HC Deb 19 May 1825 vol 13 cc789-92

On the order of the day for bringing up the report on the above bill being read,

Sir I. Coffin

said, he felt it his duty to make a few observations on the present occasion. He could, from his own personal observations, state, that the plague was contagious. When he was at Malta, the disease was brought to Valetta by a shoemaker through the medium of some leather. The man died, and so did the family with whom he resided. The disease was soon pronounced to be the plague, and spread rapidly; and had it not been for the precautions adopted by sir Thomas Maitland and the other English officers on the spot, he did not doubt that all the inhabitants would have perished. A cordon sanitaire was drawn round Valetta, and every person who attempted to pass it was shot. The disease was at length subdued, after five thousand of the inhabitants had been carried off. It was next conveyed to the island of Goza, in the clothes of some of the persons who died at Valetta, and six hundred people were destroyed in the island. Whatever might be the difference of opinion in England with respect to the doctrine of contagion, he could assure the House, that in those countries where the plague had most frequently appeared, there was but one opinion on the subject. From Goza the disease was conveyed to Corfu by means of a skein of cotton, which was carried thither by a young lady, who perished with all her family. At Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers, it was the custom of the Franks, as Christians were there called, the moment the plague made its appearance, to shut themselves up in their houses, to receive their food on the roofs, and to eat only stale bread; for new bread had the faculty of conveying the disease. In consequence of taking these precautions there was scarcely an instance of a Frank falling a victim to the plague. A ship sailed every year from Alexandria to Algiers, laden with the clothes of those who had died of the plague; and thus the disease was continually renewed. We were in the habit of importing a great quantity of cotton from the Delta; and if the plague should prevail at that place, he had no doubt that it would be brought into this country. All articles coming from the Delta ought to be scrupulously examined. A writer, he perceived, had lately maintained, that the plague was not contagious. This could only be some hyperborean philosopher with a hide like a rhinoceros. It had likewise been stated, that the plague hod never been introduced into England. That was not correct. The plague had prevailed in England four different times. and 168,000 people had been carried off by it.

Lord Belgrave

said, that to prove that the plague was contagious, no more was necessary than to refer to the case of Dr. M'Lean, who went to Constantinople to endeavour to ascertain the fact. He ex- pressed a desire to be placed where the disease was raging most. His wish was complied with, and the consequence was, that he caught the plague, though it did not end in his death. It was really astonishing that members of that House should contend that the disease was not contagious. If any proof were wanting to show the fallacy of that opinion, it might be found in what the gallant officer had stated with respect to the conduct of the Franks in the countries of the East. The instant the plague appeared, they closed their doors, subjected all their food to the process of fumigation, and shot their cats; for it was known that those animals could convey the disease. Having taken these precautionary measures, it never happened that they were affected by the disease. The Mahometans, on the other hand, who considered the plague to be a sacred disease—who were told by their religion, that if they perished by it, they would be received at once into the bosom of Mahomet, or what perhaps they would rather prefer, would be permitted to enjoy everlasting fruition in the arms of the houris, took no precautions against catching the disease, and were therefore carried off by thousands. He knew a respectable merchant connected with the Levant Company, who expected, by the operation of the bill, to put into his pocket about 4,000l. or 5,000l; but, much to his credit, he had publicly stated that he should do so with regret, because he considered it as the price of blood. The difficulties which we should experience in our export trade, in consequence of passing the bill, would more than counterbalance any advantage which might result from it to the import trade. In Marseilles and Leghorn, England was already considered an infected country; and our ships were not allowed to land their cargoes until they had waited a considerable time. This, no doubt, would be productive of great inconvenience to our merchants. He could not imagine what object the right hon. gentleman could have in bringing in the bill. He had turned the matter over in his mind, and at length he had hit upon the object which the right hon. gentleman had in contemplation. He must intend to establish a joint-stock company for the purpose of extending the burying grounds. He entreated the House to consider the subject well. He trusted that honourable members would oppose the measure; and, like the ancient prophet in the wilderness, "stand between the dead and the living, and stay the plague."

Mr. Bernal

cautioned the House against hastily adopting any measure upon so serious and important a subject.

Mr. Charles Grant

said, that the bill, properly looked at, was open to none of the objections which had been taken to it. The committee of foreign trade had sat last year on the subject of the Quarantine laws. Having received a variety of complaints as to the difficulty and impediment which those laws placed in the way of our commerce, the committee had applied themselves to consider, not whether the plague was or was not contagious, but whether, assuming it to be contagious, any part of the existing restrictions could be dispensed with without danger. He wished that hon. gentlemen had read the report of that committee before they made up their minds on the subject; for the committee bad actually set out by assuming, that the plague was contagious, and had refused even to examine any evidence to the contrary effect. It was the opinion of sir Gilbert Blane, and of several other physicians, decided advocates for the theory of contagion, that, admitting the plague to be contagious, all the provisions of the present bill might be carried into effect with perfect safety. The effect of the bill had been entirely misunderstood by those who opposed it. It did nothing more than go on the principle of the plague being contagious; merely relaxing those parts of the former law which its most strenuous supporters thought consistent with safety. Indeed, he did not think that the House would be justified in proceeding one step further.

Lord Belgrave

said, he did not mean to oppose the bill. His object was to protest against the opinion which prevailed both in and out of the House, that the plague was not contagious.

Mr. John Smith

said, that, as far as this bill went, it had his entire concurrence. The fact was, that the Levant trade, which was very considerable, could not be carried on, unless the tiresome and vexatious regulations of the Quarantine laws were, in some degree, relaxed. After what had been said by the right hon. gentleman, he should not argue the question of contagion; but he could not sit down without saying that his conviction of the non-contagious nature of the plague was undiminished.

Mr. Trant

was decidedly of opinion, that precautions against the plague could not be disused without exposing the country to the consequences of a most frightful experiment. It had been said, that the plague never passed beyond certain boundaries; but he could contradict that, by stating, that the plague travelled into Arabia, which was near the Red Sea, and into Upper Egypt.

The report was then received.