HC Deb 11 March 1825 vol 12 cc993-6
Mr. John Smith

presented a petition from Dr. Charles Maclean on the subject of the Quarantine Laws. The hon. member bore testimony generally to the capability of Dr. Maclean for discussing the subject upon which he petitioned. There was no man's opinion, upon such a question, by which he would more readily be guided.

Mr. Wallace

thought it fit that every attention should be given to prevent abuse, or unnecessary inconvenience, from the operation of the Quarantine laws; but he should look with great jealousy at any proposal either materially to alter or to remove them. It should be recollected, that dealing with the Quarantine laws was not regulating a principle, or arrangement, of trade. A single inadvertency might introduce the plague into the country, and be attended with consequences for which remedy would be impossible.

Mr. John Smith

said, he by no means proposed the repeal of the Quarantine laws.

The petition was then read, setting forth,

"That, Quarantine laws, purporting to be for the preservation of the public health, are founded, on the belief that epidemic diseases depend upon a specific contagion; that their object is, to prevent the introduction and spreading of epidemic maladies generally, but more especially of plague and yellow fever; that the means which they employ are bills of health, quarantine, and lazarettos, and in general every mode of separation, seclusion, and restriction; that this system originated in ignorant and credulous times, has been continued without proof, and rests at this moment upon no other foundations than the assumptions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; that with respect to yellow fever the doctrine of contagion has, by the experienced part of the medical faculty, been for some time abandoned, and that even those who still persist in maintaining it, admit that precautions against this disease are unnecessary in England; that the petitioner trusts he shall be able, even within the compass of a petition, to adduce to the House sufficiently strong grounds for concluding that plague cannot be propagated by contact, that its cause is incapable of being imported, that that cause cannot therefore be a specific contagion, and consequently that Quarantine laws are without an object; that in a Plague-hospital of Constantinople in 1815 the result of a free intercourse upon a large scale between the sick, and persons in health, was proof that the disease is incapable of being propagated by contact, arithmetically as nineteen to one, and that other unequivocal instances of a similar result are within the knowledge of the petitioner; that during the 140 years in which the commerce with Turkey was carried on by the Levant company, previous to the establishment of Quarantine in this country, as well as during the 104 years in which Quarantine has existed, in all 244 years, no disease has been occasioned in consequence of importation by ships, or goods, or persons, into England; that with respect to the last great epidemic of London in 1665, which happened in the interval, 159 years ago, its phanomena have distinctly assigned to it a place amongst epidemics, excluding it, of course, from the number of contagious diseases, the laws of these two classes of maladies being not only dissimilar but opposed; that contagions not being limited to soil, it would have been quite impossible, did the supposed virus exist, that it should not have been in a constant course of importation in the 20,000 vessels that must have arrived in British ports during the first of the above periods, from countries liable to epidemic diseases, and in the 30,000 vessels that must have arrived during the last of these periods, could communities survive such ordeals; that the petitioner humbly submits that the entire absence from sickness among the crews and passengers of 50,000 vessels in 214 years, and among the expurgators of goods in 30,000 vessels in 104 years in England, is proof that pestilential contagion had not been shipped in any one of these vessels, for if it had been shipped it could not have invariably become extinct on the passage, nor could Quarantine have pre-vented its affecting the persons on board, and that it had not been shipped in any one of the numerous cargoes which were imported during that long period of time from countries, in some of which epidemic diseases were almost constantly prevailing, is proof that it does not any where exist; that the House will readily perceive that a specific contagion could not continue to prevail for a long series of years in any one country, without its being conveyed to every other with which that country had intercourse, whether by sea or land; that the non-importation of the cause of plague into England by sea, and into Persia by land, at those times in which it was raging in Turkey, is therefore a most unequivocal proof that that cause is not a specific contagion; that, to reconcile these and other contradictions with which the system abounds, or rather of which it is composed, the doctrines have been invented of susceptible persons, susceptible goods, susceptible seasons, and susceptible countries, of which the House will not fail at once to perceive the absurdity; that, with a similar view, it has been assumed that the supposed virus of pestilence possesses the faculties of self-generation, sleeping, waking, dying, resuscitating, with many other properties equally marvellous; that, in principle, Quarantine laws very much resemble our ancient laws against witchcraft, recently repealed, with this material difference in practice, that whilst they are infinitely more destructive, they have not, however, fallen into disuse; that, as the petitioner has proved at large in works which are before the public, these laws are, in times of pestilence, a powerful additional cause of sickness and mortality, as well as in other respects highly injurious to many of the best interests of communities; that they impede science, produce immorality, obstruct travelling, restrict commerce, navigation, and manufactures, occasion the failure of expeditions and the destruction of armaments, are injurious to the general consumer and the public revenue, and are capable of being, as they have sometimes been on the continent of Europe, rendered subservient to the purposes of despotism; that the detriment which has been sustained by this nation in direct charges of Quarantine, in losses by detention of ships, goods, crews, and passengers, and in consequence of restraints upon commerce and navigation generally, during the 104 years that this singular system has been in operation, must have been enormous; that at home, only, the annual direct charges of Quarantine have for the last 20 years averaged nearly 30,000l., and that the losses by detention of ships and cargoes, according to the number (857) detained last year, may be computed at about 200,000l. annually, independent of similar charges and losses, probably in a greater degree in the colonies; that the evils of these restrictions are incomparably greater in countries where, from the more frequent recurrence of pestilence, they affect life, as in our colonies in the Mediterranean, than where, from its less frequent occurrence, they, for the most part, only affect property, as in England; and that their operation in the colonies is the more calamitous from the dread habitually entertained of pestilential contagion by the inhabitants; that the dread of being abandoned, and the consequences of actual abandonment, when a person is seized with the disease, prove almost certainly fatal; and that many of our friends and relations in the colonies have thus become the victims of deplorable delusion; that in this point of view the delay of even a single season in putting an end to this system would, the petitioner humbly apprehends, be matter of infinite regret; since, were a pestilence of any severity in the mean time to occur in the colonies, many lives and much property might be sacrificed: the Petitioner therefore most humbly prays that the House will be pleased to repeal the Quarantine laws, being without an object, as an absolutely demonstrated evil, as a code eminently anti-commercial, anti-social, and anti-christian; or, should doubts still remain sufficiently strong, in the opinion of the House, to justify hesitation; that the House will be pleased, before any legislative measure of a permanent character shall be adopted on the subject, to direct the public mind, being now better prepared for the discussion and for any consequent change, to a new investigation into all the obtainable facts which may bear on either side of the question, respecting the validity of the doctrines of pestilential contagion."

Ordered to lie on the table.