Article published by the Buenos Aires Standard

Compiled by Rev. T. E. Ash, BA., chaplain of the British Legation, Buenos Aires; and chaplain of St John`s Church, Buenos Aires. This article was printed in the 30th April 1871 edition. This is the "well written article" referred to in Rev. Ash's letter to H.G. MacDonnell. Evidently excessive modesty was not one of his failings.

The Plague

The awful plague that is now drawing to a close will make a sad and memorable epoch in the annals of Buenos Aires. It may be questioned whether modern times afford any parallel to its intensity, duration, and terrible effects. Those who have witnessed it in all its horrors are forcibly reminded of the plague of London in 1665. Those who merely read descriptions such as we subjoin herewith can only form a faint idea of the dreadful drama in which we have been both actors and spectators for some months past. Verily there is nothing more appalling than pestilence, nothing that shows more forcibly the frail tenure of human life, and nothing which brings out in such bold relief the noblest feelings of the better class of men, and the hard-heartedness and selfishness of others. Every country, at one time or other, seems destined to pass through an ordeal of this kind. Barely two years ago an epidemic fever desolated Peru, causing more havoc than the previous earthquake. The island of Mauritius a little time before had been almost depopulated. In 1857 the city of Montevideo suffered a visitation of yellow fever unprecedented in South America in its ravages. But all these were unequal to the plague of New Orleans in 1850, when the living could not bury the dead, and rafts were made for the piles of corpses, and then let go adrift down the Mississippi.

In the close of last year a similar epidemic broke out at Barcelona, the dreadful details of which are fresh in the memory of our readers. Until recently it was customary to regard Buenos Aires as exempt from all manner of epidemics; and so far as the natural climate, air, and soil of the country are concerned, it is unquestionably the healthiest place in the world. Nevertheless, the Spanish settlers have always been so regardless of sanitary considerations that the city has at times become a pest-house. So far back as 1723 we are informed by historians of a fearful plague which caused such havoc that large pits were made outside the town, and the corpses dragged thither, tied to horses` tails, for interment. In our own time the yellow fever of 1858 carried off 600 people, the cholera of 1867-68 over 5000, and since then every summer has brought us a menace of one or other epidemic. At the commencement of the present year our population was a little over 180,000 souls; of these about two-thirds fled during the epidemic, more than 20,000 others perished, and at one period, while there hardly remained 40,000 people in town, the number of sick exceeded 7000, and the mortality ranged from 400 to 600 per day - more than 1 per cent of the inhabitants.

To describe the plague as we have seen it, in all its various phases, we shall divide the subject into ten chapters.


First - Origin and Causes

Some Paraguayan prisoners of war, who returned to Paraguay last year, on landing at Asunción were found to be suffering from yellow fever, and many cases proved fatal. The foul state of that city, and exhausted condition of the Paraguayans after the sufferings of the war, were peculiarly favourable for any epidemic, and speedily a fever broke out, which the physicians declared to be bilious ectheroid. Hundreds of persons perished, thousands fled to the country districts, but the disease did not prove of the malignant character it afterwards assumed in other places. The English doctors were very successful in their treatment - chiefly mustard baths, doses of quinine, etc. The infection next spread to Corrientes, and here it made fearful ravages, most of the physicians and apothecaries being among the victims, besides one-fourth of the inhabitants. The hot season had already set in, and although the epidemic was within forty-eight hours of our city, no efforts had been made to guard against it. A nominal quarantine was decreed, similar to that of 1870. A passenger in confinement at the lazaretto of Ensenada borrowed a horse, rode into town, took to his bed, and recovered, but his family died; then the people next door, and so it spread, till it involved the whole parish of San Telmo, the dirtiest and most populous in the city.

At the same time a vessel with immigrants from Genoa, which had touched at Barcelona, had become infected there. The captain threw overboard fourteen passengers who had died of the fever, but on entering our port he presented only his papers from Genoa, and landed his passengers, many of whom were doubtless infected. Moreover, be it remembered that the seeds of yellow fever had been lurking in our city since 1870, when 100 persons perished about the Roma Hotel.

The most powerful causes, however, for the development of the plague were to be found in the abominable filth of the city and its surroundings. The smell of the Riachuelo in December had been so horribly nauseous that in various parts of the town ladies and people of weak constitutions were seized with vomiting when the wind blew from the south. Even the streets, newly paved in the outlets, gave forth a dreadful stench after every shower of rain, for they had all been laid down with "Vasura," or stuff from the scavengers` carts. In fact, the whole city steamed like a dunghill whenever a hot sun came after a fall of rain.

That the recent summer has been the hottest for many years is evidenced, among other things, by the number of mad dogs in December and January, a nuisance previously unknown. An unusually hot sun was playing for some months on a soil now in fermentation, for the water supply had caused a much increased consumption of water in the town ; and as it was prohibited to throw water in the streets, and there being no drainage, the people were obliged to turn it into old wells, with which the various parts of the city are so honey-combed that as many as fifteen or sixteen are found when a site is being cleared for a house. Nay, it sometimes happens that a lady falls through her parlour floor, and finds an old well unfilled under the carpet. While the city was fermenting and steaming, the water of the River Plate was so poisoned by the liquid from the Riachuelo that the dead fish covered the roadstead and river as high as Palermo; yet this same water was what the citizens of Buenos Aires had to drink.

Meantime, so noxious and deadly were the vapours that rose from the ground, that whenever it was opened nausea and sickness followed. In Paseo de Julio the foreman of Mr. Wheelwright, in driving down posts for the new central terminus, was taken ill a few days after his arrival and the works were suspended. In the Plaza Once de Setiembre some men were engaged to make a well, and after digging through several layers of "Vasura" for a foundation, were taken ill and sent to hospital. The air was foul and sickening; the water was corrupted; the earth was reeking with abomination.

The plague came, and found the place ripe for destruction.



    We pass over the next "Five Chapters" of minute details, and proceed to Chapter Seven, with the heading:

Seventh. - Harvest of Death

More than 22,000 people had been interred in the South Cemetery within the past three months when the gates were closed, and the grave-diggers marched away in procession to their new scene of operations at the Chacarita.

The aspect of the city by night was even more awe-inspiring than by day. The silence was rarely broken but by the hollow sound of the vehicles taking off the dead, or the tinkling of a little bell, as the Blessed Sacrament was conveyed to the dying. Fires might be seen here and there - the furniture, etc., of infected houses that the police burned in the streets and courtyards. Watering carts made the rounds scattering disinfectants, such as coal-tar; but the plague seemed to mock such remedies, for Death was busy in every house where any inhabitants yet remained. The panic had unhappily communicated itself to all classes, and it was said more than half of the physicians had fled. Those who remained were overburdened with work; a dozen of these brave men were destined to succumb to their spirit of devotion. The few English doctors stood their ground manfully, and were at one time or other stricken down on the bed of sickness, but fortunately recovered. And here we must also pass a high eulogium on the Irish Nuns, the French Sisters of Charity, and the clergy of the English, Irish, Scotch, and American congregations. Nothing could exceed their heroism and philanthropy. Our narrow limits would not suffice to recite even a portion of their labours, or enumerate the wonderful tales, sadder and stranger than any romance of fiction, that are in the mouths of all; suffice it to say that they fulfilled their duty in a manner worthy of their sacred office.

At the eleventh hour the authorities set about making a clearance of the "Conventillas," and this was not effected without some scenes of riot. Thousands of people of the lowest classes were packed into railway waggons, and sent out to San Martin, four leagues from town, where 100 wooden huts had been constructed for the purpose. The Western Railway also set apart some hundreds of goods waggons, which were formed into encampments near the stations of Moron, Merlo, and Moreno. The Southern Railway had already set the example. At San Martin fifteen deaths occurred immediately, and the people, coming short of supplies, began to desert the huts, and make their way back to the city.

Numerous robberies now occurred throughout the town; the police force was so reduced that, even impressing the firemen and serenos, they were unable to protect the numerous deserted houses where valuable furniture had been left, in many cases the hall door lying open. Mr. O'Gorman, however, did his best, locking up many of the houses and sending the police, armed with carbines, on patrol night and day. Daring robberies were committed at noonday in this manner: Furniture vans came up to the house and carted off the furniture as if it were going out to the camp. In one case they had the audacity to call on the person next door and borrow $1000 to pay the cartmen, as Señor Gomez (the owner), who was at Moron, had forgotten to give him the money. Another case was that of a gentleman who happened to come into town and found two waggons before his door filled with his furniture. Going inside, he found two porters lying wounded in the courtyard, and others fighting, for the burglars had got drunk and were beating each other with the bottles. The railways at this time carried thousands of passengers daily, and long trains of luggage, furniture, and lumber for building shanties, yet no serious accident occurred in the transit.


Eighth. - It Diminishes

On the 16th of April, the plague having now run 100 days, it began visibly to decline, the mortality soon falling to one-half. It is true the population was reduced to one-fourth. Still we were glad to hail a glimpse of sunshine breaking through the clouds. Many people began to come into town to see how affairs were. Some found their servants dead, others their clerks gone mad, raving about coffins; many are still ignorant of the fate of their servants left behind, who are probably in some part of the camp. For a long time there must be much uncertainty about hundreds of missing people. Some rich city residents found their houses occupied by numbers of squalid refugees from San Telmo, lying on the gilded sofas and lounges. If they inquired about their neighbours they learned that the poor lady next door was removed in a "Vasura cart" the storekeeper, the butcher, and the baker were all dead, the milkman had long since disappeared, shunning the doomed city.

By this time all the camp towns were fully crowded, and every place or suburb along the lines of railway. You met familiar faces everywhere - the Foreign Ministers and Consuls, the city dealers and merchant princes, German Barraqueros, French tailors, even Italian organ-grinders, everywhere. Sportsmen with dog and gun wandered over the green camps, bagging prodigious numbers of game. The rents paid for the poorest accommodation were fabulous, so high as $10,000 (£380) for a room. Every evening as the trains arrived from the city the first question was, "how many to-day?" and then the sickening news that one or other friend was gone.

Sometimes, happily, rumour proved incorrect, and many who are now alive were mourned as dead.


Ninth.- The Resuscitation

During the past week we can notice a great improvement in the look of things, and the mortality is little over 100 daily. We look around, indeed, and see many doors closed; we miss old friends, and the city looks as if Herculaneum or Pompeii were being gradually repeopled. Besides one-eighth of our population that has perished, an equal number will certainly be lost to us by those who have left or are leaving the country, or else moving away from Buenos Aires to another locality. It is impossible to give an accurate return of the deaths, but from all that has come under our knowledge after a most careful study, not to exaggerate, we incline to put down the figures thus:-

January200;February1,000;March11,000;April14,000;TOTAL26,200.

When we consider that the loss of the German army in the last campaign is returned at 150,000 killed, out of one and a half million of men, or 10 per cent, we find the plague in Buenos Aires has caused much greater relative mortality, namely, 13 per cent. Let us pray the Almighty to spare us from another visitation of this awful kind, and hope the worst is past.


Tenth - Conclusion

The immediate effects of the plague will be:

1st. The diminution of our population by one-fourth.

2nd. The fall of house property by one-third.

3rd. The rapid building of suburbs and tramways.

4th. Great confusion for some time in business.

5th. Splendid fortunes for the lawyers winding up testamentarias.

6th. Great profits to the Provincial Bank out of moneys unclaimed.

Before concluding we think a special meed of praise is due to the city of Montevideo, which has sent up £10,000 to the relief of the poor; also to the French and Irish nuns, the various clergymen, the Comision Popular, the English and other doctors who bravely stood their ground, and to the numberless charitable persons who stood by their friends at all hazard. A far greater tribute still is due to those heroic men and women who fell nobly in their self-imposed task, and whose names we are unable to give, but which we trust are recorded in the Book of Life.

We offer our warmest congratulations to the friends who have survived this awful crisis, and fervently thank the Giver of all Good for sparing us when so many more worthy were taken away.


Unfortunately for the Standard, the authorities took exception to its reporting of the epidemic. The Spanish language papers of Buenos Aires consistently reported much lower casualty figures in an effort not to deter potential immigrants who were deemed essential to the future economic growth of Argentina.


Buenos Ayres Standard 15th May 1871


Yesterday we received from the Minister of the Interior, Dr. Luis V. Varela, a note informing us that, under date of 4th May 1871, the Argentine Government had ceased to subscribe for 200 Packet editions of the Standard, four daily papers, and six weeklies.

We attribute all this to the publication of our plague statistics. The loss to us is more moral than pecuniary, inasmuch as the Argentine Consuls of any note have always been subscribers to the Standard. Our colleagues will now have one cause less for complaint. Nevertheless, the Argentine Government may always count on us as a warm supporter, whenever the true interests of the country are concerned.

To other and better hands it will doubtless confide the task of explaining to the European the advantages of this country as a field for emigration. We have done our best under the circumstances, and can do no more; every impartial reader will admit that the task, to say the least, was a difficult one.

The following is the decree:-

NATIONAL GOVERNMENT HOUSE,

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,

BUENOS AIRES, 4th May, 1871.

The writings of the Standard not being calculated to promote immigration, the President of the Republic Decrees:

1st. Let the subscription to the Standard be discontinued.

2nd. Let this be communicated, published, and inserted in the National Register.

SARMIENTO,

LUIS V. VARELA.


As a postcript to the yellow fever episode, the Standard published the following item in 1883:

"Great minds, like heaven, are pleased in doing good."

Presentation to the Rev. James Smith, the esteemed pastor of the Scotch Church in Buenos Aires, in recognition of his faithful services during the past twenty-three years, highly appreciated by his own congregation, and admired by all the other foreign residents. He was indefatigable during the yellow fever in 1871, and in testimony of his labours a sum of 200 guineas was collected and sent to England to purchase a service of plate, which was presented to him in February 1872, along with a gratifying address, signed by H.M. Chargé d'Affaires and the British Consul, and by 150 of the principal residents. The testimonial committee consisted of Messrs. Drysdale, R. M`Clymont, F. M. Moore, Methven, and Getting. The service of plate, weighing 300 ounces, was manufactured by the Goldsmiths' Alliance Co., London, in the style of Louis XIV, and was enclosed in a case of Spanish mahogany, bearing this inscription:-

Presented by the British community of Buenos Aires to the Rev. James Smith, Pastor of St. Andrew's Scotch Presbyterian Church in that city, as a token of affectionate esteem, which his long term of usefulness and benevolence has awakened among all classes, and more especially as a proof, however slight, of the high appreciation with which his noble and unselfish conduct during the yellow fever epidemic of 1871 is regarded by his countrymen throughout the Argentine Republic.

The truly generous is the truly wise;
And he who loves not others lives unblest.


Quoted in Records of the Scottish Settlers in the River Plate and their Churches, James Dodd, Buenos Aires 1897.
The Plague (excerpts) pp 350-358
Decree p 358
Presentation pp 366-367
Note: "Vasura" is a phonetic rendering of the word basura (rubbish, trash).
Rev Ash mispells conventillo (tenement) as conventilla.
Dr. Nathaniel Hiron served with the Comission Popular for the duration of the epidemic. He wrote of his experiences in series of articles in the Medical Times and Gazette.

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