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Echoes from Pandemics Past in Gibraltar: Neutral Ground & Fever Epidemics

Sawchuk, L and L. Tripp

In our last article, we described the fever tickets that were used for restricting the movement of people during the yellow fever epidemic of 1828.

Gibraltar Yellow Fever immunity passports

The successful implementation of such tickets was contingent on the coordination with the quarantine encampments at the Neutral Ground which separated Gibraltar from Spain.

This form of quarantine that relied on the segregation of the ill or healthy to minimize the transmission of the disease was especially pertinent considering the limited territory, the daily influx of hundreds of workers, and the population size that was well beyond its ability to provide adequate housing and sanitation.

The Neutral Ground as a Place of Quarantine

When only a few cases of yellow fever had appeared in the fall of 1810, authorities swiftly and secretly established a place for quarantine at the Neutral Ground.

In October, the sick in the Town, were forcibly removed from their houses and sent to the encampment in the middle of the night. The newly appointed Chief Medical Officer of Health, Doctor Pym, ordered the pitching of tents.

Persons who passed through the 1804 fever were assigned to purifying and fumigating homes of the sick. The quarantine was lifted on November 24th, and families were allowed to return to their homes.

Gibraltar Pandemic Neutral Ground Spain Yellow Fever Epidemic history

During the epidemics of 1813 and 1814, the Neutral Ground again acted as a place to hold the sick. Historian, Dr. Sam Benady, points out that during interepidemic periods, a temporary village on the Neutral Ground served as a place where the inhabitants could escape the crowding and hot summer months.

Permits were granted to occupy places outside the fortress walls as early as July 1817, and among the first was a boatman from Genoa who had resided in Gibraltar for 33 years, who was granted permission to reside on the Neutral Ground.

The Transition to Protective Sequestration

On Monday September 1st, 1828, the Garrison was thrown into great alarm as suppressed whispers of the words: epidemia and vomito negro were heard in the streets and patios that the dreaded fever had reappeared.

A directive to the Inspector’s Office on September 6th required that all persons who had passed through the fever could remain in the Garrison. This liberty, however, did not extend to families in which at least one member had never been infected with yellow fever.

Within one day, upwards of two thousand civilians, were ordered to reside in Neutral Ground encampment. With slight wind blowing from the SW and temperatures in the 70s that day, the mass movement of people carrying their belongings to the camp would have been a sight to behold!

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Exactly when the practice of using the Neutral Ground as a place of protection is not clear. An account by Dr. Fraser (as quoted in Vandervelde and Garcia’s book, Quarantine and Disinfection of Mail]), suggests that by July of 1819 the camp outside the city was used for people who has passed through ‘the fever.’

The encampment at the Neutral Ground also served as a center for aid relief during the epidemic.

Food was provided by private charitable donations, and shelter was provided by the Colonial government.

Spain played an important role throughout the epidemic in liberally providing food at the special marketplace (the Palenque).

Further, the Spanish King donated a substantial contribution of wheat and flour for feeding the poor. By September 11th, provisioning the distressed in the encampment became a concern. Thomas Godfrey Turner, the Chairman of the Committee for the Relief and Regulation of the Civil Camp, solicited donations in the local newspaper from persons local and abroad.

Three civilian medical practitioners. paid from government funds, monitored the health of those living in the encampment.

The Encampments in 1828

Gibraltar Pandemic Neutral Ground Spain Yellow Fever Epidemic history
Inhabitants housed in a tent in the Civil Encampment. Drawing by J. Ruby

There were two separate camps on the Neutral Ground, one for the civilians and another for the military. The civilian camp consisted of one hundred and eighty-six brown stained sheds, which held one thousand and sixty-three inhabitants.

There were also seven hundred and seventy-five tents which held another two thousand eight hundred and seventy-eight civilians. The door of the tents faced north or east.

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The tents were placed at a distance of three or four feet apart from each other, and the streets were only ten to twelve feet wide. Most of the sheds or tents were numbered.

The typical size of the shed or wooden hut was fourteen square feet. Larger sheds, however, were available, and some were turned into apartments occupied by different families.

The daily routine of the camp would have been a sight to behold, and a disturbing one. By October, two ‘dead carts’ carrying the bodies of the those who succumbed to the fever, from the hospital to the centre of the camp, to be buried in long trenches.

Every morning, the physician in charge of the camp, Dr. Turner collected daily returns from the tents, sheds, lazaretto, and makeshift hospital.

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Three times a week Governor Don would arrive from his cottage located in the South to inspect the camp; police and health inspectors passed through the streets of the camp on a regular basis.

While most encamped at the Neutral Ground escaped the fever, those who contracted the fever were required to hoist a yellow flag over their shed or tent.

The infected would then be transferred to the makeshift hospital, and his/her co-residents would be placed in the lazaretto of observation.

The bedding and clothes of the sick and dead were burned on the nearby beach in the evenings, creating a constant and eerie reminder of the ongoing epidemic as fire and smoke would light up the night sky.

Yet, daily life continued in the encampment as it was reported that one of the larger sheds (#30) served as a synagogue occupied by 7 persons; on Saturdays, twenty to twenty-five men assembled together for prayers.

The Chief Rabbi inspected all provisions obtained from the Palenque. In another shed (#85), Ms. Luiji held classes for the young children.

Those encamped on the Neutral Ground were able to bring their domestics, pets, and in one case a pet monkey.

Restoring some semblance of normality, one shed (#55) had their accommodation surrounded on all sides by flower beds.

The military camp held men, women, and children from the 12th Regiment, 42nd Regiment, and 43rd Regiment. To offset the daily monotony, there were reports that off duty men would play cricket.

Over four months, a total of eight thousand individuals, military and civilians combined, encamped at the Neutral Ground.

With the cessation of cases in late December, the encampment was disassembled and removed in January 1829.

While the Pallenque would continue to be used during quarantines of whole the Town (with the erection of a sanitary cordon) for cholera epidemics until 1880s, the encampments as described here ceased with the last Great Fever of 1828.

The success in the encampment in limiting yellow fever infections, was largely attributed to the lack of standing water that would have served as breeding sites for the mosquito (Aedes aegypti).

The segregation and sequestrating of the healthy subsection of the population, however, required meticulous contact tracing, a scale of undertaking that was formidable, considering it predated knowledge of the bacterial revolution.

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