Report on the outbreak of Yellow Fever

Buenos Aires 1871

Public Record Office FO6/302, ff. 300-10
HBM`s Chargé d`Affaires in Buenos Aires, H. G. MacDonnell, to the Earl Granville, K.G., at the Foreign Office, London

Despatch No. 57

Buenos Ayres

14th May 1871

My Lord,

Since I last had the honour to address Your Lordship on the subject of the epidemic, the National Government issued on the 1st of May a decree prolonging the vacation or suspension of all business in this city for another fifteen days, translation of this decree I herewith enclose.

The Government will no doubt claim the merit of the decrease in the number of deaths, in consequence of this measure, but I need not point out to Your Lordship that the danger is equally incurred by keeping the Government offices open twice a week, as it would be by the clerks attending there daily; whilst the time granted to the Custom House for the despatch of business is altogether incompatible with the requirements of the population the greater portion of whom will never be deterred from returning to their houses by a similar device. The Provincial Government and the "Comission Popular" have likewise addressed manifestoes to the absent population urging them not to return but the latter have been too long at the mercy of speculators and greedy landlords in the country, to listen to the no doubt well meant advice of the former and had they, the "Comission Popular" and the Provincial Government, substituted for their verbose manifestoes some radical measure such as the forced evacuation of fever dens - "Conventillos" - , the fumigation and thorough cleansing of every house in town, the filling up with earth and lime of all the existing cesspools and the construction of new ones impervious to filtration, and had they moreover pending the carrying out of these half measures devoted a sum of money towards supporting the needy families out of town and regulating the prices, so far as possible, of the common necessaries of life in the country districts, they would have benefited the public and avoided censure.

Up to the present moment no steps whatever have been taken either to eradicate the disease or, in so far as possible, to provide against its return; the national Government, the Provincial Government, the "Comission Popular" and the Press are alike so impressed with the vital consequences due to the general inactivity and helplessness that one of the journals urges and calls upon the people to set fire to every part of the town which has been infected by fever if the authorities persist in their inconsiderate course. It would certainly be difficult to screen the Government from blame, when, in presence of so serious an epidemic they have only at the last moment commenced closing the conventillos or lodging houses. Of these upwards of 700 exist within the city each sheltering from 150 to 200 individuals of the poorer class, huddled together amidst filth and squalor, in spaces barely sufficient for one twentieth of their number and from these dens the fever is constantly and incessantly regenerated and reinforced.

The mortality has certainly greatly diminished and no doubt can be entertained that we are now approaching the end of this lamentable visitation, but this diminution is only due to the natural decline of the disease and in my opinion is in no degree owing to the measures adopted in order to check it. In the month of March when the mortality assumed the serious proportions mentions in my last despatches to Your Lordship sad to say a great number of medical men abandoned the town, but it is due to those who remained fearlessly at their posts to state that fifteen of them have fallen victims to the disease.

The "Standard" of Buenos Ayres published, before the departure of the French mail, for the information of its European subscribers an estimate of the mortality up to that date giving the number as 26,200 persons; this has given rise to a display of ill-natured feeling on the part of the native press by whom the number of deaths was calculated at 15,000.

Both these estimates appear to me erroneous & to arrive at the exact number of deaths caused by the epidemic would I think be impossible, inasmuch as statistical returns, when even to be procured, in the country are always vague and unworthy of trust, and in the present instance to my knowledge interments of those of the humbler classes have taken place without having been officially registered.

It is impossible at present to measure the very serious consequences which the violent outbreak of Yellow Fever may entail on the country; and there is everything to justify the belief that it has in some degree become acclimatized in this portion of the American continent. Since the Paraguayan War it is manifest that Yellow Fever has made periodical appearances, at different points on the River Plate and it would be puerile to assert- whatever radical measures the Government may decide on adopting hereafter in order to guard against an analogous visitation- that the disease has abandoned all hold upon this country. Indeed, if I may venture to express an opinion in this regard I think that this country will henceforth be ever exposed, though not perhaps to the same extent, to a reoccurrence of this epidemic, and it is perhaps for this reason that the native press of Buenos Ayres, always remarkable for its injudiciousness and partiality, has been so unblushingly violent in its invectives against its English colleague, for having published to the European world full details of what has occurred here during the epidemic, and which was intended to serve as a timely warning to those who hold commercial relations with this country as well as to deter intending emigrants from coming hither for the present. It is but natural that the people of this country, mainly dependent, as they are, on foreign commerce and immigration should not wish that the real extent of this calamity be made known in Europe.

The suspension of public business during the past month has itself alone had the effect of paralysing and holding in abeyance capital to the amount of upwards of 4 millions and a half sterling, the revenue of the State has been reduced in the ratio of nearly £900 daily, irrespective moreover of the heavy calls made upon the Government for sanitary purposes; and if, as stated one hundred thousand souls have abandoned the town, the half of whom compose the "petit commerce" of Buenos Ayres, it will be found that the loss suffered in rents during their absence, at a rough calculation, amounts to some £300,000, waiving all consideration as respects the heavy expenses incident upon living in the country districts and the loss of profit from their respective trades, which they have been constrained, meanwhile, to abandon. It is difficult, likewise, to foresee the consequences which the forced suspension of payments must entail on all commercial transactions and unless the private banks agree to the renewal of Bills of Exchange at a moderate rate and the Provincial Bank emit specie notes; a most serious commercial crisis will, it is said, inevitably ensue.

The average number of deaths since I last had the honour to report to Your Lordship has been on an average thirty daily; and this comparatively high rate of mortality is perhaps attributable in part to the two fold circumstance of a fatal termination in many of the older cases of fever and fresh cases having occurred amongst those who have returned from the country.

Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo have manifested their sympathy towards the inhabitants of this city under their present affliction, in the most generous manner. The former has remitted the sum £5000 sterling together with a large and most valuable supply of drugs (of which I inclose a list) sent to Buenos Ayres in a Brazilian ship of war, which conveyed at the same time a staff of doctors apothecaries and nurses. The Argentine Government have gratefully acknowledged the Brazilian gift by requesting the medical men and their assistants (who had thus nobly offered themselves to replace those doctors who had been reported to have deserted the city in the hour of need) to return to Rio without landing here. From Montevideo a like sum has been received by the "Comission Popular" and I think I can safely state that from the above named sources, from national subscriptions, and from Government Subsidies the "Commission Popular" have had upwards of Thirty Five Thousand Pounds placed at their disposal to meet the exigencies of the situation. Without wishing to detract from the merit attaching to the individual conduct of its members I venture to think that, all allowance being made for the inevitable difficulties with which they have had to contend, greater judgement and discretion might have been displayed in the distribution of these large sums of money.

A report has been prevalent here for some time to the effect that Cholera had broken out in Corrientes, but so far as I have been able to ascertain I believe it has hitherto exhibited itself solely in the form of a few sporadic cases, and this Government newly lessoned by the ravages of the reigning epidemic have very judiciously closed the Port of Buenos Ayres against vessels arriving from the Ports of that Province.

The decrease in the mortality leads me to hope that in a few days I shall be able to dispense with the services of Dr Greenfield, and I shall then stop all further gratuitous supply of medicaments and necessaries to the sick poor, I shall likewise suspend all further pecuniary assistance, which I have taken the liberty of distributing in the name of Her Majesty`s Government.

The distress is still great, and great likewise the number of workmen out of employ, of widows and orphan children, the sum of Two Hundred Pounds having been sent hither from Rio de Janeiro and (the figure is indecipherable) from Montevideo, to be severally applied in mitigation of the wants of those of Her Majesty`s subjects here resident who may find themselves in distress, I feel, therefore, I should be unduly adding to the measure of responsibility already assumed by me pending Your Lordship`s approval, were I to continue a further distribution of Funds however charitable the object.

I have requested the Revd Mr Ash and Dr Greenfield to furnish me with a detailed report of the epidemic, which they have had so many opportunities of investigating and their Report on the subject will, I am sure, be found far more deserving of attention than the imperfect sketch which I have attempted to place before Your Lordship of a calamity which has probably seldom been surpassed in the annals of history.

I have the honor to be, with the highest respect, My Lord,

Your Lordship`s most obedient humble servant

H. G. MacDonnell

The Earl Granville, K.G.
Foreign Office.
London

There now follows Dr Greenfield`s report as requested by MacDonnell.

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