When catastrophes cascaded over the Algarve – the «annus horribilis» of 1855-56 (I)

The year 1855, or rather, between August of that year and May of the following year, was catastrophic for the Algarve, with the terrible consequences lasting for the following years.

Ribeira de Aljezur

«I beg your Excellency. that for the good of humanity come to this District»
Civil Governor's Office Faro to the Ministry of the Kingdom, January 26, 1856

In our days, there are many who tend to evoke the past as a perfect, harmonious period, where vicissitudes did not exist or were few. It is true that the critical years of pain, suffering and hunger have always been outlawed by those who knew and survived them, which then gives rise to the imagination of an ideal and serene world that never existed.

The year 1855, or rather, between August of that year and May of the following year, was catastrophic for the Algarve, with the terrible consequences lasting for the following years.

The desperate manner shown in the letter with which the civil governor of Faro, António Couceiro, addressed the Ministry of the Kingdom, on January 26, 1856, whose excerpt we reproduce above, reflects the distressing crisis that ravaged the region. This missive was just one of the many letters that that administrative magistrate addressed, consecutively and in anguish, to the capital of the kingdom for several months.

António Maria de Sousa Couceiro (1799-1871) was not from the Algarve, but he knew the district he directed well, after all, he had held the position since 1846, albeit with a brief interruption, in addition to being a deputy for the Algarve. He was also assistant head nurse at Hospital de S. José, as well as administrator of Casa Pia, in Lisbon, positions that certainly endowed him with great sensitivity to difficult situations, such as the one he was experiencing.

But after all, what ailed the Algarve? A combination of adversities coming from heaven and earth, broke through the houses, spreading terror, hunger and pain, not sparing the poor, always the most affected, nor the rich. A year “memorable in everything”, in the words of Father Pégado de Oliveira, prior in São Bartolomeu de Messines.

Let us stop, for now, on the first calamity, the epidemic: the cholera morbus. Coming from India, cholera spread throughout the world through trade routes. It first devastated the rest of Europe and then our country and the Algarve in particular.

In 1855, the disease was not unknown in the region, it had already spread here in 1833, when it arrived in Portugal for the first time. Between August and November 1854, it was also felt in Olhão, Vila Real de Santo António, Castro Marim, Monte Gordo and Tavira, in a total of 131 infected, of which 66 lost their lives (a subsequent correction estimated at 151 infected and 97 deaths). These are indicative values, if today statistical determination is not always easy, at the time their reliability and accuracy were reduced.

Of bacterial origin (caused by a vibrio), contagious, epidemic, it causes watery diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and cramps, leading to death, if not treated, in a few days. It is transmitted through water and food contaminated with infected human faeces. Among the risk factors, it is worth mentioning the scarcity of potable water, the lack of sewage networks and poverty. All agents were very present in the daily life of the Algarve in the mid-XNUMXs.

The publication of an Epidemic Report, in 1858, prepared by the Public Health Council of the Kingdom, allows us to know in detail the evolution of the disease in Portugal, accompanied by precious geographical, climatological, socioeconomic, housing, food and health descriptions of the most affected locations. After all, people ignored and wanted to know the origin and form of propagation of such a deadly disease.

The disease arrived through Spain, in Guarda, in May, and shortly afterwards in the Algarve, coming from Andalusia. If, in 1854, the consequences were not so dramatic, the following year the scenario was Dantesque in the regional panorama.

The disease first made itself felt in the municipality of Aljezur, on July 7, 1855, and ended in Albufeira, on April 14 of the following year. More than nine months of uncertainty, fear and terror.

Let us now specify by locality (omitting the long geographic and meteorological descriptions), the course and evolution of the disease:


Aljezur – Col. Cintra family in the book «Aljezur 1869-1969, Memories»


Aljezur, a «small village», was surrounded by swamps and rice fields, as well as the homonymous stream. The water from this was considered unhealthy, as a result of the «maceration of the flax, and the putrefaction of vegetation», however, it was used not only for irrigation of rice fields, but also for human consumption, due to the lack of other sources.

Wheat, rye, corn and mainly potatoes were still cultivated. There was little grove and “this one only with fruits of the summer”. In the municipality, five couples were attacked, in the vicinity of the village, Azenha, Alto do Meio, Alto de Cima, Alto de Baixo, and Olarias. Places where «the houses built of mud, not plastered or whitewashed, are very small, poorly lit, low, with empty tile, without ventilation, without light, and without sufficient accommodation».

On the other hand, «the inhabitants are poor, and they are ordinarily fed on potatoes, porridge made with honey or fat, and fruits that are often unripe». As for clothing, “it is of coarse woolen fabrics in winter, and linen in summer; but generally they are badly dressed, and most of them sleep on the floor». Very humble people who were engaged in “culture, weeding, and rice harvesting”.

As soon as the outbreak became known to the authorities, the doctor from Lagos, João Miranda, left for those places, as there was no clinic in the county.

Measures aimed at hygiene were also put into practice, such as urban cleaning, for which the action of the municipality administrator, António Baraona Fragoso, was decisive.

With a total of 26 diagnosed cases of cholera, 14 individuals died (most 6 to 12 hours after the first symptoms).


The next outbreak came in fuzeta, at the time in the municipality of Tavira, on the 13th of July. The locality consisted of 459 dwellings, in a total of 1 inhabitants. On its periphery, vines and fig trees predominated, referring to the Report that “excellent wine” was produced there.

Although there were «some huts made of reeds and cannas, covered with other vegetation», most of the houses were made of masonry, «sufficiently ventilated, with capacity and in good hygienic conditions».

The main source of water, for human consumption, came from wells, although it was brackish, only one source had quality, where «it goes on board to fetch it with great discomfort».

The diet was based on fish, shellfish, corn, cabbage, pumpkin, broad beans, figs, and grapes. In terms of clothing, 'most of the people wear coarse woolen clothes'.

Considered to be very industrious, the Fuzetans were busy with agriculture, which was very prosperous in those years, and with fishing, as well as navigation on the coast of Larache. Here they fished what they later took to Lisbon.

In the village, there were two pharmacies, but no doctor, the most frequent diseases being measles, chickenpox and influenza. Cholera was felt with greater intensity in the first days of August, the village being visited by the civil governor on the 9th of that month, and twelve days later it had ceased. The cases were monitored by the doctor from Olhão, Estêvão Afonso, because it is closer than Tavira, and rice and bread were distributed to the most needy.

With 133 infected, 68 people died. The behavior of the clinician was praised, as well as the administrator of the municipality of Olhão, Francisco José Galagar, and the health inspector of the port, Joaquim Raimundo Maldonado.



Three or four days after the illness had manifested itself in Fuzeta, it appeared in Santa Luzia, and immediately in Tavira and in the parishes of Santo Estêvão, Luz and Conceição.

The city's two parishes totaled 2 dwellings, where 643 inhabitants lived. These were dedicated to commercial, agricultural, artistic, industrial activities, public jobs, without forgetting the military, as well as navigation and fishing.

«It has a lot of trees inside and around it, mainly carob, olive, fig and almond trees, as well as orchards, vineyards, and well cultivated land».

Drinking water was plentiful in springs and wells, especially in the southern part of the river, to the northeast it was brackish. Without ponds, it was believed that the river, due to the meanders and low speed of the current, as well as the salt pans along the coast and in the vicinity of the buildings, produced “putrid miasmas, especially in the summer”.

The rooms were all masonry, but different. Those of favored people were “accepted, with the necessary accommodations, and with good hygienic conditions; but those of the poorest people, especially the fishermen, are small, very uncomfortable, and some without ventilation, nor fire”.

Clothing was, as a rule, good, although of different quality in the rich and poor, with the exception of the fishermen, who were “undressed”. In terms of food, good in favored families and identical to the fishermen of Fuzeta, in the others.

Hard hit by cholera in 1833, the main diseases that were felt there were measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever and influenza.


Speedboats from Santa Luzia (Illustrated postcard. ed. Câmara Tavira)


Santa Luzia, with 50 to 60 dwellings, was «made up of miserable fishermen, settling along the coast, and in such a way, that in high tides, and great floods, water enters their dwellings». These "are reed huts, small, filthy, dark, and without ventilation."

Seafood, fish, corn porridge with shellfish or oil, constituted the food support, very similar to Fuzeta, with the exception that «they rarely eat bread».

They were engaged in fishing and in the «harvest of murraça», as a rule, they were poorly dressed and «poorly repaired». Gastroenteritis constituted the main ailments that were felt there.

in turn, in Saint Stephen, the population was dispersed, existing next to a stream a marsh, the paul. The masonry dwellings were sufficiently clean and ventilated.

Quality water was plentiful, while food consisted of vegetables, meat or fish. Clothing “is peasant; but warm and clean”. There were no diseases there, and the inhabitants were employed in the cultivation of their small farms.

A slightly different situation occurred in the Luz, although the population was also dispersed and the masonry dwellings, airy and comfortable, were not clean. There were small swamps, abundant in trees and had excellent bread lands, as well as sufficient drinking water.

In terms of food, fish and shellfish, corn, vegetables and grapes reigned there, with agricultural work being the main activity of the Luzians. Who, as a rule, suffered «a lot of intermittent fevers, and rheumatism», diseases considered endemic. The choleric epidemic of 1833 had also acted there.

Finally, the Conception it had 342 dwellings, with 1 404 people. These lived in scattered houses, many located in the mountains. It had trees and sowing grounds, as well as drinking water, in wells. The Almargem stream formed some swamps.

The small, poorly ventilated rooms were not clean. In the cabins, on the edge of the parish, the fishermen lived in «bad conditions». Agriculture and fishing “employed” the population of the parish, while food and clothing was similar to the previous ones. Intermittent fevers were the most frequent disease.


The disease progressed quickly in these localities, with Tavira being the one that suffered the most, between 13 and 22 August, dying out in Santa Luzia on the 15th of the same month and on the 19th of September in the rest.

Two temporary hospitals were installed, in the extinct Convento do Carmo and another in the Hospital do Espírito Santo. Also in Santa Luzia a similar equipment was instituted. Mobilized some doctors and pharmacists, as well as some citizens, the latter to collect pecuniary means to help the sick and the indigent, everyone tried to alleviate the suffering.

In the 51 days that the epidemic lasted, 1 people were infected in the city and in Santa Luzia, of which 172 lost their lives. Quantitative to which are added the 574 infected from the Battalion of Hunters 36, of which 4 perished.

In the three hospitals there were 211 patients, with 93 succumbing to the disease. In the parish of Santo Estêvão, 40 people were attacked, with 22 dying. In Luz, of the 50 infected, 38 died, and in Conceição, 15 died of 28 patients. The latter occurred mostly in the mountains, and in Cabanas there were no sick people.

According to the Report, the doctors "fulfilled their duties throughout this calamitous time", especially the chief surgeon Francisco José Maria de Lemos, of the 8th Military Division, as well as the head health guard, José Pedro Beliago, and the administrator of the municipality. , Joaquim Ernesto d'Avelar.

The houses were disinfected and a place for the cemetery was acquired in Santa Luzia (39 deaths). The sale of tuna was also prohibited, as it was considered to be promoting the spread of cholera, as it was the most consumed by those people.

The lack of knowledge about the disease allowed all kinds of assumptions, medicine was very far from what we know today. Hospitals would be nothing more than a pile of beds, where the sick were dying. The prescriptions, with dubious results in the eyes of the XNUMXst century, ranged from «baths with synapses in the extremities», of ammoniacal rubbing or of mustard tincture on the backbone, infusion of linden flower with sulfuric ether, and liquid laudanum, such as that given in Santa Luzia, or «poultices of mentrasto, henbane oil, ether, and camphorated alcohol, and internally opiated seams, and a mixture of compound chalk», among other substances, such as olive oil, just to give one more example.


But today, as then, the epidemic knew no borders and, on August 2, the first patients appeared in Lagos. The city's two parishes housed 2 dwellings, with a population of 278 residents.

The dwellings of 'wealthy people are comfortable, airy, and clean. The streets are well paved, and the public markets are kept very clean”. Clothing and food for the poorest were similar to those in Fuzeta and Tavira, although the Lacobrigenses consumed wine and brandy «with some excess».

In terms of vegetation, the vines and fig trees stood out, moreover «very well cultivated». A short distance away, there was a large swamp and in it a water tank from a spring, which, led by a masonry channel, enters the city for the use of the inhabitants; is sufficient and of good quality». Severely attacked by cholera in 1833, intermittent fevers (malaria) were endemic there in summer and autumn.

The parish of Luz had 278 dwellings and 1 inhabitants, while Bensafrim and Barão de São João (annexed to the former) had 342 dwellings with 581 inhabitants. Odiáxere had 1 homes for 470 customers.

Luz, in the municipality of Lagos


Cholera made itself felt first in the poorest fishermen, substantially increasing the number of daily cases, “exacerbating horribly” on the 23rd and 24th of August, to such an extent that the doctors could not help everyone.

As in Tavira, temporary hospitals were created (two in the city), as well as financial and dietary resources for the indigent.

On the 5th of September, the cases ceased in Lagos, while in rural parishes they ended on the 23rd of the same month. In both hospitals, 215 people were hospitalized, of which 140 died.

At home, in the parishes of the city, 1 people were infected (essentially São Sebastião with 311), of whom 539 died. At Light, of 99 patients, 63 lost their lives. in turn in Odiaxere there were 97 infected and 31 deaths. As for bensafrim e Baron of St. John death was overwhelming, 28 of 25 patients died.

In the 53 days of the epidemic, in the municipality of Lagos, 1 were infected, 750 were cured and 989 died. Quantities to which 761 soldiers from the 56th Infantry Regiment were added, of which 15 were fatal victims.

In such a «calamitous crisis», the two doctors Francisco de Sousa Castelo Branco and João Camilo de Miranda, as well as the administrator of the municipality, António Baraona Fragozo, stood out.

However, «the horrors of a deadly and devastating epidemic» were still far from over in the Algarve of 1855. On the 8th of August it made itself felt in Faro.


(Go on)


Author Aurélio Nuno Cabrita is an environmental engineer and researcher of local and regional history, as well as a regular collaborator of the Sul Informação.

Note: In the transcripts, the spelling of the time was preserved. The images correspond to illustrated postcards from the first half of the XNUMXth century, with the exception of the table, inserted in the Report.