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- Equinoctial Regions of America - 80/104 -


coast of Terra Firma, the real typhus of America, which is known by the names vomito prieto (black vomit) and yellow fever, and which must be considered as a morbid affection sui generis, was known only at Porto Cabello, at Carthagena, and at Santa Martha, where Gastelbondo observed and described it in 1729. The Spaniards recently disembarked, and the inhabitants of the valley of Caracas, were not then afraid to reside at La Guayra. They complained only of the oppressive heat which prevailed during a great part of the year. If they exposed themselves to the immediate action of the sun, they dreaded at most only those attacks of inflammation of the skin or eyes, which are felt everywhere in the torrid zone, and are often accompanied by a febrile affection and congestion in the head. Many individuals preferred the ardent but uniform climate of La Guayra to the cool but extremely variable climate of Caracas; and scarcely any mention was made of the insalubrity of the former port.

Since the year 1797 everything has changed. Commerce being thrown open to other vessels besides those of the mother country, seamen born in colder parts of Europe than Spain, and consequently more susceptible to the climate of the torrid zone, began to frequent La Guayra. The yellow fever broke out. North Americans, seized with the typhus, were received in the Spanish hospitals; and it was affirmed that they had imported the contagion, and that the disease had appeared on board a brig from Philadelphia, even before the vessel had entered the roads of La Guayra. The captain of the brig denied the fact; and asserted that, far from having introduced the malady, his crew had caught it in the port. We know from what happened at Cadiz in 1800, how difficult it is to elucidate facts, when their uncertainty serves to favour theories diametrically opposite one to another. The more enlightened inhabitants of Caracas and La Guayra, divided in opinion, like the physicians of Europe and the United States, on the question of the contagion of yellow fever, cited the instance of the American vessel; some for the purpose of proving that the typhus had come from abroad, and others, to show that it had taken birth in the country itself. Those who advocated the latter opinion, admitted that an extraordinary alteration had been caused in the constitution of the atmosphere by the overflowings of the Rio de La Guayra. This torrent, which in general is not ten inches deep, was swelled after sixty hours' rain in the mountains, in so extraordinary a manner, that it bore down trunks of trees and masses of rock of considerable size. During this flood the waters were from thirty to forty feet in breadth, and from eight to ten feet deep. It was supposed that, issuing from some subterranean basin, formed by successive infiltrations, they had flowed into the recently cleared arable lands. Many houses were carried away by the torrent; and the inundation became the more dangerous for the stores, in consequence of the gate of the town, which could alone afford an outlet to the waters, being accidentally closed. It was necessary to make a breach in the wall on the sea-side. More than thirty persons perished, and the damage was computed at half a million of piastres. The stagnant water, which infected the stores, the cellars, and the dungeons of the public prison, no doubt diffused miasms in the air, which, as a predisposing cause, may have accelerated the development of the yellow fever; but I believe that the inundation of the Rio de la Guayra was no more the primary cause, than the overflowings of the Guadalquivir, the Xenil, and the Gual-Medina, were at Seville, at Ecija, and at Malaga, the primary causes of the fatal epidemics of 1800 and 1804. I examined with attention the bed of the torrent of La Guayra; and found it to consist merely of a barren soil, blocks of mica-slate, and gneiss, containing pyrites detached from the Sierra de Avila, but nothing that could have had any effect in deteriorating the purity of the air.

Since the years 1797 and 1798, at which periods there prevailed dreadful mortality at Philadelphia, St. Lucia, and St. Domingo, the yellow fever has continued its ravages at La Guayra. It has proved fatal not only to the troops newly arrived from Spain, but also to those levied in parts remote from the coasts, in the llanos between Calabozo and Uritucu, regions almost as hot as La Guayra, but favourable to health. This latter fact would seem more surprising, did we not know, that even the natives of Vera Cruz, who are not attacked with typhus in their own town, sometimes sink under it during the epidemics of the Havannah and the United States. As the black vomit finds an insurmountable barrier at the Encero (four hundred and seventy-six toises high), on the declivity of the mountains of Mexico, in the direction of Xalapa, where oaks begin to appear, and the climate begins to be cool and pleasant, so the yellow fever scarcely ever passes beyond the ridge of mountains which separates La Guayra from the valley of Caracas. This valley has been exempt from the malady for a considerable time; for we must not confound the vomito and the yellow fever with the irregular and bilious fevers. The Cumbre and the Cerro do Avila form a very useful rampart to the town of Caracas, the elevation of which a little exceeds that of the Encero, but of which the mean temperature is above that of Xalapa.

I have published in another work* (* Nouvelle Espagne tome 2.) the observations made by M. Bonpland and myself on the locality of the towns periodically subject to the visitation of yellow fever; and I shall not hazard here any new conjectures on the changes observed in the pathogenic constitution of particular localities. The more I reflect on this subject, the more mysterious appears to me all that relates to those gaseous emanations which we call so vaguely the seeds of contagion, and which are supposed to be developed by a corrupted air, destroyed by cold, conveyed from place to place in garments, and attached to the walls of houses. How can we explain why, for the space of eighteen years prior to 1794, there was not a single instance of the vomito at Vera Cruz, though the concourse of unacclimated Europeans and of Mexicans from the interior, was very considerable; though sailors indulged in the same excesses with which they are still reproached; and though the town was not so clean as it has been since the year 1800?

The following is the series of pathological facts, considered in their simplest point of view. When a great number of persons, born in a cold climate, arrive at the same period in a port of the torrid zone, not particularly dreaded by navigators, the typhus of America begins to appear. Those persons have not had typhus during their passage; it appears among them only after they have landed. Is the atmospheric constitution changed? or is it that a new form of disease develops itself among individuals whose susceptibility is highly increased?

The typhus soon begins to extend its ravages among other Europeans, born in more southern countries. If propagated by contagion, it seems surprising that in the towns of the equinoctial continent it does not attach itself to certain streets; and that immediate contact* does not augment the danger, any more than seclusion diminishes it. (* In the oriental plague (another form of typhus characterised by great disorder of the lymphatic system) immediate contact is less to be feared than is generally thought. Larrey maintains that the tumified glands may be touched or cauterized without danger; but he thinks we ought not to risk putting on the clothes of persons attacked with the plague.--Memoire sur les Maladies de l'Armee Francoise en Egypte page 35.) The sick, when removed to the inland country, and especially to cooler and more elevated spots, to Xalapa, for instance, do not communicate typhus to the inhabitants of those places, either because the disease is not contagious in its nature, or because the predisposing causes are not the same as in the regions of the shore. When there is a considerable lowering of the temperature, the epidemic usually ceases, even on the spot where it first appeared. It again breaks out at the approach of the hot season, and sometimes long before; though during several months there may have been no sick person in the harbour, and no ship may have entered it.

The typhus of America appears to be confined to the shore, either because persons who bring the disease disembark there, and goods supposed to be impregnated with deleterious miasms are there accumulated; or because on the sea-side gaseous emanations of a particular nature are formed. The aspect of the places subject to the ravages of typhus seems often to exclude all idea of a local or endemical origin. It has been known to prevail in the Canaries, the Bermudas, and among the small West India Islands, in dry places formerly distinguished for the great salubrity of their climate. Examples of the propagation of the yellow fever in the inland parts of the torrid zone appear very doubtful: that malady may have been confounded with remitting bilious fevers. With respect to the temperate zone, in which the contagious character of the American typhus is more decided, the disease has unquestionably spread far from the shore, even into very elevated places, exposed to cool and dry winds, as in Spain at Medina-Sidonia, at Carlotta, and in the city of Murcia. That variety of phenomena which the same epidemic exhibits, according to the difference of climate, the union of predisposing causes, its shorter or longer duration, and the degree of its exacerbation, should render us extremely circumspect in tracing the secret causes of the American typhus. M. Bailly, who, at the time of the violent epidemics in 1802 and 1803, was chief physician to the colony of St. Domingo, and who studied that disease in the island of Cuba, the United States, and Spain, is of opinion that the typhus is very often, but not always, contagious.

Since the yellow fever has made such ravages in La Guayra, exaggerated accounts have been given of the uncleanliness in that little town as well as of Vera Cruz, and of the quays or wharfs of Philadelphia. In a place where the soil is extremely dry, destitute of vegetation, and where scarcely a few drops of water fall in the course of seven or eight months, the causes that produce what are called miasms, cannot be of very frequent occurrence. La Guayra appeared to me in general to be tolerably clean, with the exception of the quarter of the slaughter-houses. The sea-side has no beach on which the remains of fuci or molluscs are heaped up; but the neighbouring coast, which stretches eastward towards Cape Codera, and consequently to the windward of La Guayra, is extremely unhealthy. Intermitting, putrid, and bilious fevers often prevail at Macuto and at Caravalleda; and when from time to time the breeze is interrupted by a westerly wind, the little bay of Cotia sends air loaded with putrid emanations towards the coast of La Guayra, notwithstanding the rampart opposed by Cabo Blanco.

The irritability of the organs being so different in the people of the north and those of the south, it cannot be doubted, that with greater freedom of commerce, and more frequent and intimate communication between countries situated in different climates, the yellow fever will extend its ravages in the New World. It is even probable that the concurrence of so many exciting causes, and their action on individuals so differently organized, may give birth to new forms of disease and new deviations of the vital powers. This is one of the evils that inevitably attend rising civilization.

The yellow fever and the black vomit cease periodically at the Havannah and Vera Cruz, when the north winds bring the cold air of Canada towards the gulf of Mexico. But from the extreme equality of temperature which characterizes the climates of Porto Cabello, La Guayra, New Barcelona, and Cumana, it may be feared that the typhus will there become permanent, whenever, from a great influx of strangers, it has acquired a high degree of exacerbation.


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