Snowden F. (1991) Cholera in Barletta

Frank M. Snowden F. M. (1991) “Cholera in Barletta 1910”, Past and Present, 67-103.


The outbreak of cholera in Barletta is an example of the relationship between infectious disease and social unrest. What was particularly interesting in this case is the leaderlessness of the movement despite the strong hold the socialist movement had at that time of the Apulian workers. Barletta had already been severely stroke in the previous epidemics (1836, 1854, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1886) (68). By 1910, it was a typical Apulian agricultural center, a big one as well (43,000 inhabitants) and an economically more diverse one than its counterparts. Fisheries were present and oil and wine were cultivated along grain. There was no latifundia, but a number of medium owners and about 20% of the population were small owners (69).

Barletta suffered from chaotic urban growth as its population had doubled in 50 years overwhelming the few services that existed. Housing was poor and shared with animals (71). The limestone the city was built on let the sewers interfere with the wells providing drinking water. The population drunk a mix of water and faecal matter. Human excrement was also sold as fertilizer and the carts used to carry it also brought food into town (72). As a result, diarrheal illnesses, TB, pneumonia killed Barletta in great numbers. Malaria and small pox were also present. Trachoma affected about 15% of the population. The many microbial circuits present in town due to the lack of hygiene made of Barletta the perfect pray for cholera (73).

The population was structural poor, underemployed, ill and malnourished. But drought and crop disease between 1908 and 1910 made the situation even worse. In 1910, the wine, almonds and olive productions hardly reached 10% of the previous year. By August of that year, the workers took the streets asking for bread. The quality of medical care (or the lack thereof) was another urban pathology (74). As a result the outbreak of cholera went unnoticed for a while. Cholera had been expected thanks to the progresses of epidemiology since it had started its journey in Bengal in 1899 and reached Russia in 1904 (75). Thanks to sufficient planning, the North of Italy was perfectly equipped to detect and contain a cholera outbreak (76). But in Barletta (and the South in general, admittedly not truly part of the modern Italian state) nothing was undertaken. The mayor was elected by a couple of thousands of landowner and had no incentive to care about the impoverished population (77). The hospital was incapable of treating the ill and seen rightly as a house of death for the destitute (78).

The doctors were similarly underfunded, poorly formed and dreaded by the inhabitants. No microscope was available to them in town (79). Apulia was also a gaping hole in the peninsula’s anti-chlorella defense due to budgetary cuts. Finally, the bacillus moved to Italy carried by the months-long worth of filth of the fishermen apparels when they returned to Barletta in June, July and August (80). The first dead was a fisherman who died June 18 , but was not recognized as a victim of chlorela. The three physicians in charge of the poor did not remark the pattern of contagion. By August 11, the deputy prefect remarked the sheer volume of unrelated death in the city. By the 16, the army’s doctors were in town and confirmed the diagnostic.

The disease physical and social

The disturbance to the communication (including trans-Atlantic emigration) and economic life cholera involved came at the worst moment as the country was on the brink of recession (81). Ultimately, the epidemic would turn to be the main cause of the fall of Luzzatti cabinet in 1911. Face with this clear danger, Luzzatti put in charge of containing the contagion the state’s two most dependable administrations: the army and the police. Coercion more than medicine was to contain the epidemics (82). But the declaration of the state of emergency created immediately chaos and panic.

The wealthiest left town instantly, only the 20,000 poorest remained in town… with tens of doctors and 300 carabinieri to guard them. Some important tasks were quickly undertaken: provision of sterile water by railway, disinfection of the streets… But the most basic rules of hygiene (boiling water, washing) were still out of reach for the poor. All cholera victims were to be brought to an improvised pest-house (p.83). Their relatives were to be interned for quarantine. Their belongings were burned. The reaction of the authorities destroyed instantly the most-needed mutual trust between the public and the authorities, in a fashion reminiscent of the autocratic regimes rather than the liberal ones. This approach had been recognized as flawed as early as 1831 by the English authorities and never tried afterward (84).

In Baretta, even previous outbreaks of Cholera had not triggered such violation of civil liberties. The cordon around the town was unprecedented in recent Italian history. This shock strategy was actually not used anywhere else and was only acceptable punctually in this part of the backward Apulia (85). As a result, the poor had no incentive to cooperate with the authorities and did everything to elude them. The sick were kept at home or abandoned in the streets, their belongings were smuggled out of their houses, etc. Protest and even violence against the authorities were common.

The city was divided in 6 military districts patrolled by soldiers and “vigilante” (bounty-hunting expurgatory paid piece-work rate). On top of that spies were in charge to provide information (86). Squads patrolled the streets and broke the doors behind which they heard moaning from August 18 to September 2. Tension and ‘social hysteria’ had become rampant.

Cholera for all the reason previously listed solely touched the working class (87). As a scourge of God, the epidemic was sometimes seen as a divine vengeance for the workers’ socialism. Worst: cholera was shameful associated with filth unlike the somewhat serene and aristocratic TB (88). Cholera is a ‘bestial degradation’ sudden and traumatic (89). The disease totally caused massive blood (and other bodily fluids) losses, transformed a person’s physical appearance and was associated with excruciating pain (90). Often the first symptom was a seizure causing apparently healthy people to drop in the streets. Cholera mainly killed adults creating tens of orphans. Finally, the victims of cholera, once dead, went on shaking, as a result rumours of premature burial were common (p.90). Understandably panic and terror were widespread.

The military police also prevented the relative to attend to the funeral as the dead were thrown in a mass grave (a measure the population resented particularly as funeral had a enormous social importance in Beretta) (91). To make matters worse, the pest-house was a brutal place of which the patient had little chances to come out alive (92). Military nurses were untrained and the latest medical advances that could alleviate pain and even save lives were totally ignored (93). Rumours of cholera being actually a poisoning of the population by the doctors started to spread. The authorities worsen the hysteria by explaining (in Italian not dialect and often in written pamphlets to an illiterate population) that cholera was a poison (p.94). Finally, the government to avoid being blamed used the Gypsies as scapegoats (95). Romas were rounded up and put in camps. But such was the distrust for the authorities, that the Barattese did not believe this explanation (96).

September 2, as the police tried to enforce a new order on the market, a riot started. Soon a crowd several thousands strong gathered in front of the mayor house. They were violently dispersed (97). During the whole day and part of the night the riot went on, three were lynched by the crowd.

As the town was a stronghold of anti-clericalism, it is normal that the anguish of the epidemics did not create a catholic revival as it did in other places (98). On the other hand, the highly unionised grape-pickers had a long tradition of organised actions including strikes. But the fact that most of the labourers were already unemployed and that three years of crisis had decreased the powers of the leftist organisations prevented that option. Moreover, the middle-class socialist leadership always supported the authorities actions in the crisis (99).


The riot showed the government that its sharp shock strategy actually created a danger greater yet than cholera: social unrest. Moreover by September, it was clear that the sanitary cordon strategy was illusionary as several Apulian towns were by that time hit by the disease. The day after the riot, the ‘sanitary dictatorship’ was canceled. The government had learn a lesson, when Naples was hit later that month, it had a much more liberal approach. In Baretta, food was distributed and major works started some of them improving considerably the hygienic situation (100).

But the long-term result of this sudden influx of capital, also intended to solve the Southern Question by prompting regional development, was to worsen the neo-colonial status of the South and to feed clientele politics (101). Similarly, the sanitary policy of the Giolittian period (delegating health issues to local authorities) had merely enshrined hygienic dualism between North and poor and ill-administrated South (102). The state’s deficiencies in the Mezziogiornio made the reproduction of the strategies designed in the rest of Western Europe impossible. The hopless of the resident medical staff and the insufficiencies of its material enabled the epidemics to spread (103).

Finally the state had designed its intervention as a military campaign that favoured a strategy based on coercion in an environment perceived from Rome as little more than a colony. “Because of the atmosphere of emergency it generated and the social tensions it created, cholera posed the nature of the Southern Question in its starkiest terms. It revealed the depth of the abyss that separated the Mezzogiornio from the rest of Itlay and it exposed the violent potential of the liberal state towards the dangerous classes of the South” (103).

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