French set up a barracks in Medina Sidonia, thousands of soldiers arrived in the area and mounted the Siege of Cádiz, which lasted for for two years.  When the Poniente was blowing they could hear the cannons in Alcalá "like the death-rattle of our dying country". 


On 10 February 1810 a squadron of two hundred French dragoons rode into Alcalá and ordered the town council to swear allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and the Americas.  They departed next day leaving a detachment of forty soldiers. The mayor kept out of the way, unwilling to take the oath, but the rest of the council set about making their new guests comfortable. Given that there was barely a grain of wheat left in the town by this time, there was considerable resentment among the locals:
The misfortunes that occurred in this miserable town and its inhabitants are well-known throughout Andalucía and almost all of Spain, invaded by despotism and tyranny, and suffering cruel exactions in cash and goods ...   

The opposition had begun forming unofficial armed groups in the mountains, which supplemented the actions of the regular army. Known in English as guerrillas and in Spanish as guerrilleros, they were fast-moving and flexible and inflicted considerable damage on the French.  The first guerrilla attack in Alcalá was in March 1810, which council officials Simón Baena and Pedro Toscano described thus:  
[The French squadron] withdrew leaving a limited garrison of forty cavalry. News of this scattered people on foot into the immediate mountain ranges [from where they] threw themselves onto the Town and with forty or fifty shotguns united with some of the neighbours, killing about sixteen Dragoons. The rest fled.  
The aristocrat Manuel María de Puelles, clearly appalled by ordinary people taking matters into their own hands, gave this more graphic description of events:
It was an overcast and rainy day when a band of five or six hundred men with blunderbusses, daggers and axes silently entered the town, led down Calle de los Pozos by others who knew the way. Dirty, ragged and in a state of total inebriation, they quickly spilled through the town like a band of vultures, and on approaching the houses where the Dragoons were lodging began to slaughter them like lambs as they appeared, half-armed, roused by a great deal of shouting. Others came out of their lodgings and defended themselves like lions, with their backs against some wall, forming a wide circle with their sables and keeping the band of hyenas at bay. But the rabble fired hails of shot from their blunderbusses and tore them apart, breaking their throbbing Herculean hearts as they dragged them along the cobbled streets and skewering their heads on sticks while singing some barbaric burial song ...
  
The retaliation was swift. General Latour arrived from Medina with 2,000 infantry and 200 cavalry and swarmed into the town. They cut the throats of anyone they found on the streets, regardless of age or gender, then looted whatever they could lay their hands on. However since most alcalaínos had already gone into hiding in the mountains, there were just sixteen victims.

Geographically Alcalá was midway between three action hotspots - Cádiz, the Campo de Gibraltar and the Sierras.  Any troops moving between Medina and Jimena or Algeciras had to pass through the town. This made the derelict Moorish castle, a fortified structure with panoramic views, an ideal place for keeping an eye on things. It became a coveted prize for both sides.

Early in 1811 five hundred Spanish troops passed through Alcalá, led by General Begines de los Ríos, as part of the campaign to break the Siege of Cádiz. Begines de los Ríos ordered the repair of the castle, with local craftsmen and labourers working under the direction of his own military engineers, but there were insufficient materials to finish the job.

Mariscal Jean-de-Dieu Soult
Meanwhile in Medina Sidonia Marshal Soult also had designs on the fortress, and in July assembled 2,000 infantry, 300 cavalry and two cannons with the aim of attacking Alcalá. The Spanish officer in charge of the castle, Captain Carmelet, had some warning of the impending attack and left 200 men armed with muskets while he went off to seek reinforcements.  He also sent guerrillas to take a look at what was on the way from Medina. There was an exchange of fire, but the French had five times the manpower and the guerrillas were forced to slash their way through the enemy line with bayonets and flee into the hills of Los Larios.

The enemy entered Alcalá, made their way to the castle and ordered the men to surrender. The response was heavy fire and 122 French soldiers were killed. After five hours of this, and fearing that Carmelet would arrive any minute with reinforcements, the French headed back to Medina, looting as they went.

General Ballesteros
In August General Francisco Ballesteros, having been appointed Commander General of the Spanish army in Cádiz and Málaga provinces, landed in Algeciras with his troops and immediately went on a grand tour to introduce himself and reanimate the troops.  While in Alcalá he warned the men garrisoned in the castle that more attacks were likely. He was right.  The following month Marshal Soult, keen to subdue guerrilla and military activities across the whole province, gave orders to the commander in Medina to take the castle in Alcalá. Fortunately for us, both the commander and the officer he placed in charge of the attack, Colonel Combelle, kept detailed notes of events.
On the orders I have received from you, I took care on the 15th of September of gathering and preparing in Chiclana everything necessary for the siege of Alcalá. On the 16th I met in Medina with 100 men from the eighth Company of the second Battalion of Sappers, useful for trenches and shafts, and ladders for climbing. I received the same day a detachment from the third Company of the second Battalion of Miners that General Garbé sent me.
The artillery, infantry, and cavalry returned the same day to Medina. The column was launched for Alcalá at nightfall, in order to begin operations against this settlement, according to your instructions, the following day at dawn.
Ballesteros, on learning of the concentration of troops in Medina, decided to withdraw immediately to Jimena but ordered one of his best battalions of light infantry to observe the enemy movements in Alcalá.

On the morning of 17th September around 1500 French troops including 400 cavalry arrived on the outskirts of Alcalá. They engaged with Ballesteros's infantry and lost 400 men and 30 horses. They dispersed and spent the rest of the day reconnoitring the area around the castle. 

Copy of the plan used for the attack on the castle

Early the following morning Colonel Combelle led his troops up to the Plaza Alta along Calle San Francisco:  
The bell tower of the main church of Alcalá, next to the castle, was occupied by a detachment of the Spanish garrison. It was barricaded with tree trunks. The main door to the church was lined with iron and prepared for rifle fire. The guard post blocked the approach to the castle. As it dominated the houses of the city and covered several streets, this greatly hindered our communications. I wanted to attack and take it by force ... so I had a corridor opened in the attic of the council buildings (Casas Consistoriales) that led us into the nave of the church. I made an opening in the wall there and Captain Vernou entered at the head of his sappers.
The church was full of women, children and old people seeking refuge from the invading army.  Combelle ordered them to leave and got his miners to start tunnelling into the wall of the bell tower in order to set explosives. The soldiers occupying it were invited to surrender or be blown to pieces.  After some resistance they did so and the French marksmen took their places, with a direct line of fire onto the castle.  At the same time they set up posts surrounding the castle on all sides.

Two new openings were made from the church into the disused convent buildings now known as the Beaterio, and from there into the street leading to the castle (Calle Ángel de Viera).
The sappers and miners occupied themselves with fortifying all the walls [in the Beaterio] which had a view towards the fortress. By 8 a.m. these battlements were finished.  Marksmen were placed there and an extremely lively exchange of fire began, stubbornly maintained on both sides throughout the day. I believed that this kind of warfare would work in our favour, and took the precaution of changing our riflemen every two hours. Our enemy were inferior in number and ability, and in my opinion should be defeated before the end of the day, finding themselves exhausted and intimidated by the superiority of our firepower.
Our victory was as expected. At 2 p.m. the enemy's fire began to subside. Part of the garrison abandoned the first line of defence [the courtyard of the Beaterio] and went into the main tower of the castle, which served as a redoubt. So I made a breach in the house closest to the angular tower, on which I had resolved to direct our attack. Everything was prepared to mine the nearest point under the tower. The enemy rained down a hail of grenades on our guards. But the terrain was very difficult and after an hour of work the miners came to the rock face, so it was necessary to give up building the tunnel rather than waste any more time there.
Aware that Ballesteros and his troops were on their way, Combelle decided drastic measures were needed if he was to force the surrender of the garrison before they arrived. He asked for two volunteer miners to run across open space and position the first defences for scaling the castle wall.
Immediately the miners arrive, they place the first beams against the tower. The sappers rival each other in zeal and rush to follow them. The first shelter (a kind of parapet made of beams) is forced in place despite the live fire of the musketeers and the grenades. A stone block rolls from the top of the tower, crushing it and injuring several sappers. Other beams replace those that have just broken. It continues raining stones. The structure is knocked down a second time. Then I order the timbers to be raised so they are almost standing upright against the tower. From that moment the falling stones only served to sink it into the ground and to strengthen the armour.

The sappers then dug a tunnel to place explosives under the tower. The Spanish hurled insults at them from above, but once they heard the explosions and felt the tower begin to shake, their attitude changed. Combelle invited them to surrender. Their leader, Lt Col Matildo Monasterio, agreed, requesting that his men be allowed to leave early next morning to rejoin the Spanish army, leaving behind their weapons but taking their personal belongings. He also asked that their wives and the prisoners held in the castle be respected.  Commander Legentil, on behalf of Combelle, replied as follows:
The garrison of the fortress of Alcalá de los Gazules will be prisoners of war and will receive from the troops of his majesty the emperor and King all the considerations due to men of honour. The garrison must surrender immediately. Officers and soldiers will keep their baggage. The former will keep their swords, the latter will lay down their weapons at the castle gate. The men and their families will be protected and any prisoners found guilty by the government [i.e. the administration loyal to the government in Cádiz] will be granted amnesty.
The men, around 230 in all, were given half an hour to vacate the castle and taken as prisoners of war to Chiclana. The castle was immediately occupied by the French, who found it well supplied with everything except water.

The following day, while Legantil's team was repairing the damage to the castle, Ballesteros rolled up with 8,000 men.  Combelle's troops were greatly outnumbered and were forced to retreat to Medina, leaving just two companies at the castle.   He was ordered by Marshal Victor to return the next day with reinforcements, but there was a change of plan when they learned of the situation on the ground.  Victor ordered the destruction of the castle on 22 September 2011 before Ballesteros returned from Jimena.  This was only partially achieved, because according to a local newspaper:
It should be clarified that the French dynamited the wall that forms the entrance courtyard and the rear or side courtyard, so that the troops could not take refuge in it, leaving intact the keep, which after all is only a house.  
But whether this was by accident or design is not clear.

There were several more engagements in and around Alcalá until Napoleon finally withdrew from the region in August 1812. On learning that the invaders had left for good, the people of Alcalá celebrated with bell-ringing, bullfights and various other festivities.  Spain's new liberal Constitution from the Cádiz Cortes was read aloud outside the town hall on the Plaza Alta.  The party went on for at least a week - after two and a half years of death and looting, they were finally free.