Travel Quarantine
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How do you think you'd cope if, as a traveller, you had to go into quarantine?

Would you feel angry, resigned, regretful, afraid? Would you be above all concerned about your health? Or might there be a part of you that would enjoy the enforced rest and extra time off work?

How would you pass the days? Would you be itching to get back to the world and resume your normal responsibilities and activities? Or would you value the chance for some time out?

Quarantine has been part of the travel experience for nearly seven centuries. The word comes from the Italian quaranta– forty – because early disease-control practices in Europe mandated a forty-day period of isolation before ships coming from plague-affected areas were allowed to enter ports in ‘safe’ areas. It’s not clear exactly where the practice originated, but it was the Republic of Venice, a major trade hub during the medieval period, that in the fourteenth century created the first government-regulated quarantine. Many other Mediterranean ports copied the Venetian example, followed in time by countries all over the world.

Travellers these days don't expect to find themselves in quarantine, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was a routine part of the tourist experience. It wasn’t just plague but also, increasingly, cholera that countries wanted to keep out, and in the effort to do so they often subjected foreign visitors to quite arduous quarantine conditions.

For nineteenth-century travellers, the delays caused by multiple quarantines could be considerable. In his book The Mediterranean Passion, historian John Pemble notes that ‘tourists visiting Egypt, the Holy Land, Turkey, and Greece in that order had a minimum of three quarantines: one at Beirut for having been at Alexandria, one at Constantinople for having been in Beirut, and one in Greece for having been in Constantinople.’  Travellers who wanted to visit ‘the East’ or move around the Mediterranean were resigned to spending lengthy periods in detention along the way.

Quarantine was such an accepted part of tourism that guidebooks included information on the different quarantine stations or ‘lazzarettos’, as they were also called. Pemble quotes the 1884 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece, which rated Corfu, Piraeus and Malta as having the best quarantine facilities, with Malta being ‘the least inconvenient and best regulated purgatory of them all’.

Several famous British writers were ‘guests’ of this particular quarantine station during the early to mid-nineteenth century. Poet Lord Byron, theologian (and later saint) John Henry Newman, and novelists Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray were all detained there. For each of them, the great question was how to pass the time while waiting to be released.

Let’s just say that Byron didn’t handle it very well when he was quarantined at Malta for 18 days in the spring of 1811. Having much time on his hands and no pleasant distractions made his thoughts turn inwards, and not in a good way. He obsessed about all the things that were wrong with his life – health, finances, relationships – and wrote a list of negative thoughts in his diary. Like prisoners from time immemorial, he carved his name on one of the walls. He decided that his career as an author was just ‘vanity’ and not worth pursuing. He came to believe that his confinement was making him ill. Afterwards, he wrote the poem ‘Farewell to Malta’, which contained the lines

Adieu, thou damned’st quarantine,

That gave me fever, and the spleen [bad temper].

Not his finest poetic hour, but you get the picture.

In contrast, when John Henry Newman was confined at the quarantine station at Malta in 1833, he knew he had to take care not to become depressed. As he wrote home, ‘to one who has been employing his mind actively for years, nothing is so wearisome as idleness’. So he and his travelling companions decided to keep busy and use the time of enforced leisure to their advantage:

I assure you we make ourselves very comfortable. We feed well from an hotel across the water. The Froudes draw and paint. I have hired a violin, and, bad as it is, it sounds grand in such spacious halls. I write verses, and get up some Italian, and walk up and down the rooms about an hour and a half daily; and we have a boat, and are allowed to go about the harbour.

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