The Politics of Disaster: Risk and Exploitation in Spain during the Marseille Plague and Beyond

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Cindy Ermus, Florida State University
This paper explores the Great Plague of Marseille within a transnational context as a means to examine the important and far-reaching implications of this complex event.  From 1720 to 1722, Provençal cities, most notably Marseille, were successful at confining a major outbreak of bubonic plague to the region of Provence.  For this reason, previous studies have only examined the epidemic as it occurred within France. However, archival evidence reveals that the diplomatic and commercial effects of this catastrophe extended well beyond the borders of Marseille into other major European cities, including Cádiz, the principal port for the Carrera de Indias.  This paper thus examines Spanish responses to the plague under the reforming and centralist policies of Philip V.

What emerges from this analysis is an understanding of how Spanish authorities exploited the epidemic as a means to restrict trade with France and tighten control over commercial activities, thereby ignoring the terms of various recent treaties.  This study will serve to remind us that the problems that pervade societies in times of crisis do not represent modern anxieties with no precedent.  Instead, by applying a transnational perspective to an event such as the Marseille plague, and engaging the historiography of natural disasters, one discovers a long legacy of the injustices that reveal themselves in times of catastrophe today—injustices that include the misdirecting of disaster funds, the imposition of supervisory controls within a state, and the disregard of established rights of citizens and foreigners.  My paper will demonstrate that disastrous events such as the Marseille plague do not constitute isolated events disengaged from their temporal and geographic surroundings.  Instead, broader explorations of historical disasters can help us better understand such complex events as disease epidemics in a rapidly globalizing world.

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