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‘The Distemper’
Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel DeFoe: 3/17/23
© 2023 James LaFond
“He who flees from the hand of God” is not necessarily a coward, and “to charge Death upon His pale horse,” the author likewise notes, takes more courage than charging at the head of an army. The author writes of his experiences surviving the last major visitation of The Black Plague in England in the year 1665. He also notes that surviving such a disaster together did nothing to heal social rents in the body politic.
The decade of the 1660s is central to the study of the morality of Plantation America. It is a decade that saw the largest influx of forced transport out of the British Isles and was the decade in which Bunyan and Alsop wrote, the time when the heavy hand of Christian New England pressurized heathen rebellion and the greedy hand of Anglican Virginia guaranteed servile revolt.
The Plague came to London in December 1664. A naked Quaker prophet ran thru the streets declaring that God was unleashing punishment among the wicked shambles of London. Much debate by officials and scientists, that would be recognizable to the media medical hysteria and misinformation of 2021-21insued.
The author covers only his observations from White Chapel and Stephanie Parishes, to include an outward flight from the peak devastation among a gaggle of refugees. This tale in the third of five portions of the journal, is the basic story that has been replayed in all of the zombie apocalypse comics, TV and movies of recent times. The party eventually settles in a wood with an old soldier as a leader.
Civics policy is conducted by The Lord Mayor and various officials, with their adjuncts being Aldermen and church Wardens and Vestry Men, the same quasi political church functionaries charged with assigning orphans and unwed mothers to a master in Virginia and Maryland.
Essentially, nothing doctors did other than lance boils with caustic agents to drain out the blood poison helped. Science was completely helpless before “The Distemper,” which was the main designation for the disease, which the author also refers to as “Plague,” “pestilence,” and as a “foe.” The attitude that the disease was sent by God is identical to Increase Mather’s contention that the revolt of Heathen slave tribes and the disease that smote them were both sent by God ten years later.
Defoe does address “the atheistic portion of humanity,” and warns them that ignoring the hand of The Creator is folly, that it was well proved and admitted by all physicians that the disease abated of its own, that nothing doctors did helped.
The phases of the Plague were roughly like so:
December 1664 brought more than normal illnesses, the presence of spotted fever, news that it had arrived from Holland via The Levant. Ironically, two English monarchs arrived via Holland in the 1600s with “Levantine” financing. The merchant based spread of both micro parasitic and macro parasitic affliction is interesting.
By February 1665 the wealthy were releasing their servants, casting them out, and fleeing to outlying areas. The upper nobility, church and Royalty did begin providing relief funds for these destitute souls, usually referred to as “the poor.”
Mid year there was “a strange press for sailors.” This was due to war with the Dutch. Interestingly, “The Fleet” suffered no disease and the many pressed men dragged and beaten into service who complained bitterly about their plight, when released later in the year, discovered that they had been saved, that most of their families were in the grave. Defoe does not describe what was strange about the press gang behavior, other than that they avoided areas were disease raged.
Late summer saw a surge in mortality, with deaths from the dread disease in official weekly bills rising from a few thousand a week to almost ten thousand, but with reliable sources indicating that deaths from late August to early October were from 10 to 30,000 per week.
In November, the disease killed fewer of those who caught it.
In December the “malignance” of the plague abated to the point where many people returned [all except for the rich] and aid for the poor was scaled back, causing starvation. People stopped isolating and began mixing and many more cases of infection, but few of death occurred.
By February 1666, with disease spreading to distant cities and towns even the rich returned to London. Recriminations were rife. The Naked Quaker foretold a worse disaster.
Summer of 1666 saw the burning of London.
Plague was not experienced there on any large scale thereafter.
“They died in heaps and were buried in heaps,” with at least “a hundred thousand souls” “carried off.”
Defoe, he notes in his journal, was buried at a certain site were his sister was interred when she was “carried off” or “taken” by “The Distemper.”
Alcohol use increased during and after the plague as it has in Covid and Post-Covid America.
Many churches and doctors failed to serve their congregations and patients as happened in our recent “visitation.”
The author errs on the side of moderation in his reports, engages in very little hearsay and shines as a rational man of Faith rather than an emotional man of Science and comes off less superstitious than the “quacks and charlatans” of his time and the “follow the science” cultists of our time.
Of interest to Plantation America specifically:
A barber, with a household of ten, counted among that household 2 apprentices and one maid. These three souls were not free people and were not paid. However, he had been kind enough to evacuate his servant staff with his wife and five children. When he brought them back into London, every soul died except for the maid. The apprentices had no choice. They were commanded to return to the pestilent city and there died. The maid, survived, but would now have too sell her body or find a new master.
Most of the death was experienced by “the poor.” Some of the poor were hired workmen. Most were apprentices or servants to tradesmen and artisans, or maids and servants to merchants and the gentry.
The poor typically ate bread, according to this narrative. Terrible as their grain only diet was, even that was not supplemented. There were no stores of food kept by the Lord Mayor for relief of the poor, even though the author cites the fact that the city coffers had been overflowing. Even the ancient predatory hierarchies of Egypt and Rome kept public grain. Obviously, since the city and the king both got a fifth of the sale price for any poor bastard that was sold into the plantations, much of these overflowing coffers were generated by a pointed neglect of the poor. This class could serve their betters as unpaid wards or be sold into the Plantations or pressed into the Navy or Army.
There is a passage in the third portion of the journal which reflects this reality. An officer commanding a troop of soldiers warns that he cannot guarantee their good behavior and that they pose a real danger to the refugees.
Overall, the survivors treated the dead as nothing more than trash and, in general, did nothing to consecrate the mass graves, and even dug up some graves to make way for urban renewal. Ten years later Tribes in New England would be exterminated for claiming to be fighting to keep their burial grounds from being plowed up to plant English grain. That was no tribal hyperbole—The English desecrated their own dead when money hung in the balance.
In the proximate shadow of a terrible punishment for God, Pure Economic Anglo Mankind does not even wait for the flesh and long hair to fall from the bones of their recently buried young women as they are exhumed to make room for the resumption of making money in their sacred shops.
Defoe, who “walked the ashes” of London after the fire, before writing his journal, seemed to agree that the fire was deservedly Heaven-sent, and noted that among the very first structures to be rebuilt were the prisons.
Economic Man is capable of learning no higher art than the creation, corruption, decoration, manipulation, destruction or desecration of a thing.
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