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(en) France, Union Communiste Libertaire AL #305 - History, 1832: The cholera epidemic, the "blue fear" of the bourgeoisie (fr, it, pt)[machine translation]

Date Sat, 30 May 2020 07:58:24 +0300

The arrival of cholera in Paris in 1832 produced a medical, political and social shock which left a lasting mark on his time. Beyond the trauma of the 18,000 dead in less than six months, it was the very foundations of society that trembled. After the passage of cholera-morbus in the capital, the bourgeoisie had obvious facts: social reforms were needed, at the risk of seeing revolutionary ideals triumph. ---- Described by Portuguese doctors and Dutch since the middle of the XVI th century, cholera is in 1830, not unknown to Europeans. But, endemic to the Bay of Bengal, it had hardly left before 1817. Let us give thanks to the colonial armies of the British Empire and Tsarist Russia: they allowed the deadly potential of the cholera vibrio to be fully expressed. The XIX thcentury was to be struck by six pandemic episodes, the last of which did not end until 1923. If the first epidemic (1817-1824) spared Europe, the second (1829-1837) was favored by British incursions in Afghanistan, by the wars of Russia against Persia and the Ottoman Empire, then by the repression of the Polish insurrection. Between 1826 and 1831, cholera crossed the Caspian Sea and spread to Russia, then throughout Europe.

From 1831, the arrival of cholera seems inevitable. But the power in place in Paris assures him, all the necessary measures have been taken. The new president of the Council, the merchant banker and regent of the Banque de France Casimir Perier - the same one who suppresses, in November of the same year, the insurrection of the Lyon canuts - is confident, France will escape the scourge. In fact, cholera will kill some 18,000 people in Paris alone that year, including Casimir Perier who will succumb on May 16.

The disease found a fertile ground in Paris despite the establishment, at the end of 1831, of a Central Health Commission responsible for investigating the causes of unsanitary conditions in private houses and furnished houses. Because, in 1832 the Parisian population is in a situation which, in many aspects, is even worse than in 1789. Lack of water and bread, piling up in infamous and humid residences, in streets where the light hardly penetrates, the people are in agony: "a populace who dies alone"according to the writer Jules Janin. The revolution of July 1830, by bringing Louis-Philippe to the throne, reinforced the political weight of the industrial and financial bourgeoisie, but did little to improve the lot of the population. It is therefore in a post-revolutionary atmosphere, still fairly explosive, that the disease strikes Paris. On March 29, 1832, the Journal des Debates was alarmed: "Cholera-morbus is within our walls.[...]Today, nine people have been brought to the Hôtel-Dieu and four have already died. All men affected by this epidemic disease, but who are not believed to be contagious, belong to the class of the people.[...]They live in the dirty and narrow streets of the City and the Notre-Dame district". The social character of the epidemic was a major characteristic from the outset. If the doctors of the time could not explain the course of the disease, the evidence became obvious very quickly: the epidemic seemed to hit only the "miserable" and to spare the "honest people". The hygienist theses of doctor Villeture on the social character of morbidity and mortality will be verified in an inevitable way.

The "Blue Fear" strikes the proletariat first
Geographic segregation being less effective in the shopping districts, one understands quite quickly that the "plague of the populace" would spare no one, that "this cholera which is in the attics can at any time go down and cross the three floors which separates it of your bedrooms. " Cholera spreads all over the city, the number of patients explodes and hospitals, where mortality reaches 45%, can no longer quickly cope with the influx of patients. Many die in them, the corpses are loaded on artillery vans. The "blue fear »Shortens the parliamentary session and many proletarians, now unemployed, return to their provinces, spreading cholera despite themselves.

At the first sign, a violent scientific controversy began. The "contagionist" doctors - politically rather conservative and favorable to the isolation of the sick - oppose the "infectionists", more liberal, favorable to the emerging hygienist theses, for which it is the unhealthy homes which play a preponderant role in the etiology of the disease. Since scientific controversies are not isolated from economic and social questions, the "contagionistsWill lose the battle of opinion: by isolating the sick they are accused of segregation. Worse still, by advocating the establishment of a cordon cordon at borders and on the coasts, they are accused of obstructing trade. The hygienist theses, appearing as coming from modern medicine, are then more favorably received, their compatibility with the continuity of trade also accommodating a miserable and paternalistic vision of the popular classes.

However, "contagionists" as well as "infectionists" prove to be just as incapable of curbing the advance of the disease. Its violent character, suddenly - one dies of cholera most often in less than forty-eight hours - and overwhelming the scientific knowledge of the time, confirms the most eccentric interpretations. Everyone finds something to consolidate their vision of the world. Apocalyptic sermons attribute the scourge to a divine vengeance punishing a "populace" victim of his vices, his taste for revolution and irreligion: "these unfortunate people die in impenitence, but the wrath of the God of justice is growing and soon every day will count its thousand victims. The crime of destroying the archdiocese[during the July Revolution]is far from over. "

Horace Vernet, Choléramorbus aboard La Melpomène (1833).
The Faubourg Saint-Antoine on the verge of revolt
The crowd of working-class neighborhoods, victim of both the disease and the police measures preventing them from earning a living, finds another explanation for this epidemic. She is convinced that we want to "poison" her . The Faubourg Saint-Antoine is covered with posters: "Cholera is an invention of the bourgeoisie and the government to starve the people ... To arms!" The health obligations prohibiting indeed the rag picking up trash, the market is sold to private companies. Some 1,800 buffoons (according to the police) then revolted, ransacked and burnt down the Salvette company warehouses which deprived them of their meager livelihood.

The discontent is growing under the impulse of "leaders" (still according to the police), and the rioting atmosphere spreads in many districts. She even won the Sainte-Pélagie prison where, on the night of April 3 to 4, the National Guard took the opportunity to shoot the mutinous political prisoners. It does not take more for the Republican opposition to see proof of the collusion between power and cholera.

The ineffectiveness of medical treatment forced the authorities to treat the epidemic socially by trying to improve the living conditions of the poor. The police prefect orders the distribution of food and clothing. The most insanitary slums are destroyed, lanes closed. More than 20,000 dwellings were visited and whitewashed. Twice a day, we pour chlorinated water on the boulevards.

In May, cholera ebbs but the city remains devastated, and the unemployed are legion. A spark is enough to rekindle the flame of revolt. In early June, two figures from the republican camp are buried: the Welsh mathematician Évariste (member, with Auguste Blanqui, of the Society of Friends of the People dissolved by Guizot) and General Lamarque, who died of cholera. On June 5, the funeral procession of the general, under the impulse of republican leaders, is adorned with red flags (and some black, as at the Croix-Rousse in Lyon the previous year), and turns into a wild demonstration. Members of the National Guard defected and joined the insurgents. Barricades stand and two days of fierce confrontation oppose the insurgents to the army (this is the episode of the barricades narrated by Victor Hugo inLes Misérables ).

The evidence becomes obvious very quickly: the epidemic first strikes the miserable and spares the honest people. Philippe-Auguste Jeanron, Scène de Paris (1833).
Quickly, however, the bourgeois leaders of the republican camp dissociated themselves from the event, some even fleeing from Paris ... The working classes paid a heavy price for the disease. The medical commission appointed in the midst of an epidemic and composed essentially of hygienists, quickly established the socially differentiated character of mortality from cholera. The mortality of the destitute jumped by 20%. The Benoiston report from Châteauneuf (1834) confirms the analysis, indicating that all the excess mortality zones "without exception, are located in the worst neighborhoods, such as those of the City, the City Hall, or in the most bad streets in the best neighborhoods. "

Studies will show that unsanitary conditions have been the structural cause of the very high rates of morbidity (percentage of people infected) and mortality (percentage of deceased people) among the working classes in urban areas. The hygienists will then launch an intense campaign in favor of the sanitation of housing, but will not be able to obtain coercive measures against the owners of these slums enriching themselves on misery. This would have gone against the "sacrosanct" principle of inviolability of private property.

Legislate to calm the people
It was only in 1848, the day after these June days when the Parisian proletariat rose up again against the established order, and while a new pandemic struck England, that the question of healthiness would resume its place in the political calendar. Fearing further violence with the return of cholera, the Cavaignac government will multiply commissions and measures aimed at reassuring public opinion. As in 1832, the most popular neighborhoods will be the first and most affected.

If the epidemic of 1849 did not cause popular riots, the entire political class would be unanimous: unhealthiness was the cause of disorder - not only social and health but also and above all moral - and it is urgent to legislate on this question, at the risk that it would lead to a political and social crisis. As soon as installed, the new assembly will examine a bill to this effect, and the rapporteur of the text, will not hide the moral interest:"If the worker finds in his dwelling, not the pleasure, but the cleanliness, but the healthiness, he will enjoy himself there, he will stay there. On the contrary, suppose, which is unfortunately too frequent, a mephitic air, nauseating emanations, he will hasten to flee it to seek outside distractions too often dangerous ... The links are relaxed, the vices are encouraged and the disorder multiplies ..." The law will be voted unanimously, and although limited in its effects, it will make date as one of the first social laws and the first bearing the seal of the hygienist renovators. More than an advance towards more social progress, it will be the sign of a moment of feverishness of the bourgeoisie, ready to concede crumbs for fear of losing most of the cake.

The popular revolts make the powers tremble, from one pandemic to another, let's remember the lesson ...

David (UCL Grand-Paris sud)

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