The Port of Marseilles, May 1720
The Grand-Saint-Antoine slid into sight. Port authorities at the French Port of Marseilles had been informed and they stood waiting.
“Monsieur*, do we allow the ship to dock in the main port?”
“Merci, Non*. We need to inspect it first. Make sure you check the ship’s log. Call me when you are ready,” Monsieur LeBlanc, the Officer in charge barked out the orders and walked away. He was cautious, no doubt. All ships that made it to the port were subject to such scrutiny. He ran through the procedures in his mind. The Sanitation Board had been formed in the 1600s for a reason. It boasted of a well-established three-tiered control and quarantine system. And it had been in place successfully for the last hundred years or so.
A few hours later, Monsieur LeBlanc greeted the ship’s captain along with members of the sanitation board. The captain’s log mentioned that the ship had previously called at Smyrna, Tripoli and Cyprus. It had recently departed from Sidon in Lebanon before finding its way to the Port of Marseilles. The sanitation board members went through their master list which kept track of all plague-ridden countries and realized that Cyprus was on the dreaded list.
The following facts also surfaced as they did a thorough scan of the ship’s log. A Turkish passenger had died on board. A few crew members had died in quick succession and even the ship’s surgeon had not been spared. The ship had also been refused entry in Livorno, Italy. A quick inspection of the remaining crew members drew only one possible conclusion.
Quarantine is a must! After confirming the same with the sanitation board members, Monsieur LeBlanc permitted it to anchor at Pomègues Island, a little further from the main port. It was one of the lazarets. Each lazaret was located outside the Marseilles harbor and simply put, was a quarantine center. Quarantine depended upon the severity of the plague symptoms and ranged between 18 to 60 days. If members were declared plague free after the quarantine period, they were allowed to enter the city and sell their goods. They were also given the opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves, before sailing away on another trip.
Marseilles during that time, was an important port due to its monopoly on French trade with the Levant region. It boasted of huge stocks of imported goods in its warehouses. Business was also expanding in the other regions of the Middle East. There were new emerging markets everywhere and the French wished to tap them before the others.
The Grand Saint-Antoine was carrying precious fabrics of silks and cotton cargo and the merchants watched in trepidation as it was sent to dock at the lazaret. Their united thought was If only we can lay our hands on the goods earlier…
A few weeks passed and as Monsieur LeBlanc walked into his office, he was surprised to see some men waiting for him. On closer inspection, he realized that it was the merchants’ congregation.
“Monsieur LeBlanc. And how are you today?” they greeted him.
Merde*. What are they doing here now? He was unable to comprehend the reason for this sudden visit.
“Gracie, Messieurs*. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“Umm, Monsieur, you know how these times are. Trade is picking up in the other parts of the world. And well, we were hoping to discuss the Grand Saint-Antoine with you!”
“Huh! I don’t understand. The ship is in quarantine. I don’t think there is anything to discuss,” he scoffed.
“Well, but there is. Come now, Monsieur. Times are tough and a stringent quarantine is only bad for the business,” the leader pleaded.
“Non*, non! It is out of the question. Quarantine rules are in place for a reason. You have to understand,” Monsieur LeBlanc’s voice hesitated for a moment as he said those words.
This was not missed by the leader of the congregation and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“Monsieur, I beg you. I mean…,” he paused before continuing, “surely there must be a way to get the goods out into the market earlier, n’est ce pas*?”
Is there a way? Monsieur LeBlanc asked himself. As per common diktat, the ship had to be quarantined for at least another month. But he also knew the consequences in the trade business when a ship was left in quarantine for so long. With new trade business opening up, each day counted.
Bien sûr! It’s time for the grand medieval fair at Beaucaire. An annual event, he now understood the urgency of the merchants to lay their hands on those precious fabrics. Well, there is no problem that a little money can’t solve. He smiled to himself. Greed had just sown a seed in his heart and he would be a fool to let it go.
“Ahh! I agree. But you do understand that there is a price for everything,” eyes gleaming, Monsieur LeBlanc rubbed his hands together as he quoted the figure.
A collective gasp was let out by the group. After much discussion and negotiation, the amount was agreed upon and cash changed hands in that small room. The group dispersed with the promise of the arrival of the Grand Saint-Antoine on the Marseilles docks soon.
The crew heaved a sigh of relief as they docked at the Port of Marseilles. As the goods were unloaded and placed in the warehouse, the tired men headed for a night around town. Their first of many to come.
The Marketplace, Marseilles, June 1720
Jostling and pushing, Charlotte made her way through the crowd. The marketplace was buzzing as the merchants laid out the wares on display. Women, young and old hopped from stall to stall, watching, examining and bargaining. They all seemed on a mission to out do each other and steal the best deals.
Not many of them paid attention to her. Appearances mattered and Charlotte knew how women of her class were treated. Yet, she couldn’t stop smiling and thinking about her last time with Monsieur Ralph. It had been bliss.
She realized that she was falling in love with him. Her Ralph! No one had ever made her feel that way before. What she had experienced in the last two weeks…, she blushed at the mere thought. It seemed unbelievable that she had bumped into Ralph only a short while ago, when he was out for a night around town with his friends. They had landed into Marseilles after their ship the Grand-Saint-Antoine had docked and Monsieur Ralph’s eyes had sought her out amidst the crowd.
A few drinks later, they were in the small, dingy room in bed. It had been exciting. When he had paid her as per their verbal agreement, she hadn’t expected to see him again. Yet, every other night they had.
She lived her nights for him now. He was as smitten with her and had promised to marry her. As soon as he made enough money to settle down after another trip overseas. This was his last week here, before he left. And she intended to make it special for him!
Suddenly, she felt the fever flush again. It had racked her body for a while last night in the wee hours. Putting it down to fatigue, she had ventured to the market.
She better rush back home and rest. Monsieur Ralph was due to visit her tomorrow and she wanted to look her best for him. Mon Amour*! her heart cried.
Dizziness engulfed her out of the blue. Before she could make any sense of it all, she had dropped down to the ground. Unconscious.
The soldiers at the nearest post were informed that a woman had collapsed in the middle of the market. Men were rounded up in a hurry from the infirmary and she was whisked away.
Pain racked her body. It hit in waves and flushed with a raging fever, she shuddered. Nurses scrambled every where around her as some more patients were brought in. Doctors barked out orders, trying to make sense of this disease that seemed to have descended out of the blue.
As the night progressed, her breathing became labored and beads of sweat accumulated on her forehead. Delirious, she called out, “Ralph, Ralph!” As the nurse sponged her to keep her as comfortable as she could, she noticed the small bubos under her patient’s armpits. Shaken by her discovery, she rushed to inform the doctor. By the time they came back, Charlotte was gone forever. And that was just the beginning.
Palace of Versailles, November 1720
King Louis XV paced back and forth in his chambers. He was waiting impatiently for his messenger who brought back news from the other provinces of France on a regular basis.
C’est tellement frustrant*! Let him come back, I am going to bite his head off today, King Louis muttered to himself in irritation.
Footsteps sounded just outside the chambers door and the messenger was ushered in.
“Sorry Your Majesty, I was delayed. There was a commotion outside the city walls and well, I was stuck because of… ,” the messenger fumbled for words.
“Arrête*! I am not interested in your story. Tell me what news you bring. I have been waiting impatiently for an update on the condition of the plague in Marseilles. And it better be good news,” King Louis warned sternly.
“Your Majesty, it isn’t good news, I’m afraid. If at all, the condition is only getting worse. As you are aware, all the wealthy people have already moved out of Marseilles. And each day more and more of the people left behind, are dropping dead like flies. Infirmaries are unable to accommodate more sick people and those who are dead, lie in piles on the streets. The army soldiers are doing their best and digging mass graves. But let me tell you, they are overwhelmed. The doctors, nurses and the soldiers, all of them. I am afraid, but it seems to be the end of Marseilles,” the messenger shook in his boots as he said that. King Louis was known for his temper and the messenger feared for his life. It’s always a case of shoot the messenger first.
“C’est impossible*! That cannot happen. We need to find a solution to this soon. And this entire crisis has descended upon us, all because of one ship! I shall discuss the matter with the Pope. In the meantime, find a way to get more doctors from the neighboring provinces there. It’s a pandemic and we need to curtail it anyhow. Make it clear to those doctors,” King Louis yelled out the orders and the messenger scrambled to comply.
Although more doctors arrived in Marseilles, it had little impact. Small towns on the outskirts slowly turned into ghost towns as the entire population was wiped out. The plague continued to spread and the King was frantic with worry that it would spread to the neighboring provinces and wipe out the whole country.
Under the guidance of the Pope, an urgent committee was set up to suggest a solution to tackle the menace. The committee discussed all possible solutions and a proposal was put forth to the King for his approval.
Marseilles, February 1721
“On the order given by King Louis the Beloved, the following restrictions are imposed. People of Marseilles are not allowed to travel outside the city. Anyone who disobeys the orders and is caught, will be heavily fined and will also be thrown into the dungeons. A strict quarantine is put in place for all those affected by the plague and their families. Everyone including children must obey the orders. Thirty thousand soldiers have been stationed in Marseilles and they will also oversee the building of Le Mur De La Peste*, fifty miles north of the city,” the soldier read the instructions out to the people, which had been received from the Palace of Versailles just that morning.
Palace of Versailles, March 1721
“And what is the latest update from Marseilles?” King Louis asked the messenger who had just arrived with news.
“Your Majesty, the work is progressing well. Le Mur De La Peste is almost complete. It extends from Mt. Ventoux to the Durance river. Two meters high, it will prevent people from going back and forth from each side, thereby reducing the risk of the plague spreading. There are guard towers and ditches in front of it, to avoid any infiltration. And royal soldiers will be standing on guard,” the messenger conveyed all in a rush.
“Good to know that it’s almost ready. Make sure our best soldiers stand guard,” he ordered.
As Le Mur De La Peste rose from the ground, King Louis felt confident about curbing the spread of the disease. But his joy was only short-lived. People from both sides still managed to get past the stone wall and the plague continued to push its way into other parts of the country.
Palace of Versailles, 1722
“Ah, finally! There you are. I have been waiting all morning,” King Louis chided, upon sighting the messenger.
“Your Majesty, I bring good news,” the messenger huffed as he rushed into the King’s chambers.
“Vite*! Tell me, I have been waiting for some good news for a long time now,” King Louis replied, playing along although he knew exactly what the messenger would convey.
“It’s over, Your Majesty! The plague in Marseilles, I mean,” the messenger smiled as he said that.
“Oui*, I just received the final report from the committee. And it’s not only Marseilles, it’s wiped out from the whole of France. We managed to brave it all. The pandemic is over!” the exultant King beamed. The messenger laughed aloud in return, surprised to see a jubilant King.
As he instructed the messenger to carry the news to the other provinces and spread the message of hope amongst its people, King Louis the Beloved finally heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Glossary (French to English):
Monsieur – Mister
Merci, Non – No, thank you
Merde – A mild, humorous substitute for ‘oh,shit!’
Gracie, Messieurs – God’s grace, Misters/ Sirs (Plural form)
N’est ce pas? – Isn’t it?
Non – No
Bien sûr! – Of course
Mon Amour – My Love
C’est tellement frustrant! – This is so frustrating
Arrête – Stop it
C’est impossible – It’s impossible
Le Mur De La Peste – The plague wall of Provence which was built by King Louis, XV
Vite – Quickly
Oui – Yes
The story is a fictional spin on the Great Plague of Marseilles under the rule of King Louis XV (also known as King Louis the Beloved) which claimed over 50,000 lives in Marseilles itself in a span of two years (more than half of the population of Marseilles). Over a 100,000 people lost their lives to the pandemic in the whole of France. The other names and characters are fictional but the essence of the tale is captured by joining the little pieces of history left behind starting with the arrival of the Grand-Saint-Antoine and by following the sequence of events as they occurred.
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