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Isla Lazareto of Mahón Menorca

Menorca Britannia

A Brief History of the Fascinating Isla Lazareto Mahón


The name Lazaretto (correct spelling) is believed to have been derived from the Italian dialect of Nazareto after the Church of Santa Maria di Nazaret (eng. Nazareth) at Genoa, Italy where the first lazaret to be established was run by the nuns from 1403. Another was later established in 1476 at Marseilles, France. No connection then with Lazarus as has been popularly assumed. These Lazaretos (Spanish spelling) were essentially quarantine stations for the “plague”.

In Great Britain during the XVIII century there was a great deal of concern over the spread of the plague which led to the Quarantine Acts of 1710, 1752 and 1788 being passed by the Government.

Britain lost Minorca to the Spanish in 1782 (the end of the second British occupation). It was during that siege that the upper, (above ground), workings of the huge fortress of Sant Felipe were destroyed by the Spanish. The fortress having been under continuous artillery fire with between 80 and 90 shells exploding on the site every hour for 29 days it ended almost as a pile of rubble.

In 1787 the Count of Floridablanca, Charles III of Spain’s Prime Minister gave the order for the construction of such a quarantine station or Lazareto in the Harbour of Mahón. The work did not, however, begin until 1793. The stone from the ruined fortress was then put to good use and recycled, ferried across the harbour by boat to be used in much of the construction of the quarantine station. This construction was, however, interrupted by the third British occupation of 1798-1802, but completed in 1807. The Lazareto was finally opened in 1817 and was in full use until 1917.

The design of the complex can be attributed to the Spanish military engineer Manuel Pueyo. The reason for the sheer size of the complex is perhaps better understood, however, from a British parliamentary paper on quarantine of 1861. ”In Spain the only regular lazaret establishments for the admission of foul arrivals are at Vigo and Port Mahón, such arrivals not being admissible into Cadiz, Barcelona, etc.” In fact Port Mahón served the whole of the Spanish Mediterranean seaboard whilst Vigo covered the Atlantic ports.

Patrick Russell (Treatise of the Plague, 1791), writes “proper lazarettos and quarantines, regularly conducted, are the only means a commercial nation ought to trust in, for preventing the infection of the plague being brought from other countries.” Russell considered a good lazaretto should have one land gate and two water gates and that each water gate have a separate quay “one for receiving merchandise from the ship, the other for delivering them” He also writes “a second wall is sometimes erected, at such a distance from the first as it is impossible to throw any parcel or box”

In Mahón there are two water gates set far enough apart to be out of site of each other and constructed in two totally different styles so that there could be no confusion. The west gate and main entrance is in the traditional Palladian style, the arched entrance flanked by columns surmounted by two rampant lions supporting the coat of arms. The south gate is in the Luis VI style ornamented above by military trophies. The small land gate at the eastern side is plain in comparison and was of no importance as such, especially after the Sant Jorge canal was constructed in the year 1900, the lazareto peninsular then becoming an island.

Lazereto entrance Mahon Menorca

The double walls at Mahón vary between 18ft. and 24ft. in height and are almost a mile in length. As well as making it impossible to throw objects from inside to outside, or vice versa, the wide corridors formed between the two walls also facilitated the movement of inmates from one area to another in a restricted manner and out of contact with others.

The lazareto is separated into various zones for crews and passengers, those merely suspected of disease and others for those actually infected. There is also the area where the medical and ancillary staff would reside, food preparation, laundry etc. etc. Fresh water supply was provided by the several wells on the site and vegetables produced in the gardens. Livestock was husbanded in situ and it is said by the locals that some of the finest lamb on Menorca was produced here. In each zone are beautifully constructed arcaded warehouses where the ships merchandise would be laid out to air and arranged in such a way so that the cargo of each ship was kept separate. Several methods were used to “sterilize” these cargos depending on the type of goods involved. Some were simply exposed to the air, others to the dew and in some cases by fumigation in special smokehouses.

Russell made the point that the superintendent of a lazaretto should have a house “situated to command a view of the whole enclosure”. Here in Mahón’s lazareto such a building was constructed in the center of the complex near the eastern wall. This is built on top of high arches with Baroque style sweeping buttresses and although not a house as such it was from where the superintendent and his deputies could command the whole operation of the complex. (This beautiful tower is scheduled to be refurbished during the coming winter.)

One of the interesting and prettiest features of the complex is the chapel. This is like a tiny tempietto and is raised on a stepped platform and glazed so that the inmates taking mass had good visibility of the priest across a strip of no-mans land from the surrounding circular, cell-like, open and bar fronted stalls. The inmates being well separated one from the other and in turn well away from the priest. The Holy wine and bread was passed to the inmates on a very long-handled shovel-like implement so no human contact would be made.

Lazereto chapel Mahon Menorca

As well as plague the lazareto also dealt with yellow fever, cholera and other highly contagious and deadly diseases. The length of quarantine would vary depending of the suspected disease, the part of the world that the passengers and cargos of the boats originated from and the time of year. An example being that if a ship from the Gulf of Mexico left in June or July destined for the southern ports of Spain, the time of the year when yellow fever would be most prevalent (later found to be transmitted by mosquitoes), then on arrival at Mahón it would normally be quarantined until November when the cooler weather helped to stop the disease spreading. A winter departure would need less time in quarantine due to the weather being cooler during the passage and less likelihood of the disease surviving. Time of quarantine would vary hugely from just 3 weeks up to, in some cases, 5 or 6 months.

All captains would leave their ports of origin with “papers” showing that the ship and cargo were suspect and would be denied access to any other port until they had passed through the quarantine process. In Mahón once the quarantine had been completed and the ship, passengers and cargo were given a clean bill of health the captain would receive a new set of “papers” from the office in Villa Carlos giving a clear right of passage to any of the mainland European ports. During the century the complex was in operation, (from 1817 until 1917), over half a million people passed through the gates and several thousand died and were buried in the still existing cemetery.

The enormous cost of building Mahón’s lazaretto can perhaps be gauged by the £170.000 spent building the lazaretto at Chatham in the early 1800’s.

The whole complex still belongs to the Spanish Ministry of Health and is used during the summer months as a holiday hotel for health workers and their families. There are also health related seminars and courses frequently held here and during the past couple of weeks students studying “epidemiology” from EEC countries who have been attending lectures and researching have been using the facilities.

One of the beautiful warehouses is used as a lecture hall but also houses many medical artifacts and implements used during the period together with copper boilers, fumigators and of great importance one of the very first (and archaic) heart defibrillators produced in Europe. Proudly preserved here, and in mint condition, is the royal barge which carried Queen Isabel II of Spain, rowed by 8 Admirals of the Spanish Navy, from Mahón city down the harbour to the Queens steps at La Mola for the Royal inauguration of the fortress named after her in the year 1860

Lazaretto Menorca

Situated outside the main entrance is a statue off great poignancy. Of a man rising up and breaking the chains that had restrained him for so long. Engraved on the 4 sides of the stone plinth are the names of 4 eminent men of medicine and medical science, of Microbiology, bacteriology and immunology, Louis Pasteur, (France), Juan Carlos Finlay, (Cuban), Sir Alexander Fleming, (Scottish) and Edward Jenner English).

It was Carlos Finlay who, after years of exhaustive and painstaking studies of Yellow Fever, famously theorized in 1881 that it was a particular specie of mosquito, which transmitted the disease from person to person. His hypothesis was confirmed, some 20 years later, by the Walter Reed Commission of 1900. In the words of General Leonard WOOD, physician and U.S. Military Governor of Cuba in 1900. quote “ The confirmation of Dr. Finlay’s doctrine is the greatest step forward made in medical science since Jenner’s discovery of the vaccination”.

The Mahón Lazareto, during its century of working life as such, not only helped stem the spread of various dangerous diseases from other continents into Europe, but dealt with the major outbreaks of Yellow Fever in 1821 and 1870. The quarantine center was finally closed in 1917, in part due to the availability of new vaccines and medicines, but also because of an invasion of MOSQUITOES !!

The above mentioned medical scientists and many other men and women such as them, the staff and medics who worked in such quarantine centers, the adventurers and merchants of the 18th, and 19th. centuries, who traveled around the world with courage and at great risk to their own health, who endured much discomfort, to open up international trading and the eventual freedom to travel that we so enjoy today, It is to them that this article is dedicated.

Bryce Lyons
For the Asociación Menorca Britannia.
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