About ten years ago I was in Marseille, writing a travel piece. I love the city, with its great revolutionary history and its twin seaside fortresses intended by the king—with their cannons trained inward on the city—not to keep Marseille safe from invasion by sea but to keep France and the king safe from… Marseille.
I went up to the then newly hip Cours Julien to see boutiques and new restaurants, and I hung out with early catchers the next morning at the fish market at the port. Later, wrung out by having walked up the steep hill to Notre Dame de la Garde, the beautiful cathedral that sailors have hung with ship models in thanks to the Virgin for saving them from centuries of storms, I made my way down again to talk to the mayor at his office in the Hotel de Ville and then to head over to the Musée des Beaux Arts.
In a big hall in the museum, I sat down on a bench, and wrote down some brief impressions for the piece I was working on. “Rainbow fish, Cours Julien, lots of activity, young fashion wonks, seamstresses from around the globe, idiosyncratic, real feeling of community, mayor ok, blowhard, antique office, la France, cannons, Jewish quarter, Marseillaise,” etc. I was caught up in the life and originality of this great city.
Then I looked up.
On the wall before me hung two huge paintings, very French, grandiose urban scenes, with exquisite renderings of architectural detail that were, while centuries old, clearly recognizable as sites in Marseille. France, still the same, only different. Sight-seers’ pictures, I thought.
But slowly I realized what I was seeing. I stood. The paintings are massive. The setting of one was a perfect, magical rendering of the intersection where the Canabière boulevard meets the Cours Belsunce, and leads down to the sea. Almost a tourist rendering except: in the foreground were piles of the dead and dying, with the living crouching over them in various poses of grief and horror.
I had never heard of a plague in Marseille, but there was one.
The painting, called laconically Cours Belsunce, is filled with activity: priests giving last rites, families loading corpses onto human-pulled tumbrils, a doctor feeling a dying man’s pulse, a woman crying out over an abandoned dead child, stretchers and sheets filled with the dead being pulled to and fro, the wealthy on horseback making ready to leave town, and a bewigged politician, a judge or government official or count, in the midst of it all but set off from the dead, standing and looking blankly at the artist. The buildings of Marseille surveyed the tragedy playing out before them, unmoved, untouched, cold.
The painter was Michel Serre, who lived through the plague and documented it; he was 62 when it began. His other plague painting, also hanging in this room, features a building that looked even more familiar to me than those that lined Serre’s Cours Belsunce, and that turned out to be the site where my interview with Marseille’s mayor earlier that afternoon had taken place.
It was the elegant Hotel de Ville as if photographed today, but with the other painting’s same frenetic deathly activity bubbling and churning at the feet of the glorious but hollow-eyed government building, as if in reproach to France and the monarchy. In the foreground of this tableau were bodies being thrown or hauled into the sea, and, off to one side, a toddler still suckling at his mother’s breast though she was pale and green and no longer among the living.
In 1720, the Grand Saint Antoine, a ship that had been denied mooring at various Mediterranean ports, was finally allowed to dock in Marseille, and was quarantined because one of its previous ports-of-call had been Cyprus, where the plague was known to be rampant. Several of the ship’s sailors swiftly died from the disease (a “foreign virus,” Trump would no doubt have called it), but Marseille merchants preparing to sell materials like silk and cotton, which the ship carried, for a big regional festival, successfully pressured the city’s leaders to lift the quarantine.
The disease quickly took over the city. The regional Provençale government in Aix passed a law forbidding travel out of Marseille on pain of death and a huge stone plague wall was erected around the city the ruins of which are still visible in the Vaucluse. The wall was somewhat successful in protecting the rest of France from the fate of its most important port city, and in two years, this bout of plague had run its course, killing around 50,000 of Marseille’s urban population and another approximately 50,000 in its environs.
You’ll be glad to hear that Marseille soon recovered from its near destruction by plague. Around fifty years later, the city was once again up to its pre-plague population of around 90,000. Why? Well as Trump would have said if he had been King of France (and wouldn’t he like nothing better, really?): “No nation is more prepared or more resilient… We have the best economy, the most advanced health care, and the most talented doctors, scientists and researchers anywhere in the world… As history has proven time and time again, Americans always rise to the challenge and overcome adversity.” Yeah: like the US today, France was then in charge of large parts of the world, and once the Marseillais stopped dying of plague, the city realize it could profit from France’s maritime trade. And that’s what the shippers and traders of Marseille did: they used the city’s port to do vibrant trade with the West Indies and with France’s most productive and possibly cruelest slave colony, Saint-Domingue, later Haiti, as well as with countries in Latin America. During the 1700s, while coffee and sugar from the slave plantations came into port, Marseille sent out more than a hundred ships filled with slaves for sale. And that, my friends, is how Marseille made the stirring comeback from its lowest point.
Interestingly there’s been a rumor echoing around the internet recently about black people’s supposed immunity to the novel coronavirus. No wonder: what a wonderful world this would be if for once black people were spared the consequences of the globalized economies they have had little to do with creating. What a great response to white supremacy! (Rudy Gobert, left, and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz testing positive, and the suspension of the NBA season, however, have certainly given the lie to the myth.)
Of course it’s not true about a racial immunity, but if you look at Africa as a continent in the virus maps, you could be forgiven for imagining such a thing. Africa is looking pretty untouched. I think we can all come up with reasons for this—especially central Africa’s pretty far remove these days from the jittery, over-energized, hyped-up global economy—and the places where we do see infections are precisely those most in touch with the rest of the world: West African countries with ports, South Africa, Northern Africa.
Nonetheless, as of March 11, in all the reporting countries on the entire and vast continent, there were 118 cases and 2 deaths, one in Morocco and one in Egypt, according to Time magazine. Someone is not reporting! And someone is not counting!
In Haiti during the AIDS epidemic, people who had fallen ill—and I met many of them—did not want to report symptoms for fear of being ostracized by the community. The country’s leaders also were not eager to collect the numbers because they feared that the reality of the problem might make the country look like a disease generator. Given concerns about quarantine and contagion with COVID-19, the reporting situation in general is not dissimilar today from the AIDS statistics problems in the 1980s in Haiti.
In other words, those African numbers seem strangely low, especially given China’s deep and ongoing economic and development penetration of the most valuable bits of Africa, and the disease’s original Chinese site of outbreak. No doubt these low numbers (Senegal reporting four cases and zero deaths, with a city like Dakar in it!) led to the black-immunity rumor.
Rumors like these are not without their dangers. A belief in black immunity could lead to carelessness… and illness… and death. A distaste among patients for reporting and a distaste among governments for gathering information conspire to make things seem better than they are, while allowing things to get worse, sometimes much worse.
Thanks for that very well thought out and trenchant essay. I was actually heartened that you included art depicting the reality of contagion and plague. We shall see where this will go…but I am so disappointed at the willful ignorance of so large a swath of the American citizenry.
Thanks, Hans. The history of plagues is very disturbing, not just because of the enormous loss of life but because of political and social upheaval that almost invariable arises in the chaos and disruption. Rumor and violence abound around the causes of contagion, which have often been attributed to purposeful behavior marginalized people or outsiders. Social paranoia is common in these times. Trump calling the new coronavirus “foreign” is absolutely in step with this kind of thing, and an intemperate, frightened, or ignorant leader can easily provoke the violence inherent in society in such moments.
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I’ve been a fan of yours since The Rainy Season came out. That’s where my heart is. So bad now. What will happen when the virus reaches Haiti. I really enjoyed your article about Marseille. Dishonesty will make the virus worse. I worry.