A Colonial Diary Reveals the Agony of Epidemic

A haunting letter from 18th century Mexico reveals the devastation of epidemics. Carlos, struck by typhus, pleads for help as priests fall ill and communities struggle to cope. His story, preserved in colonial archives, offers a glimpse into a time of disease, despair, and enduring hope.

A Colonial Diary Reveals the Agony of Epidemic
Facing the epidemic together: A priest offers comfort to the sick.

During the colonial period in New Spain, several epidemics struck the population. Some diseases responsible for the catastrophic epidemics were known as tabardetes, tabardillo, matlasagua or typhoid, which severely affected the population from the 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century.

One of the main documentary sources that narrate what happened are the records of parish activities and letters addressed to the ecclesiastical authorities or to the king. These documents contain crucial information to understand the magnitude of the events. Through these records, it is possible to observe that priests played a crucial role in the intervention and management of the disease, which was essential to maintain activities in the provinces.

In this context, Carlos, an inhabitant of northern New Spain impacted by "matlasagua", related in a letter his concern for the epidemic that was impacting the population, as well as the ecclesiastical missions. The Archivo General de la Nación has a collection of letters and reports on the smallpox epidemic and the "matlasagua" or "tabardillo". On this occasion, based on a paleographic transcription work, a letter written by Carlos, which is in the aforementioned collection, is shown.

My name is Carlos, and I am writing these lines in the midst of terrible health conditions. It was on the fateful day of October 11, 1764, when I contracted tabardillo or matlasagua, [a cruel disease that brings with it high fevers, delirium and inflammation of vital organs such as the spleen and liver, in addition to cardiac and neurological complications]. Three months have passed since then, and as I write this letter, I find myself thin and weakened, barely emerging from the convalescence that has marked my last November and December.
But my suffering is not unique. Last year, the provinces were ravaged by various diseases, such as smallpox, matlasagua and tabardillos, claiming many lives and leaving many more sick. The burden of managing the disease and burying the deceased has fallen on the parents, who have seen how death also stalks them. Fortunately, in my province no one has died, and all are showing signs of improvement.
However, my concern is serious. Recently, a father who held a vital position fell seriously ill at home and passed away before he could receive help. The situation with the fathers is critical, as demonstrated by the tragic fate of Father Francisco Loaiza during the first mass of this year, as he was stricken with severe pain that in less than an hour took his life.
Although three fathers were sent to our province, none have arrived. As far as I know, one was detained in Taraumara, another in Durango and the third was stranded in Sinaloa. I make a desperate plea that the fathers destined for our province do not encounter obstacles in their way, for their presence is vital in these difficult times.
I understand that the reason for their delay is the unfortunate condition we face, with so many deaths that need urgent attention. However, this situation has also left vacancies in Sonora for years, preventing the completion of missions that now fall solely on us. Tabardillo has affected my ability to carry out these tasks, and I see with despair how our provinces lack this important intervention.
In the hope that this letter will reach whoever can resolve our distressing situation, I send it with the firm conviction that we are not alone in this fight against the disease.

In the Treasury Archive fund there are valuable testimonies that allow us to delve into the chaotic moments that our ancestors lived through during the colonial epidemics. Letters such as the one from Carlos, impacted by "tabardillo" or "matlasagua", reveal the anguish and suffering experienced by those who faced these deadly diseases.

The "tabardillo or matlasagua" epidemic was a devastating reality that severely affected the New Spain population from the seventeenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth century. This disease, also known as "tabardetes or tifos", left a trail of suffering and worry in the population. Records of parish activities and letters sent to the ecclesiastical authorities and the king are testimonies of the magnitude of these epidemics, as well as the crucial role played by priests in disease control. One such account is that of Charles, who in a letter describes the anguish he experienced as a result of the situation. In the Archivo de Hacienda collection, we find valuable testimonies that allow us to better understand these difficult moments in colonial history.

Source: Archivo General de la Nación. “La carta de Carlos: un acercamiento a la epidemia por el ‘matlasagua.’” gob.mx, http://www.gob.mx/agn/es/articulos/la-carta-de-carlos-un-acercamiento-a-la-epidemia-por-el-matlasagua?idiom=es. Accessed 23 June 2024.