Every genealogist and historian knows the basic facts about the so-called Spanish Flu epidemic and its devastating effects on post-First World War Europe and America. However, through my own family history I have encountered several deaths all directly caused by another terrible pandemic disease which became rife throughout the world in the mid 1850’s: the 1854 cholera epidemic.
I must admit I knew very little about this disease before I started reading about it today. I knew it is a highly contagious disease which basically causes watery diarrhoea and intense vomiting, leading to severe dehydration and ultimate death in untreated or extreme cases. People can contract cholera by drinking contaminated water or else eating food which has come into contact with animal faeces –I’ll leave the more graphic details for another time. One can only guess at the terrible consequences cholera may have brought on the world’s population in the 1850’s, when antibiotics and other useful drugs were simply non-existent.
The 1853-54 pandemic apparently began somewhere in the Asian subcontinent around 1845. It was probably through the trade route connecting Asia with Europe that the disease had found its way through to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) by 1847, and less than six years later it had already manifested itself in the port-city of Vigo, in the Spanish region of Galicia. And that is how my relatives began to fall like nine-pins.
The area of Galicia had always been much poorer and underdeveloped than many other regions of Spain. Even today it is a highly agricultural area, dominated by the cool, rainy weather which inadvertently reminds native Galicians of our remote Celtic roots. The months prior to the epidemic had been particularly harsh, and a famine similar to that which struck Ireland a few years before had already taken its toll on the population. Nothing would have prepared the locals for what was to come next.
Probably the first victim of the disease accounted for in my family tree was a distant relative called Juliana de Agra, who passed away aged 82 on 1st September 1854. Exactly ten days later, her son Manuel García, aged 55, certainly died of cholera, according to the medical report. Two weeks elapsed before the family was struck again by cholera, causing the death of Manuel’s first cousin Juana Gudín on 26th September and her daughter María Ramona Ronquete the previous day. Today I found out that my 5x great-grandfather’s younger brother Joaquín Martínez died at the age of 83 on 3rd October 1854 of cholera. So ill was he that the local priest was not even able to minister him with the sacrament of Eucharist, before the patient’s inevitable demise. Tragically, his 24 year-old son Segundo Martínez died himself only two days later, having recently completed his University studies. It was so dangerous to leave the bodies unburied that the local vicar was compelled to bury them straight away.
Naturally, my family was not the only one affected in the area. The books containing burial records at the time are full of notes about the deaths caused by cholera. The consequences of such an agonizing disease on a small, poor region like Galicia are unimaginable. In fact, the effects were so devastating, that even the Spanish press begged the government to quarantine the whole area of Galicia. Their efforts were to no avail.
Even as cholera stopped claiming its many victims in Galicia, it somehow managed to penetrate Spain through another channel. Later that same year the disease entered Barcelona via Marseille, thus becoming rife all along the Mediterranean coastline. Meanwhile, military manoeuvres in Andalucía helped to spread cholera across the south of the Iberian Peninsula. In growing cities like Malaga over 300 people died in less than a month. They say that underneath La Coruña’s cemetery of San Amaro there are thousands of people buried after being killed in the 1854 pandemic. Heaven knows how many stories have been left untold because of the cholera epidemic.