“But Lord! What a sad time it is to see no boats upon the River; and grass grows all up and down White Hall court, and nobody but poor wretches in the streets!” — Samuel Pepys
Here in Australia, the current pandemic can be seen as the continuation of a sort of run-on couplet of crises, having arrived less than a month after the dousing of the “Red Summer” bushfires, the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history. The couplet, which includes the uncanny slant end-rhyme of coronavirus with bushfires, brought to mind another pair of disasters, if only in inverted order: London’s Great Plague of 1665 and Great Fire of 1666, and the man who chronicled them both in his diary, the indefatigable Samuel Pepys. Pepys, who had a voracious appetite for all restoration London could afford him—for society, business, fashion, theatre, billiards, poetry, public executions, music, marriage and adultery—, survived both catastrophes without fleeing his beloved city, and, perhaps more significantly, with his appetites intact.
Pepys’ diary (available in its entirety online here), particularly his documenting of The Great Plague, which is estimated to have killed up to a quarter of London’s population in less than 18 months, shows us in quotidian detail that our times, though extraordinary, are not entirely unprecedented. Pepys’ tracks the plague from rumor to devastating certitude, measures self-isolation and social distancing with the human urge to congregate and the necessity of commerce, and illustrates that one of the most devastating features of a pandemic is the sustained anxiety it causes. The manner in which both institutions and people react to the plague read eerily familiar across almost four centuries.
Much in the way the coronavirus began as a news story happening “over there” in Wuhan, China, Pepys’ first mention of the impending crisis is of the plague having “got to Amsterdam, brought by a ship from Argier…”, on October 16th, 1663, a full two years before it arrives in London. There is immediate talk of the closing of borders, with the king proposing to forbid any Dutch ship from coming up the Thames. Just over a month later, a quarantine is in fact ordered for ships coming from Amsterdam, Hamburg, “or any other infected places”, with those ships wanting to enter the capital now required to moor at Hole Haven, on Canvey Island, for a period of 30 days. The quarantine was extended to 40 days just six months later.
The plague shadows each of Pepys’ diary entries henceforth. Gossip of its progress is seemingly unavoidable. In July of 1664, at a coffee house he frequents “all the talk is of the plague being very hot still, and increases among the Dutch.” Amsterdam, which was at once London’s great trading partner and naval rival (the second Anglo-Dutch war was fought between 1665 and 1667), looms in the eyes of the English as the epicentre of the outbreak. Pepys includes in his notes a gruesome rumor of a Dutch ship of 3 or 400 tons “where all the men are dead of plague, and the ship cast ashore at Gottenburgh”,—a ghost-ship which might find its contemporary counterpart in the Diamond Princess cruise-liner.
NB: Photos of Australian bushfires; Pepys’s Diary at Magdalene College, Cambridge; Pepys and plague-ravaged London, 1665.