Disaster Caused by Drought and Famine: The Plague of Benghazi in 1858-1859 According to the Physicians of the Ottoman Sanitary AdministrationÖzgür Yılmaz
Although plague epidemics which killed millions of people throughout history, ceased to be a problem for Western Europe from the early eighteenth century on, outbreaks continued to occur in the Ottoman Empire. Located at the crossroads of major trade routes, Ottoman lands experienced plague outbreaks until the first half of the nineteenth century. If plague lost its former power after the 1830s and was partially controlled, it continued to be seen in different parts of the empire. One of the places where it emerged, surprising the medical authorities of its time, was Benghazi. The epidemic that emerged in 1858 was previously thought to be typhus; however, later investigations revealed that it was plague. One of the features that made this epidemic interesting was the activities of the physicians that the Ottoman Sanitary Administration sent to the region as part of the battle against the epidemic. The reports of these physicians about their investigations and the activities they carried out in the region make possible to conduct a detailed study of the 1858-1859 Benghazi plague epidemic. This study aims to reveal the story of this epidemic through physicians’ reports and archival documents.
Kuraklık ve Kıtlıkla Gelen Felaket: Osmanlı Sıhhiye İdaresi Hekimlerine Göre 1858-1859 Bingazi Veba SalgınıÖzgür Yılmaz
Tarih boyunca milyonlarca insanın ölümüne neden olan veba salgınları on sekizinci yüzyılın başlarından itibaren Batı Avrupa için bir sorun olmaktan çıksa da ticaret yollarının üzerinde bulunan Osmanlı coğrafyasında görülmeye devam etmiş ve on dokuzuncu yüzyılın ilk yarısına kadar Osmanlı ülkesini etkilemeyi sürdürmüştür. Veba, 1830’lardan sonra eski gücünü yitirse ve kısmen kontrol altına alınsa da imparatorluğun değişik yerlerinde görülmüştür. Dönemin tıp çevrelerini şaşırtacak şekilde vebanın ortaya çıktığı yerlerden birisi de Bingazi olmuştur.1858’de ortaya çıkan salgın önceleri tifüs zannedilmiş; ancak daha sonra yapılan incelemeler ile veba olduğu ortaya çıkmıştır. Bu salgını ilginç kılan özeliklerden birisi de Osmanlı Sıhhiye İdaresi’nin salgınla mücadele kapsamında bölgeye gönderdiği hekimler ve faaliyetleriydi. Bu hekimlerin bölgede yaptıkları incelemeler ve gerçekleştirdikleri faaliyetler hakkındaki raporları, 1858-1859 Bingazi veba salgını hakkında ayrıntılı incelemeler yapmayı mümkün kılmaktadır. Bu çalışma, hekimlerin raporları ve arşiv belgeleri üzerinden bu salgının hikâyesini ortaya koymayı amaçlamaktadır.
Although plague epidemics which killed millions of people, ceased to be a problem for Western Europe from the beginning of the 18th century on, outbreaks continued to be seen in the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, while the plague was thought to have disappeared, it continued to be seen in different parts of the empire, albeit regionally, and continued to be a worry for the state and the medical community. After a long break in the first half of the century, the first place where the plague occurred in 1858 was Benghazi. The Benghazi epidemic emerged after disasters such as drought, famine, and mass animal deaths that continued for three to four years, in which living conditions were shaken to the core. This epidemic which effected the rural areas where the Bedouins lived, was important in several respects. First, it overturned the prevailing belief in the medical circles that the plague had lost its devastating effects in the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 19th century, and showed that the disease plague was not over yet. The second feature was the geography where the plague occurred. Its appearance in the south of the Mediterranean, such as the Tripoli Province, and between Egypt and Europe caused concern and forced the introduction of strict quarantine measures for a while for the safety of both Istanbul and the navigation in the Mediterranean. Another feature of this epidemic was its relatively short-term effect in the site where it appeared, without spreading around and then dying out. In this respect, the Benghazi plague of 1858 represents a typical example of “plague epidemics with regional effects” that emerged in the 19th century.
The Ottoman government took several measures in order to fight against the epidemic. First of all, priority was given to Istanbul: Strict quarantine measures were taken to ensure the sanitary safety of the city. As Benghazi was quite far from the capital, the State’s intervention came, albeit late for taking the outbreak under control. For this reason, the Ottoman government, through the Tripoli Province administration, sent orders to the officials of the places where the epidemic was effective, and asked for the implementation of the sanitary measures and security. The most important step taken by the government was undoubtedly the sending of physicians affiliated to the Ottoman Sanitary Administration, from Istanbul to Benghazi to determine the nature of the disease and control the outbreak.
As first commission the physicians sent to Benghazi were Dr. Bartoletti (1808-1894) and Dr. Amadeo. Their short-term mission to Benghazi not only revealed the nature of the disease, but also guided the measures to be taken in the future. His short inspection revealed that more physicians were needed to control the disease in the regions and to carry out the necessary studies. Therefore, a commission consisting of five physicians, headed by Dr. Amadeo as an inspector-physician, was formed and sent to the region. However, it is unclear whether commission was active in the places where it served, especially in Benghazi. Since the inadequacy of this second commission caused complaints from the health authorities in Istanbul, this commission was dismissed and third commission headed by Dr. Barozzi was sent to the region. During Barozzi’s inspectorship, the epidemic lost its power and disappeared. Barozzi has been a successful inspector: He effectively combat the obstacles faced by physicians who went to the region before, and to “scientifically” examine the epidemic in detail in accordance with the expectations of the health authorities in Istanbul”.
Previously, there was uncertainty about the type of disease afflicting Benghazi. It seems that this uncertainty arose primarily from the wrong decisions taken by the physician in charge of Benghazi regarding the disease, as well as from the belief that the plague had completely disappeared because it had not occur for a long time. On the other hand, since the plague would bring strict quarantine measures, the official announcement of the disease in Benghazi created undesirable conditions in terms of “local interests”. Therefore, it was only about three months after the appearance of first cases that the disease was officially declared to be a plague and the necessary measures started to be taken. In this process, doubts about “nature of the disease” were removed after the investigations of competent and experienced physicians sent to the region, and it was accepted that the disease was plague.