April 13, 2020 — Croatia is earning plaudits for its handling of the coronavirus. But not many realize it has plenty of practice throughout history — besides Dubrovnik’s invention of the quarantine. Just thank the Habsburg Monarchy.
The sanitary cordon, corralling whole nations to mitigate the spread of disease, was first implemented on Croatian territory. The Habsburg Monarchy used it first, placing 10,000 guards along a 1,900-kilometer border to prevent the plague from entering via the Ottoman Empire, according to historians.
Although there have been many examples of sanitary cordons in various parts of the world before, in the 18th century the Croatian-Slavonian military landscape was the most extensive and one of the most permanent systems of permanent land quarantine protection in the entire history of humanity, historian Hrvoje Petrić told Jutarnji List.
A sanitary cordon, or “lockdown” in modern terms, is a system of measures around an infected area preventing the transmission of disease. It consists of checkpoints, stations and places where health check-ups are carried out. People and animals are isolated, and all items that can transmit the disease from an infected to an uninfected area are disinfected.
Due to the frequent spread of plague and other infectious diseases from the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire’s Military Frontier has also become a sanitary cordon. The border was initially organized as a defensive zone against the Ottomans, extending from the Adriatic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. The area has since grown into a separate political, military, economic and social phenomenon.
Various anti-epidemic measures have existed on the border with the Ottoman Empire since the end of the 17th century, but the foundation for the development of continuous protection is the Imperial Patent on the Protection of the Plague of 1709, says a historian at the Faculty of Arts in Zagreb. He noted that the patent is a response to the plague epidemic which had broken out two years earlier. It included quarantine measures at specific points at the border.
The Sanitary Council, which was initially a body of the lower Austrian authorities, eventually took over the anti-epidemic defense of other Habsburg countries and became a Court Health Commission in 1719. The commission had the authority to send surgeons and physicians in epidemics to vulnerable areas and to direct anti-epidemic activities through regulations.
The Habsburg Monarchy was an absolutist force capable of reviving orders from above. It is therefore not surprising that the patent of Charles VI. October 22, 1728, prescribed the creation of a permanent sanitary cordon as continuous anti-epidemic protection on the border zone of the Habsburg Monarchy, says the historian Petric. The belt stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains for a total length of 1900 kilometers.
Quarantine in Practice
The sanitary cordon relied on quarantines and permanent cordon guards, but also on the system of collecting health information in the Ottoman Empire. The first containment stations, modest wooden barracks where suspected passengers were isolated and goods were disinfected, were erected around 1730–1740 along the Una and Sava rivers.
The prescribed quarantine lasted 42 days, and sometimes up to 84 days. This, however, led to problems in trade between the two empires. Therefore, the Habsburg authorities in 1768 allowed the establishment of neutral zones, where trade could occur since neither the buyer nor the seller came in direct physical contact, Petric said.
The Venetian Republic also established a permanent sanitary cordon towards the Ottoman Empire after the signing of the Peace of Pozarevac, 1718. It extended from the Habsburg-Ottoman-Venetian tribe to Neum.
It took about 4,000 soldiers to guard the cordon. However, if an epidemic were to occur in Constantinople, 7,000 men would be sent on guard duty, leaving 11,000 men to stand guard against the plague. For all who came from the Ottoman Empire, the quarantine lasted 21 days in 1770 but could be increased to 28 and 42 days, if necessary.
The guards were at a safe distance from the passengers because otherwise they would be subjected to quarantine measures themselves. Contact with people from the Ottoman Empire who did not pass quarantine was strictly forbidden.
The goods traders carried were conserved. The new arrivals were examined by doctors in a separate room in which people were separated by a double row of narrow beams, spaced about two meters apart.
They were also questioned by the account manager, to assess the risk of spreading the infection. In doing so, he also collected other information about the health of the area they came from. In some places rested huts, each with four compartments. One section was a living space, a small kitchen and a fenced yard with a water closet, and as a rule, it housed one passenger. Otherwise, care was taken to accept as few individuals as possible, and those who would show signs of illness were immediately returned to the Ottoman Empire, Petrić said.
The Quarantine Life
There is some evidence of life in quarantine. Traveler Savior Lusignan wrote, “I arrived in Zemun yesterday. After the quarantine doctors examined me as well as my clothes, a gentleman from Smyrna received me at the apartment because all the hostels were occupied… ”
On the other hand, in the area under Venetian rule, the experience of a certain John Howard has a more fun anecdote. In a book from 1789, he states that “the Lazaretto in Herceg Novi in Dalmatiaæ is ”located on the coast, about two miles from the city.”
“A beautiful hill rises in the background of the lazaretto. Quarantined people are allowed to go there after a few days and enjoy hunting and the like.”
However, it was clearly not so good for Jakob Mušinović from Kutina. In 1775, he escaped from quarantine and hid in the courtyard of the Franciscan monastery. He was soon arrested and quarantined. The monastery’s chronicle notes, “We have managed to preserve our health. Otherwise, if he had found the monastery door open, he would have entered either the bakery or the barn, and the monastery would surely have been closed.”
The sanitary cordon has reduced the spread of epidemics, but not entirely. The plague managed to get past the cordon at least five times.