On the Quarantine and on Getting Home from Turkey

In 1785 John Howard – he of the Howard League for Penal Reform – made a journey to Turkey to establish, among other things, the quarantine arrangements that those returning to Europe were required to undergo.  A man for our own extraordinary times, then, even if Howard’s views of the Turks were less sympathetic than our own; dismissing them as ‘little enlightened by the modern improvements in arts and science’, he nevertheless hoped to discover practices and to glean information ‘not unworthy the notice of more polished nations’ – Britain, evidently – and their public health administrators.

In those days of typhus, small-pox and legion other contagious diseases the quarantine system prioritized the spread above all of plague.  For though the means of transmission was poorly understood – another century would pass before the pathogen Yersinia pestis, carried by lice and fleas but also transmitted by respiratory droplets from infected humans, was identified – plague was feared above all diseases for its extreme contagion and high mortality rates.

In Smyrna (modern Izmır) Howard consulted a wide range of medical men on the prevention and treatment of plague.  One physician envisioned plague as a latent condition, the contagion lying ‘dormant in the body for some time without doing the least harm, till set in motion by sudden fear, or the excessive heat of a bath.’  Another described the Christian treatment for plague – to eat caviar, garlic and pork and to drink brandy and vinegar before applying the likes of greasy wool, attar of roses and dried figs to the suppurating buboes.  Constantinople sailors swore by the remedy of throwing themselves into the sea (something sailors traditionally do only when their sinking craft leaves them with no choice) while some infected Turks were known to ‘take handfuls of snow and apply it over their bodies.’

In other respects, however, the advice uncannily echoed that on offer at today’s Covid-19 briefings, with one Giovanelli telling Howard that the best way of avoiding infection was by keeping a distance of ‘five geometrical paces’ from others.  Others stressed the importance of staying to windward of anybody who might be infected while a Jewish physician observed, perhaps without understanding the full implications of his comment, that ‘the air about poor patients is more infectious than about the rich’.  Howard himself claimed the ‘distemper’ was most probably contracted ‘by taking in with the breath in respiration the putrid effluvia which hover round the infected object’, rather as ‘the smell of tobacco is carried from one place to another’, though he assumed such objects to be goods and commodities, especially wool, cottons and animal hides, rather than exhaling humans.

To test the efficacy of the system, Howard sailed on a ship with a ‘foul bill’ – the authorities rarely granted clean bills of health to ships bound for Europe from Ottoman ports, even if no instances of plague had been reported there – to Venice.  The foul bill required the crew to stay onboard during quarantine – the statutory forty days varied depending upon local circumstances – while passengers and cargo were off-loaded straight to the port of arrival’s lazaretto; the word, from Lazarus, originally denoted a leper colony but had come to describe general quarantine facilities.   Howard was placed in a gondola ‘with my baggage, in a boat fastened by a cord ten feet long to another boat in which were six rowers’.  He was quartered in the lazaretto on one of Venice’s lagoon islands, in a cell without bed or furniture, foul smelling and full of standing water.  The indefatigable Howard went to work, mopping the floors and limewashing the walls, rendering the room ‘so sweet and fresh, that I was able to drink tea in it in the afternoon, and lie in it the following night’.

Howard’s remarkable researches – his two-volume Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe was published in 1791 – took him on an extensive tour of the European ports.  At Livorno, with its brand-new lazaretto, suspect ships were now received rather than being ‘chased away or burnt, as is the practise in too many places’.  At Malta he witnessed the complex process whereby a letter from Turkey was received (paper was considered especially likely to carry contagion); the document was taken with a pair of iron tongs, dipped in vinegar and then put into a case and laid for a quarter of an hour on wire grates under which straw and perfumes had been burnt.  Howard saw how goods including ‘carpets, blankets, bed covers, quilts, and other manufactures of wool and silk, flax, books, vellum, and all kinds of paper… are continually exposed to the air, moved and turned two or three times a day’.  ‘Animals with wool or long hair,’ he reported ‘are liable to the whole quarantine; but those with short straight hair are purged by causing them to swim ashore’.  Chickens and other fowl were dealt with ‘by repeated sprinkling with vinegar till well wet’.  At Marseilles he learned of arrangements for the provision of wine to those in quarantine and of the ‘parloir’, where those in confinement were able to communicate with visitors, perhaps to issue wine orders, across a ten-foot gap enforced by an arrangement of ‘wooden balustrades and wire lattice’.

The UK government’s recent decision to exempt visitors to Turkey from quarantining on their return should help to bring back visitors.  Especially to those sectors where the risk of infection from Covid-19 is at its lowest, like gulets, which have been in demand this summer as Turkish guests recognize how much safer stays on these small-group boats are than in hotels or other land-based accommodation.  For more on visiting Turkey and the various precautions in place to keep visitors safe, please visit my tours page.