February 27, 2021

“Many epidemics in the Canary Islands came after periods of famine” – La Provincia

The historian Manuel Lobo (Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1950) speaks in this interview about the epidemics that have spread throughout the Canary Islands in past centuries, including morbid illness, yellow fever, drowsiness, Spanish fever and Asian flu.

¿ What historical epidemics in the Canary Islands have you investigated the most?

Epidemics reach the Canary Islands after the Conquest, that is, with the Europeans. Previously, there was no news of epidemics. The most studied, in the case of Gran Canaria, is that of morbid cholera that occurred in 1851. There is another very important one that occurred at the beginning of the 17th century, between 1601 and 1607. There was great mortality in both. Five to 6,000 people died of cholera. Living from commerce, epidemics occurred from time to time. Bringing the products we needed also brought diseases. From the first moment the health visit was arbitrated, a competition of the only city council that was on the Island at that time. When it detected that a ship was coming from infected areas, passengers and merchandise were not allowed to go ashore, so the ships were quarantined.

Who were the most reliable chroniclers and historians for a current researcher?

The Chronicles of the Conquest are considered an important source of historical information that tells us of a period where what we know is through material remains, such as the ceramics left by the aborigines or the burials, and allow us to learn about other aspects such as society. or family characteristics and their government. The flaw in the chronicles is the vision of the victor against the vanquished, that is, that the indigenous people did not leave us written documents. A historian who maintains a reputation and reliability for being the first to make a global history of the Islands was José de Viera y Clavijo.

What health resources were available to medicine at that time?

They were minimal resources until the 19th century and they were available in the capitals of the Islands. For example, in Gran Canaria, the only hospital there was created in the late 15th century by Martín de Navarra, who left all his assets to create the Hospital de San Martín, which was later expanded in the 18th century by Bishop Cervera. There was another hospital for lepers, that of San Lázaro, outside the city in the area of ​​Castillo de Mata. The resources, in reality, were based on isolating people by areas from which they are prevented from leaving so that they do not infect the rest of the neighbors. Sanitation was poor, with little cleaning, there was dirt, the situation was quite painful.

Do you tell me that isolation measures were practiced for those infected?

Yes, in some documents it is said that, at the end of the XV century in Tenerife, the natives of Anaga, as there was pestilence, were prohibited from leaving their homes. Sometimes the isolation was not 100% because there were people who escaped from confinement and spread it to the rest of the population.

How long did the most critical phases of contagion last?

The most critical phase of contagion was around 40 days, hence the name quarantine. After that time, those who were alive were supposed to be able to resist.

What was the social reaction of self-defense like?

In some cases it was running away. For example, in Gran Canaria during morbid cholera, families who may try to flee to the countryside, to healthier areas, but in that flight contagion often reached other places. The same happened on other islands when escaping the focus of contagion.

Did they mobilize solidarity reactions among the healthy or did fear of contagion prevail?

Fear prevailed although there were some centers with people who, in an exceptional way, gave themselves up to try to prevent the disease from continuing to spread and cared for the sick. In any case, what abounded was the flight and trying not to catch it.

Were there curfews?

They were made in major urban areas, although it was not a remedy for a pandemic or plague.

Was it known for sure who the transmitters were from outside the Islands?

In some cases it was known, but then the hypotheses varied. In the case, for example, of the morbid cholera plague, there was talk of a woman from San José who had received clothing from sailors that she was infected with. In other cases it was learned that the cause was a ship from Flanders that brought pastry chefs, some carpets that are hung in the Corpus and that, when spread and contaminated, spread the virus and spread to the population. An outbreak of yellow fever was also known to have come from abroad. Most of the epidemics came from abroad. At first, drowsiness arrived, a kind of flu that attacked, preferably, the indigenous population that was not immune because it was unknown in the Islands, just like measles and smallpox.

Did the fatalities receive land or were they cremated en masse?

Often the problem of these pandemics is that the deceased, being Catholic, were buried in sacred ground within the church, which expanded the contamination. It should be borne in mind that modern cemeteries arose from the 19th century when burial in churches was already prohibited, especially after the cholera of 1851. Later, in the Canary Islands, there have been other pandemics, such as the Spanish fever of 1918 or the Asian flu of 1957, the last one of great intensity.

Were the islands always receiving the viruses or were they in any case transmitters?

As far as I know they were recipients. It should be borne in mind that the islands’ economy, from the very beginning when the Europeans arrived and that was based on sugar, cochineal, banana, wine or tomato, was agro-exporting. We have lived from commerce. In exchange for what we exported, we imported the necessary products that were often contaminated with the virus that spread to the population, as well as the continuous transit of ships in our ports.

Once the worst is over, what measures did the civil and military authorities arbitrate to restore daily life?

There were no exceptional measures. The authorities tried to ensure that the population was supplied. From there also came, sometimes, the contagion because when there were no cereals here to make bread, basic in food, it was imported from the Peninsula, England, the Baltic, etc. It should also be borne in mind that many epidemics come after periods of famine, catching the population with low defenses and easier to get sick.

Ultimately, what differences and similarities do you see between these past epidemics and the current coronavirus?

It is a virus that also comes from abroad and where the first contagions in the Islands occur in non-island citizens, Italian or Dutch, who come for tourism. Two big differences, today, are that the population is supplied and that the Spanish healthcare facilities stand out among the best in the world.


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