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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease

Quarantine 1832

Opening showing title page and frontispiece, with a number of colour images of signal flagsFlag signals and the title pageThe extremely rare book featured here, a recent acquisition by the Foyle Special Collections Library, gives us an interesting perspective on the public reaction to the second global pandemic of cholera which struck the world in the early 1830s. There have been ten such pandemics since 1817.

This is a handbook which explains the signalling system to be employed using a combination of flags, to communicate problems on board ship and to respond to general port authority formalities. The flag signals on the front pastedown of the book are shown here, as well as some questions indicated by flags to ships approaching harbour.

The book is divided into two sections, the first dealing with replies from the ship to signals on shore, the second relating to signals from vessel to shore. Although it was customary to enquire about the health of incoming vessels, these questions, as seen in the opening of the book shown below, have an added urgency. Of particular interest are the questions ‘Is the sickness contagious?’ and ‘Have you any susceptible goods as cotton, wool, dry hides?’ and those relating to quarantine.

These questions point to the considerable uncertainty of medical knowledge concerning cholera in the 1830s, almost exactly 50 years before Robert Koch discovered the cholera bacillus. Medical scientists were not sure that cholera was contagious, and thought that it could arise from environmental miasmas: toxic combinations of bad waters, bad air, unfavourable weather and noxious refuse, or from the general health, physical and mental, of the victim before the illness had struck.

Opening showing various questions raised by signal flags to incoming ships.Enquiries concerning the health of incoming vesselsThe seemingly random incidence of the disease baffled contemporaries, both ‘miasmatists’ and ‘contagionists’. It had been known for many years that bubonic plague had been spread by rats finding a convenient temporary home in cotton or wool, and it may have been thought, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that cholera could be spread in the same way.

The questions relating to quarantine touch on a perennial question of controversy during the 19th century. The debates between miasmatists and contagionists had important political and economic implications.

The world after 1815, with its proliferating flows of goods, migration and transport, depended, it was assumed, on an international regime of free trade, but this, along with the movements of armies in the British and Russian empires in Asia, made the spread of cholera a certainty.

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