When Maria Carolina Met the ‘Coronavirus’ of 1812

Following the global pandemic of COVID-19 and millions under lockdown across the world, we felt it necessary to tell the story of when Maria Carolina met the 'Coronavirus' of 1812.
The Pague Stayed
Image: Thomas Cheesman's 'The Plague Stayed on the Repentance of David' after Benjamin West, 1813. (© British Museum, No. 1838,0425.56).

The COVID-19 virus has gripped the world’s attention since its appearance and outbreak in China’s Hubei province at the end of 2019. To date (and at time of writing) the new respiratory virus has spread across the globe; reaching 156 countries, infecting 169,000 people of whom 6,500 have died and 77,000 have recovered.[1] Multiple governments across the world have enacted harsh—but seemingly effective—quarantine measures. Following the lockdown of numerous Chinese cities and provinces, home to over 60 million people and affecting nearly 500 million people in total, daily life has been brought to a standstill. In Europe, 100 million people are under various lockdowns in an attempt to stifle contagion. In Austria, the Maria Carolina team are all working from home as a result of measures in Austria and the Tyrol. The word ‘quarantine’ has now entered our everyday vocabulary and thoughts.

Yet for people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such a term and the associated anxieties were a frequent consideration. Disease rates were higher and sanitation was lower after all. Outbreaks and epidemics were still common occurrences. The most famous plague of all, the Black Death, still lingered. We may forget that bubonic plague became an endemic feature of European life long after its most infamous wave in the mid-fourteenth century. In the eighteenth century alone and by the time of Maria Carolina’s birth in 1752, Europeans had witnessed both the Great Plague of Marseilles in 1720-1722 and the Great Plague of 1738, which had ravaged much of Eastern Europe. In Maria Carolina’s own lifetime epidemics continued to rage throughout Europe and in 1813, she encountered the aftermath of one herself.

Odessa in the early nineteenth century was a bustling port city. In 1794, the Russian Empress Catherine ‘the Great’ founded the city in the newly conquered Ottoman lands. During the next two decades, the population exploded fifteen times over as trade lines expanded from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The sudden expansion and influx of new people from various regions brought with them the risk of new diseases as the city’s new overcrowded quarters fostered intermingling. In August 1812, the dizzying inundation resulted in catastrophe. The bubonic plague had arrived in the city. 

Infection spread with devastating rapidity from person to person, from house to house. Soon the entire city faced quarantine with every inhabitant confined to home as officials struggled to contain the plague. Their response included dividing the city into four quarters, each with its own commissar appointed to oversee the precautions enacted. Twice-daily visits to each house were carried out and records kept of each person showing symptoms.[2] Inside the city life ground slowly to a halt. Stricter and stricter measures were put in place in addition to the quarantine; cold meats were dipped in cold water before consumption, money was exchanged only in vials of vinegar, letters were fumigated and read on the end of a stick. Giant bonfires were lit in the major thoroughfares to purify the air and all public places were closed.

By November, the entire river delta around Odessa was under quarantine: for travelers without merchandise, it lasted 24 days; for merchants and those carrying goods, twelve weeks.[3] Around New Year 1813, 400 migrants fleeing an outbreak in the nearby town of Balta arrived before the city gates only to be locked out and forced into a quarantine camp well outside the city limits. The general quarantine remained in effect until 7th January 1813.

Despite the measures taken, by springtime 1813, 2,600 Odessans died out of a total population of 36,000.[4] 

Maria Carolina arrived in the embattled city a few months later on 2nd November 1813. Her arrival came week after her self-exile from Sicily following her disputes with the British commander sent to defend the island against French invasion, Lord William Bentinck.[5] Her goal was Vienna but given much of Italy was under enemy control, the best route followed through Constantinople, Odessa and the Danubian plains. Although she arrived many months after the highpoint of the outbreak, a general quarantine for visitors was still in effect. It did not matter if you were a lowly trader, a refugee or an exiled queen.

The next day, 3rd November 1813, Maria Carolina and her entourage entered quarantine. From her four surviving letters sent to her nephew Emperor Franz in our collection, we can gain an insight into what life was like when Maria Carolina met the ‘Coronavirus of 1812’.[6]

Unlike the majority of visitors who spent quarantine in the infamous lazaretto, Maria Carolina informed Franz that she entered quarantine in a house owned by the municipal government which “gives every attention to us.”[7] The good favour shown to her probably had something to do with the governor of Odessa at the time: Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis, the Duke of Richelieu.[8] An aristocrat similarly exiled by the effects of the French Revolution, Richelieu had likely met Maria Carolina at the coronation of her brother Leopold at Frankfurt in 1790.[9] Richelieu had been instrumental in implementing the strict measures against the plague. On one occasion when nearby villagers refused to bury their dead, Richelieu travelled there personally, took up a shovel and started digging in front of the shocked congregation as an example to them. [10] When Maria Carolina arrived, however, he was away on tour of the provinces.[11] She could not avail herself upon an old friend to let her pass through the city unchecked and unhindered. As a result, she had no idea how long her quarantine would last.[12]

Maria Carolina’s next letter to Franz reveals the strains of boredom from her isolation. She counted out the days of her journey so far to him, including the nine days spent in quarantine. She counted herself lucky, however; all were well in her entourage and despite the awful storms and passage they had endured on their way to Odessa, nobody had fallen sick.[13] Through newspapers and gazettes, she still received news of the outside world. She congratulated Franz on the victory of the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813 which she learned about whilst in Odessa.[14]

Bad news came in her next letter, written on the 30th November 1813. After 27 days in quarantine, Maria Carolina no doubt looked forward to release but just as this point approached, she received word of an extension to her quarantine. Orders arrived from St. Petersburg demanding a longer quarantine. It is not clear whether this affected all visitors or only Maria Carolina. In any case, Maria Carolina accepted the two-week extension noting that her group had done everything required to fumigate the air, maintain their hygiene and remain in the quarantined quarters.[15] She understood her need to comply.

On the 14th December 1813, Maria Carolina and her entourage finally stepped out of isolation. Governor Richelieu entreated her to some much-missed entertainment by the Italian librettist Carlo Goldoni and composer Giovanni Paisiello.[16] Prior to continuing her journey, Maria Carolina wrote again to Franz. She expressed her utmost attachment for him and her joy to be with him soon for the next day at dawn she would set off for her “dearest homeland.”[17]

As many of us today encounter an epidemic of our own times, we can perhaps think of the stoic figure of Maria Carolina who quietly complied with her own quarantine instructions. It was neither short nor easy, but it was required.

By Jonathan Singerton


[1] Numbers taken from Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases dashboard by Johns Hopkins CSSE, Johns Hopkins University, 16.03.2020:


[2] Edward Morton, Travels in Russia and a Residence at St. Petersburg and Odessa in the Years 1827-1829: Intended to Give Some Account of Russia as It is and Not as It is Represented to Be (London: Longman et al, 1830), 315. Morton based his account of the plague on an eyewitness report by the exiled French general Philippe-Francois d’Abignac de Castelnau (1742-1814).

[3] Morton, 316.

[4] Andrew Robarts, Migration and Disease in the Black Sea Region: Ottoman-Russian Relations in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2017), 148. Morton’s figures are 2,656 for 32,000.

[5] See John Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck and the British Occupation of Sicily 1811-1814 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 82-101.

[6] The letters are: Maria Carolina to Franz, 5th November 1813, Haus-, Hof-, und Staatsarchiv [HHStA], Hausarchiv [HA], Sammelbände [SB], K. 44-7, fols. 16-17; Maria Carolina to Franz, 16th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fols. 18-18r; Maria Carolina to Franz, 30th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fols. 20-21r; Maria Carolina to Franz, 17th December 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fol. 22.

[7] « Le 3. nous Somes descendus et mis en quarantaine dans une maison ou on use pour nous du Gouvernement toutes les Attentions possibles. » Maria Carolina to Franz, 5th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fol. 16.

[8] Marie-Pierre Rey, „The Duke of Richelieu in the Service of Tsar Alexander I and the Restoration: A Mediator between Russia and France,“ Quaestio Rossica, 6, No. 4 (2018), 1095-1109.

[9] Jacques Fouques Duparc, Le troisiéme Richelieu, libérateur du territoire en 1815 (Lyon : H. Lardanchet, 1940), 37 ; Emmanuel de Waresquiel, Le duc de Richelieu, 1766-1822 (Paris : Perrin,  1990),  124.

[10] Morton, 320.

[11] « Le Gouverneur d’odessa, Duc de Richelieux, ètant dans une tournée de la Province, et on L’attend a chaque momens. »  Maria Carolina to Franz, 5th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fol. 16.

[12] « J’ygnore encore Combien durera la quarantaine. » Maria Carolina to Franz, 5th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fol. 16.

[13] Maria Carolina to Franz, 16th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fols. 18-18r.

[14] « [Je] presenter mes biens Sincers Complimens pour les Si heureux et glorieux Exploits de Ses braves armées dans les memorables journées du 17. 18 et 19. Octtobre. » Maria Carolina to Franz, 16th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fols. 18-18r.

[15]  Maria Carolina to Franz, 30th November 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fols. 20-21r.

[16] Harold Acton, The Bourbons of Naples 1734-1825 (London: Methuen & Co., 1957), 633. Given the librettist and composer, it is likely the work was Il Mondo della Luna (1782).

[17] « Ma bien chere patrie » Maria Carolina to Franz, 17th December 1813, HHStA, HA, SB, K. 44-7, fol. 22.

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