Garlic, Potatoes and Swords: Nineteenth-Century Quarantine at Sea

In the nineteenth century, the most frequent form of quarantine was rather different to the lockdown Scotland is experiencing now. Guest Blogger Lindsay Middleton explains:

Rather than being confined to their homes and stopping travel, nineteenth-century quarantine largely affected those who engaged in commercial and leisure travel all over the globe. Namely, ships that were docking in British and European ports from countries that had infectious diseases such as cholera or yellow fever. The risk of bringing diseases to and from other countries was an inevitability when foreign trade began, and quarantining people in ports had been in place for centuries. This typically involved boats, sometimes diseased and sometimes as a precaution, raising a yellow flag and being quarantined for up to 60 days with no contact between them and the land.  In some ports lazarettos were used, which could be islands, buildings or stationary ships. In the eighteenth century there were even lazarettos floating in Thames inlets, and in the twelfth century the island of Firda in the Forth was used as a lazaretto for the sick (and is supposedly the island which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island). In the nineteenth century and before, the length of isolation depended on where the passengers had come from and the level of infection. 

Like most means of quarantine, these methods of isolation were problematic. Scholars like Krista Maglen have shown that nineteenth-century Britain increasingly contested quarantine. Its critics argued quarantine encouraged diseases to spread given the proximity of people stranded on boats, was against Britain’s liberal trading values and was ultimately inhumane. Just as now, wealth determined the quarantine experience you had. Wealthy merchants or those travelling for recreation could maintain a level of comfort while quarantined, but as Alex Chase-Levenson notes: ‘The vast majority of people quarantined, though, were sailors, soldiers, and fishermen who had to move back and forth across the Mediterranean. These people were crammed into tiny rooms, and they had to stay there for weeks. This would have been almost unbearable’ (de Groot 2020: 9 of 15 paras).  In 1872 things changed when, as part of the Public Health Act, the ‘Port Sanitary System’ was introduced in Britain:  

The English System [as it was referred to] required that only those ships with visible signs of these diseases on board, as determined by a medical inspector, should be disinfected, the sick removed to an isolation hospital, and other crew and passengers who displayed no symptoms of disease be monitored after disembarkation. (Maglen 2002: 414)  

This new system was built on an increasing dialogue between medical opinion and Port Sanitary Authorities, though quarantine continued until 1896 (Maglen 2002: 413). Before that, however, how did people in the nineteenth-century handle quarantine? While de Groot’s interview with Chase-Levinson outlines what we can learn from historical quarantine, turning to periodicals demonstrates how quarantine was experienced by nineteenth-century travellers. 

The majority of nineteenth-century articles that appear when searching ‘quarantine’ and ‘quarantine food’ are written from the perspective of those who had better quarantine experiences than usual: the wealthy, who travelled for leisure or business. Overseas tourism was expensive throughout the nineteenth century so these accounts of quarantine, while uncomfortable, were certainly not the worst that could be had. The earliest text consulted was published in 1831 in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, which was a literary publication that showcased writing from the likes of Mary Shelley and Charles Lamb. ‘The Quarantine’ was written by ‘C M F’ and given the title and prosaic style I believe it is a short story rather than factual article, though it was likely written from common experiences. C M F, a wealthy gentleman, describes quarantining in the Lazaretto of Marseilles. It seems relatively pleasant: the author is not ill and has outdoor space for exercise. Incredibly, the predominant thing C M F complains about is food, declaring:  ‘I have observed, in the course of my travels, that there are few points on which the national or local prejudice is more chary and susceptible than on the article of cuisine’ (CMF 1831: 43). Of French cuisine he moans, ‘I should like to see the Englishman’s philosophy that could stand the pest of garlic invading him from fish, meat, vegetables’ and he even has the gall to ask his gardien not to eat garlic, because he smelled: ‘As to my proposition that he should eat no garlic himself, he seemed to consider it as an abominable interference in the rights of man’ (CMF 1831: 43). I have to say I agree with the gardien about being banned from eating garlic, and these demands demonstrate anti-French feeling left over from the Napoleonic Wars, though ironically the British lauded French cuisine even during this period. By describing garlic as a ‘pest’ that ‘invades’, the author uses food as a vehicle for his discrimination and ties into the rhetoric of illness and disease that characterised lazarettos. More than happy to drink wine from the cellar of a merchant from Marseilles, however, it seems C M F could pick and choose what aspects of French cuisine upset him… 

A later piece called ‘Recollections by a Quarantine Detenu’ appears in Sharpe’s London Magazine in 1852 and tells a similar account of a traveller quarantining in Malta. The author’s itinerary accounts his typical day in quarantine. He notes that:

 ‘I spent my twelve days in one unvaried routine; turned out at daybreak, and eat an orange or some other fruit, then walked up…   

Screenshot 2020-04-07 at 17.56.06

Food, exercise and recreation through reading are the mainstays of this traveller’s experience, not unlike the suggestions our government gives us today. An account in an 1866 edition of The Cornhill Magazine, however, tells a more brutal story of life aboard a boat in Greece. Before turning into a sharp-shooting adventure tale of escape (suggesting quarantine provided material for multiple authors given its potential for shocking audiences) the author details the deaths of multiple people aboard boats, due to hunger and disease. Captains did not have enough food to feed passengers for lengthy periods, and passengers often did not budget for the extended quarantine time, leaving them starving. If a ship did carry disease, quarantine meant it spread among healthy passengers and ended in more deaths, and the author describes how ‘the plague-stricken ship and its dying cargo lay still under the August sun’ (The Cornhill Magazine 1866: 176). While this is a fictional account, these events would have been very realistic, and ultimately contributed to the British and European reimagining of quarantine in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

To end on a lighter note, however, I turn to an article published in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1843. The author is ‘Benjamin Bunting’, though this was apparently a pseudonym for Roger Rigby, brother to Elizabeth Rigby or Lady Eastlake (1809-1893), who was an upper-class British critic and author. As such, Bunting’s experiences quarantining aboard a boat would have been very aristocratic, which is clear from their means of entertaining themselves. ‘Bunting’ writes: 

‘a new game was proposed. A thin piece of wood, three feet in length, was fixed upright on the deck; and on the point of it a small potato was stuck. A person was then blindfolded, and, with a sword in his hand, was to walk up to the potato, and split it; if he missed it three successive times, he forfeited a bottle of champagne. As everybody may easily suppose, there were many more misses than hits; and the champagne flowed very freely’ (Bunting 1843: 208)

While none of will have swords or champagne lying around, the imaginativeness of this quarantine game mirrors the energy needed to fill our time during the current lockdown. Struggling to work from home? Create a potato piñata, get a ruler, go to town, and then reward yourself with a drink or a snack when you’re done. 

About Lindsay

Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD student in her second year across the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen. Her research straddles English Literature and the History of Technology, charting the development of the recipe genre and food histories in correlation with material food technologies.


Bunting, Benjamin. Jan 1843. ‘Ten Days in Quarantine’, Bentley’s Miscellany, 13: 206-208

C M F. Jul 1831. ‘The Quarantine’, The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, 32.127: 37-49

de Groot, Kristen. Mar 18 2020. ‘Pandemics, quarantines, and history’, Penn Today, [accessed 7 April 2020], 15 paragraphs   

Maglen, Krista. Dec 2002. ‘ “The First Line of Defence”: British Quarantine and the Port Sanitary Authorities in the Nineteenth Century’, Social History of Medicine, 15.3: 413-428

No Author. Jul 1852. ‘Recollections by a Quarantine Detenu’, Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading, 1: 1-12

No Author. Feb 1866. ‘My Experience in a Greek Quarantine’, The Cornhill Magazine, 13.74: 173-183

Image Source for ‘Recollections by a Quarantine Detenu’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s