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The State and the Pandemic: Spain and the 1889-1890 Flu

Plaza Mayor Madrid 1890

COVID-19 has brought the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 sharply into the collective consciousness, but it was not the first worldwide pandemic to be faced by the modern state.

In the winter of 1889, a new type of flu came to Europe. Although it had originated in China, they called it ‘Russian Flu’ because, in November, newspapers – including those in Spain – reported that large numbers of people had fallen ill in St. Petersburg. It would take less than a month to reach Madrid.

With greatly improved transport links, unsurprisingly, it was suspected that the number of people travelling was responsible for its rapid spread. However, recent research has emphasised ‘that the important predictor of the speed of the pandemic is not the absolute numbers of passengers travelling between cities but the “connectedness” of the network of cities.[1] In other words, it only took of a small number of people to spread the flu so quickly across an increasingly interconnected continent.

There had been flu outbreaks in 1836/7 and 1848 but these were little remembered and, in 1889, the Spanish authorities were disastrously slow to react. Despite the press tracking its seemingly inevitable arrival, no preparations had been made. In fact, the flu had probably been circulating undetected for weeks before the government acknowledged it on 17 December. The consequences of this inaction are difficult to establish but, in a recent study, Sara García Ferrero suggests that 65% of all 6,180 deaths in Madrid in the nine weeks that followed can be attributed to the flu.[2] In Barcelona, as many as 52,000 caught the disease.[3]

Understanding of virology was in its infancy and early reports focussed on whether it was in fact flu or, perhaps, dengue fever. Even making allowance for this, official messaging was confused and, initially, the threat was played down. The Provincial Health Board of Madrid met the same afternoon as the government’s acknowledgment to discuss their response; it was remarkably sanguine. La Iberia reported that they had confirmed the presence of ‘a disease, with epidemic characteristics, of the flu or a severe cold, in a very benign form.’ This is particularly surprising considering that, for weeks, the newspapers had been carrying reports of the large numbers taken seriously ill elsewhere. Even more worrying, though, was their contradictory assertion that the ‘disease is not spread by contagion.’[4]

This may have been a deliberate attempt by state functionaries to manage the public reaction to the outbreak and there is further evidence of this phenomenon elsewhere. In Reus, for example, the authorities ordered that church bells no longer be rung for the dead to avoid spreading fear among the population.[5] It was, however, a difficult balance to strike. The endorsement of ‘cures’, such as ¡Pum! (Bang!) – a punch of rum and bitter orange – may have done more harm than good.

Some of the more concrete measures taken were also strikingly modern. Primary schools were closed and the Christmas holiday was extended for older students. A 250-bed field hospital was constructed at the present-day School of Engineering, off the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid. What is particularly notable about these actions is that they were the same as those that had been taken elsewhere. Then, as now, there appeared to be an international consensus about the contours of state intervention. Nevertheless, although such intervention may have slowed the spread, it failed to stop it completely.

The authorities did nothing the limit public gatherings, perhaps for fear of economic damage, but it still came at a cost. On 22 December, La Correspondencía de España reported that as many as 600 soldiers of the Madrid garrison had fallen ill. Despite this, there were signs that a type of social distancing was happening intuitively. People decided to avoid public spaces; streets, shops and cafés were largely deserted, and theatres closed (though only because of high levels of sickness among the performers.)[6]

The longer-term, chronic impoverishment of the Spanish state meant that its capacity for a more exhaustive response was limited. Even the field hospital had to rely at least in part on private donations.[7]

The effects of the pandemic itself also significantly disrupted the provision of public services. Predictably, doctors were particularly vulnerable to catching the flu, but there were also high sickness rates among state officials. Paradoxically, though, some of this disruption served to limit the spread of the virus. Sickness rates among transport workers, for example, disrupted tram and railway services, involuntarily restricting the movement of people.

While these restrictions and relative wealth helped shield the middle class, the poor were disproportionally affected. Plainly because of overcrowding and poor sanitation, but also because the state’s penetration was weakest in the most deprived areas. The measures the authorities introduced had little effect on the lives of the residents there. In a quandary with sad parallels today, many had little choice but risk their health and continue to go out to work.

The flu of 1889-90 was nothing like as deadly as COVID-19, but there are remarkable similarities in the Spanish state’s response. Despite advances in understanding, most countries made similar early mistakes during the current pandemic to those Spain made then. In both cases, this can partly be explained by a lack of scientific knowledge about the threat, but most decisions are also political ones, with intended and unintended consequences.

Eventually the measures were lifted. But only late in January and only when the death rate had returned to normal. In 1890 the lessons had been learned; it remains to be seen whether they will be in 2020. And if they will be remembered more enduringly this time.

Dan Royle is an historian of nineteenth-century Spain. His PhD at the University of Sheffield is on 1848.

Cover Image: Plaza Mayor (ca. 1890), Memoria de Madrid

[1] Alain-Jacques Valleron, ‘Transmissibility and geographic spread of the 1889 influenza pandemic’, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S.A. 107/19 (2010) pp.8778–8781.

[2] Sara García Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890 en Madrid’, Ph.D. thesis (Universidad complutense de Madrid, 2017), p.452.

[3] Bogumiła Kempińska-Mirosławska and Agnieszka Woźniak-Kosek, ‘The influenza epidemic of 1889–90 in selected European cities – a picture based on the reports of two Poznań daily newspapers from the second half of the nineteenth century’, in Medical Science Monitor 19 (2013), pp.1131–1141.

[4] ‘Noticias’, in La Iberia (18 December 1889), p.2.

[5] Quoted in Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890’, p.38.

[6] La Correspondencia de España (22 December 1889), p.3; Ferrero, ‘La gripe de 1889-1890’, p.43.

[7] ‘Boletín sanitario’, in El Día (28 December 1889), p.1.

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“Confederate Heritage Month” and the Memory of the American Civil War

979px-Lee_Surrendered,_Albany_Journal,_10_Apr_1865

The history of the American Civil War is very much about memory and, in recent years, the construction and contestation of this memory has played out on social media platforms like Twitter. While this presents an opportunity for those who wish to promote dangerous or inaccurate historical myths, Twitter also provides a platform for historians to challenge historical inaccuracies. For the past few years, I’ve used Twitter to challenge one iteration of such mythmaking: Confederate Heritage Month.

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the rise of the southern revisionist history of the war––the Lost Cause––created the conditions that permit Americans to wave both the U.S. flag and the Confederate States of America’s battle flag. The celebration of the latter—a physical representation of slavery and treason—allows some to treat former Confederates as heroes and not members of a failed slavers’ insurrection. One example of such celebrations is “Confederate Heritage Month”, typically marked every April by several former secessionist states.

Slavery, despite secessionist states claiming it as the cause for their rebellion, has largely been removed from the narrative of the rebellion in these celebrations. Instead of discussing slavery and treason, many champion “states’ rights” and the alleged battlefield prowess of Confederate generals. Indeed, the Lost Cause began a purposeful skewing of history by defeated Confederates to recast the Confederacy as having fought a noble fight for states’ rights. It is important to remember that secessionist states left the Union for the right to own slaves. The Lost Cause also makes Southerners into victims of Northern aggression––which is of course a lie. This skewed narrative ultimately downplays the fact that the U.S. military won key battles and eventually brought the rebellion to its metaphorical knees.

Memory of the Civil War affords opportunities to defeat the Lost Cause. As some communities remove Confederate statues––most emplaced during America’s Jim Crow period––as a military historian, it is important for me to take on the myth of Confederate military prowess. Statues to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to name a few, present them as heroes, when in fact leaders such as these lost the pivotal battles to the U.S. Army and committed treason. Lee in particular is problematic as the aura of his supposed military genius is used to obscure his past as a brutal slave owner, who broke his oath to the United States to fight in the rebellion.

Confederate Heritage Month is a celebration of the American Civil War from deep within the Lost Cause. Since 1994, in former secessionist states––particularly Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and previously in Virginia––Confederate Heritage Month has celebrated those who fought for the Confederate States of America. State legislatures and leaders purposefully misconstrue the failed slavers’ rebellion as some glorious cause for freedom and states’ rights. In 2016, Mississippi celebrated that vile cause in April.

In 2016 after a conversation on Twitter, fellow historian B.J. Armstrong urged me to push back against Confederate Heritage Month by tweeting a Confederate defeat for each of April’s thirty days. As he accurately mentioned, there were plenty of defeats from which to choose. I accepted his challenge and what began as a simple, one-month only reminder that the Confederacy lost numerous battles, and ultimately the war, has now became a yearly ritual.

At this point I should note that I am an academically-trained historian of the Vietnam War. Yet, as a military historian, I take some joy is using battles to expose the myths surrounding the Confederacy. By spotlighting battles, I am able to demonstrate that the so-called Confederacy did not have better leadership, soldiers, or any lasting victory. Since 2016, I have dedicated myself to a yearly counter-celebration every April. I pair each day with a Confederate battlefield defeat. The first year I focused on Mississippi. I covered Georgia in 2017. In 2018, I changed things up by addressing how U.S. military installations are named after Confederates while listing a defeat. 2019 proved my most popular celebration as I paired Southerners who remained loyal to the United States with a Confederate military defeat.

The majority of the responses to my celebration are positive. Some fellow historians also now join in my challenging of the Lost Cause in April. Most of the negative responses, which are few, come from Neo-Confederates. Since Neo-Confederates are largely averse to academic responses to their feelings-as-arguments approach to understanding the Civil War, interactions with them are brief. In the end, although rife with sarcasm, I am producing educational content.

Tweets are a great way to deliver concise, accessible statement. And if, as Mississippi’s Republican Governor Tate Reeves recently proclaimed, Confederate Heritage Month is about learning lessons, then those lessons should include that the Confederacy led a traitorous rebellion against the United States, did so in the name of slavery, and was thoroughly defeated on the battlefield. The efforts of historians to correct the myths of the Confederacy remain far from over. Historians presented arguments against the existence of Confederate monuments in public spaces, resulting in the removal of some. Yet, Lost Cause symbols and rhetoric remain in the continued influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization and the continuance of Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi.

Rob Thompson is a historian at the Army University Press. His book on pacification in the Vietnam War is forthcoming with Oklahoma University Press. He tweets at @DrRobThompson and his 2020 Confederate Heritage Month counter-celebration thread can be found here and you can find last year’s thread here.

Cover image: Lee Surrendered, Albany Journal, 10 Apr 1865.

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