HC Deb 19 May 1846 vol 86 cc877-82

moved, that— An humble Address be presented to Her Majesty that She will be graciously pleased to direct that such Correspondence or Extracts on the subject of the Quarantine Laws as has taken place with foreign Governments since the last Returns to Parliament to be laid on, the Table of this House; and that this House will see with pleasure such relaxations in the existing system as may be compatible with a due regard to public health and the general interests of the nation. The hon. Member commenced by quoting from a petition formerly presented from Dr. Maclean, in which that gentleman gave it as his opinion that the Quarantine Laws were highly objectionable—that they impeded science, produced immorality, obstructed travelling, and restricted commerce, navigation, and manufactures; besides being in many other respects hurtful. He could not mention the name of Dr. Maclean without a passing tribute to a man who had preceded his day in a thorough investigation of this question, and opened the way to more enlightened and philosophical legislation. He then proceeded to call the attention of the House to some circumstances which had occurred in connexion with the subject since it was last debated before the House. He had moved for the correspondence which had taken place on the subject of the Eclair; but he regretted that it had not been laid upon the Table. The facts, however, had been to some extent communicated to the public through the press; and he believed there had been a great sacrifice of human life—many new victories added to those of whom the Quarantine Laws had already caused the destruction. In The Times of the 30th of September last, he found some important statements with reference to that unfortunate vessel, contained in a letter from Portsmouth:— Arrived this morning (September 29), the Eclair, with the yellow flag and black ball in the centre, emblematic of death on board. The awful number of sixty-two have died in the vessel, and others are dying hourly. No communication is allowed. Twenty-three are ill. The surgeon was alive this morning, and answered that the mortality was from a fever, between the yellow and the black. The Custom House authorities are fearful of removing any one. We believe fresh provisions have been sent to the vessel; but cannot find out whether any human assistance has been rendered. If she remains, she will have to ride out forty days quarantine; but it is probable she will be supplied with fuel and fresh provisions, and sent for a cruize to the North Sea. The Admiralty despatches are landing, but nothing else. A boat rows guard round the vessel to prevent communication and consequent contagion, as well as to prevent any one escaping. September 30:—The malady still rages, three more deaths have been announced, and two new cases. The Custom House officers dare not go on board. The next day it was stated— The statement that the sick had been removed to Haslar Hospital is without foundation. No one is allowed to go on board or leave the vessel. Those men, always so ready to assist others in any time of danger, were here, in consequence of the Quarantine Laws, left without relief. They come home from a pestilential climate. The vessel filled with the miasmata of disease is a lazar house. Humanity required their immediate removal to a purer, healthier atmosphere. But there is considerable delay. They are left in the focus of contagion. They might, he believed, have been taken from the vessel without any the slightest danger to others; and thus many have been rescued who were left to perish. And what were the opinions entertained by proper authorities as to the disease itself? Dr. M'William, who had more experience than almost any other medical man on the subject of the African fever, and who was now appointed to investigate the case of the Eclair at Boa Vista, altogether repudiated the theory of contagion. In his interesting Report on the Niger Expedition, where among 145 whites not less than 130 were attacked by the fever, of whom forty died, he stated that all were exposed to the same influences; that two only of the four medical officers who died had been in attendance on fever patients—others escaped who had been in constant intercourse with the sick; and no fact came under his notice affording the slightest evidence that the disease was communicated from one person to another. The Russian Government had appointed a commission to go to the Levant to report on the means of checking the progress of the plague; but that commission went out prepossessed with the theory that if articles of merchandise were subjected to a certain degree of heat, not strong enough to injure the texture, or affect the beauty of the colours, the plague would not be communicated. This he thought had been long ago established; and it was some satisfaction to know that even very decided antagonists averred, that by so simple a process as the subjecting the supposed infected article to the action of caloric, all danger was removed. The Russian commissioners made experiments upon various articles which had been thoroughly impregnated with the pus obtained from plague patients, or upon the garments of persons who had died of the plague. All these garments, the commissioners said, lost the power of communicating the disease when subjected to a certain amount of heat; but it would have been more satisfactory if they had ascertained whether, under any circumstances, such garments ever did, or over could, communicate the plague, even when not subjected to the heat at all. It was well known that in the bazaars in the East, the clothes of plague patients were habitually sold without losing any of their money value. He would next refer to the result of an inquiry made by the Royal Academy of Medicine at Paris, on the authority of the French Government, with a view to their giving an opinion on the Quarantine Laws. The Academy had come to the following conclusions, which in his opinion must leave the whole system of quarantine, as founded on the doctrine of contagion, without any plea or pretence whatever: they had, in the first place, found that the plague was endemic in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey; that its breaking out was to be attributed to the spontaneous action of local and atmospheric causes, and not to its importation from distant quarters. He need scarcely refer to the frequent occurrence of the plague in this country down to the middle of the last century; the history of the plague in the East now was just what it was in the West in remote time. The London bills of mortality showed how frequently it occurred here, and how many thousands it carried off; till it disappeared altogether, as more and more attention was paid to the sanatory condition of the people, by the introduction, for example, of better sewerage, ventilation, and greater comfort to the community generally. At this moment the Tuscan Government was filling up the formerly uninhabitable district known as the Pontine Marshes; and it was becoming gradually peopled, without danger from the causes that formerly made it unfit for life. The next proposition of the French Academy was, that the outbreak and progress of the plague might be arrested, and even prevented, by proper regulations for the public health; and whether it existed in an endemic or epidemic form, it was only to be counteracted by removing the causes which gave it birth. What was true of typhus fever in this country was true of the plague. Circumscribe it, shut it up in close quarters without light and air, and it raged fearfully. He had seen it again and again, that a crew arriving in perfect health had perished from being delivered over to the tender mercies of the sanatory laws. The result the commission arrived at was, that the plague is an epidemic disease, and that it is propagated by atmospheric influences, and not by contagion. The commission had carried on their inquiries on the widest scale, drawing information from every source, and being themselves men of the highest medical authority, and having examined every traveller who was likely to give useful information. Another resolution they came to was this, that the plague was never known to exist in a latent state beyond the period of eight days. Wherever, therefore, a vessel had spent nine or ten days in its voyage with no sickness on board, there would be no risk whatever in admitting her crew to free pratique. Now, there was no plague accession in a voyage of nine days; and hence there was not a shadow of a plea for submitting passengers to quarantine when all on board were well. Then came another very important resolution, that the plague was not conveyed by goods or merchandise. When he had moved for a return of the persons who had the manifestation of susceptible or infected articles, and who had caught the plague in consequence, the return was nil. There was no record of any disease so communicated. The apprehension of danger was a chimera and a delusion. Goods from plague countries circulated every where. Animals and birds from plague countries wandered every where. They conveyed no contagion, for it was not conveyable. There were no facts to support the present system of quarantine: still these laws were kept up, taxing the commerce of the world, according to the best estimate he could make, to the extent of from 1,000,000l. to 2,000,000l. sterling per annum. He believed in his conscience there was no more evidence of any security given against the plague by these sanatory regulations, than was to be found of the existence of witches or ghosts; and if there were no interested parties connected with these laws, they would not have existed so long. The next deduction the commission arrived at was, that the plague patients alone could create a focus of infection; and that in case of the plague breaking out on board a vessel, it must emanate from persons on board. They brought forward irresistible evidence that the common theories as to the communication of plague were crude and baseless visions—that the Quarantine Laws were not the fit security for the public health. They would bear the tests to which they had been and were now subjected. He felt indebted to the Government for what they had already done, and was quite sure that they would persevere in their efforts to remove the remains of this ancient but exploded system.


thought the time was come when this question ought to be taken up, not only by Her Majesty's Government, but by the Governments of other countries. To abolish these laws would be a step not only in humanity, but towards free trade. The whole of our foreign trade was subjected by them to a delay which was highly expensive, and often ruinous. He thought as much as 120,000l. was annually expended by this country in keeping up the system; and if it was satisfactorily made out that this expenditure was the cause of evil, and not of good, it was surely time to abolish the system. He seconded the Motion.


said, on the part of the Government, he had no objection whatsoever to the production of the Papers and correspondence moved for by the hon. Member opposite. He also expressed his concurrence in all that had fallen from the hon. Member. The apprehensions which long existed in this country about the supposed contagious character of this disease, were losing ground, and it was desirable that these restrictions upon commercial intercourse should be done away with, without exciting any unnecessary alarm. From the communications he had received since this subject was last under discussion he hoped that foreign Governments would soon be convinced, from the result of the experiments which had been made to investigate the question of contagion, of the impolicy of continuing the system much longer. The preservation, however, of our own commerce in the Mediterranean required that we should deal with the matter judiciously and deliberately.


wished also to say a few words on the present question. It was worthy of observation, in connection with this subject, that it had been ascertained when the thermometer rose to 80 degrees in any country where the plague was in existence, that disease ceased and yellow fever began. The hon. Member here referred to the evidence given before a Committee of the House in 1824, to show that the fact of the influence of warmth in checking the plague, was known and ascertained. It had been said in the same evidence, that in those countries where, for three or four months in the year, the temperature was so high as 80, the quarantine laws were utterly useless. What good, then, was there in continuing them, if contagion was proved not to exist? There were localities in our own country where, from poverty, dirt, bad food, and want of ventilation, diseases as bad, or may be worse than the plague, were of common concurrence. He concurred in what the hon. Member opposite had said about the Eclair, and he firmly believed, but for the operation of the quarantine laws, that more than one-half of those who had so perished in such a lamentable manner would have been saved.


having suffered severely from the quarantine laws, was glad to hear that Government was about to reconsider the subject. The system was one which had inflicted serious injury on the trade of this country. He was at Gibraltar when the cholera broke out in England, and the consequence was that vessels arriving from Great Britain were obliged to go to Malta to ride quarantine, and then come back and land their cargoes at the rock, from eight to ten weeks being lost in the operation. He believed that the effects of the present quarantine law were to check the advance of science, literature, and commerce. Anything that could induce the different nations of Europe to establish the same period of quarantine for vessels coming from the same countries would be a very great advantage over the present system.


hoped that they would not trust to scientific means for the prevention of disease rather than to the goodness of Providence. He did not like to talk of judicial visitations, but it would be remembered that it was just after the report of the French savants declaring cholera not to be contagious, that the disease broke out in Paris and ravaged France.

Motion agreed to.