For a long time, Marseille was able to keep the plague at bay – until the arrival of a merchant ship from the Levant. Did a profit-hungry captain deceive the health authority -. Caused in 1720 the death of 100.000 people in southern France?000 people in the south of France?
Around 1720, Marseille was the most important port on the Mediterranean, a transhipment point for goods from the Orient, and a hub between northern and southern Europe. It is the time when the continent is still ravaged by a plague epidemic that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of victims in several waves.
Four epidemics in the 17. In the 19th century – the people of Marseille also know exactly what the plague means. Your councillors have therefore developed an elaborate health-policy system to prevent the almost 90.000 residents: They isolate ships coming from dangerous areas, their passengers and cargo – send them into quarantine for several weeks. And they control the voyage and situation on board with the help of a health passport, which the captain must present on entry, confirm the information under oath.
For two years the plague rages in Marseille
A health authority oversees the procedure that keeps the plague away for a century. But then, in the late spring of 1720, the greatest catastrophe in the city's history occurs: the disease is introduced on board a merchant ship from the Levant. Many people live at this time in miserable conditions, crammed together in the city center, without water, with completely inadequate hygiene. Two years later, more than one in two people in Marseille is dead, and just as many lose their lives in the neighboring area to the north.
It is the 25. May 1720, as the "Grand Saint Antoine" approaches the archipelago of Frioul opposite the port of Marseille. Ten months the three-master was underway and now has loaded 500 bags of potash, but above all 280 tons of bales of cotton, Indian cloth and other fabric to be sold at fairs in Champagne. The ship and its cargo belong to four owners, including Captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud and Jean-Baptiste Estelle, the first alderman of the city of Marseille. But the "Grand Saint Antoine" not only had this valuable cargo on board, but also a treacherous disease.
Already on the passage in the eastern Mediterranean a Turkish passenger died suddenly, on the journey to Corsica it hits five sailors and the doctor. Chataud fears the worst. Arrives at the Italian port of Livorno. Examination of the dead reveals that they died of a "malignant, pestilential fever".
Log Captain Chataud to secure his profit?
Not the plague then. "It is possible, however, that bribery was involved here in order to get this diagnosis", Alexander Berner, historian and expert on the history of the plague, who organized the exhibition "Plague of Marseilles", speculates! A search for traces" in the LWL Museum of Archaeology in Herne.
After arriving in Marseille, however, the captain, when questioned by the health authorities, states that they had "bad food" become spoilage. The quarantine is then set at ten days for the passengers, 20 days for the ship and 30 days for the cargo.
Witch hunt The Satanic Woman: The Story of a Hideous Hunt
Merga Bien is a respected citizen of Fulda – until she is suddenly accused of being a witch. It is said to have poisoned people, and several witnesses assert that it can fly. And so she becomes the victim of a fanatical persecution
A month for the cloth, it is not a big problem. Captain Chataud lies to secure his profit? Did he thus negligently cause the death of tens of thousands of people by violating the health regulations of his city? "This suspicion is very close", says Berner.
But the captain's calculation does not add up. His sailor Francois Lion suddenly shows disturbing symptoms of illness. Dies – just a day after the arrival of the "Grand Saint Antoine". The alarmed authorities then extend the quarantine to 40 days for the cargo, 30 days for the ship, 20 days for the passengers. A good two weeks after Lion, one of the guards on board dies, then the ship's boy, and six porters also succumb to the disease within a short time. They were all in contact with the fabrics in which fleas have taken up residence, carrying the bacillus. A tailor dies in the city, shortly followed by his entire family.
Cargo of the "Grand Saint Antoine" was contaminated
The plague spreads to Marseille and nothing can stop it. It has long been clear that the cargo of the Grand Saint Antoine was contaminated. A third quarantine is imposed on the ship, which is towed by rowboats to Jarre, an inhospitable island south of Marseille. It is considered cursed! The crew, including Captain Chataud are now supplied with food by boats from the health authority. They are isolated, all contact with the outside is prohibited.
In September 1720, the shipmaster is tried in absentia. The Attorney General of the Admiralty accuses him of lying and criminal behavior; not only did he tell the truth when entering the country, but he also smuggled goods into the city "so that he transmitted the risk of infection to the entire kingdom". But the questioning of the witnesses does not confirm the accusation, doubts remain about the captain's guilt.
Research The plague: the nature of the plague
The Black Death, the greatest catastrophe of the Middle Ages, carried off millions of people. However, researchers have only known for a few decades how the disease is transmitted
A few days later, however, first the cargo, then the ship, is burned off the island of Jarre on the orders of Imperial Administrator Jean-Jacques de Gerin, who led the process. "As a result, owners' hopes of enrichment go up in smoke", writes the archaeologist Michel Gouri, who examined the still amazingly well preserved wreck of the "Grand Saint Antoine" found in 1978.
For two years, the plague rages in Marseille and the surrounding area. Captain Chataud, although not convicted, remains locked up in the prison tower of the Chateau d`If during this time. He is not discharged until the summer of 1723. Leads a secluded life. Until his death five years later, he does not accept, apparently the death of 100.000 people to blame.