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March 23, 2020

When Kapodistrias Closed the Churches and Defeated an Epidemic

By Aristeidis Hatzes,
Professor of the Philosophy of Law & Institutional Theory at the
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Ioannis Kapodistrias (1776-1831) was the first governor or head of state of independent Greece (1827–31) and is considered the founder of the modern Greek state, and the architect of Greek independence. He was very much beloved by the people of Greece, and one reason for this was because he based almost everything he did on Christian principals. He was a very faithful Christian and a defender of the Orthodox Church, clashing with anyone he considered to threaten it.

But Kapodistrias was also a responsible leader who was ready to make difficult decisions, even from the first moment he arrived in Greece. During the first months of his rule, a plague epidemic occurred in the Argosaronic islands, in Hydra first and then in Spetses. One of the first decisions he made in April 1828 was to close the churches in areas where incidents had occurred or were likely to occur (eg., in Aegina where he himself had settled). The churches were closed for an indefinite period and the reactions were minimal. The Greeks respected him, admired him and mainly trusted him. This was because Kapodistrias was also a very good doctor and indeed with considerable practical experience he acquired long before he became fully involved in politics. So he knew what he was doing very well - it wasn't a hasty decision of the moment. The opposite is true.

Kapodistrias believed that the first two measures a government should take immediately after an epidemic in an area was the mandatory confinement of all residents' in their homes and the closure of churches. This is evidenced by one of the first laws that he himself passed in August 1828, when the epidemic was in recession. On August 20, 1828, a Resolution was adopted "On Sanitary Provisions" (Ref. 15/20.8.1828). There we read in Article 285, para. 3: "Residents are required to remain shut inside their homes. All religious ceremonies are prevented. No bells are rung." In accordance with the general provisions of the Resolution, preventive measures shall apply immediately upon an epidemic in Greece or on the Greek border. The resolution is signed by the Governor himself ("I.A. Kapodistrias"), as well as by the Secretary of State ("S. Trikoupis").

It is interesting to see Kapodistrias' moves in those days, as recorded in the official documents of his government, in his letters and in the newspapers of the time.

Not even three months had passed since his arrival in Greece. He was desperate with the situation he was under. It was worse than he was afraid of. Ibrahim Pasha was still in the Peloponnese and the Greek Government had no fixed income. The Greeks lived on generous US aid (private, not state). Things couldn't be worse when the plague epidemic broke out. It is not certain where the plague was transmitted, the Greeks blamed the Egyptians, but the great epidemics in the Peloponnese began after the slaughter of Tripolitsa and because of the large number of unburied corpses of Turks, Jews and Albanians. In addition, the first outbreaks of plague had occurred in Euboea and Kea since late January 1828. However, the epidemic hit almost simultaneously Greeks (in Hydra first) and Egyptians (in the castle of Methoni) in early April.

Kapodistrias sent on April 17, 1828 the doctor Spyridon Kalogeropoulos to Hydra and Spetses. Kalogeropoulos immediately realized that the situation was critical and took the first stringent measures himself with the government's authorization. One of them was the closure of the churches. Kalogeropoulos briefed the government and Kapodistrias, who without hesitation, personally undertook to deal with the epidemic:

a) On April 18, he sent to the two islands General Health Officer Anastasios Londo and Dr. Nikolaos Kalogeropoulos to conduct the first inspection.

b) On April 21, he ordered Colonel Faviero to organize a marine health chain around the two islands, using a schooner and five armed boats. A normal maritime blockade, in other words.

c) He sent special envoys to all the provinces of mainland Greece and all the islands, informing the local administrations of the measures taken and providing detailed instructions on the measures to be adopted locally to create health zones. He appointed temporary commissioners to the Peloponnese and asked them to depart on the same day for their respective provinces.

d) On April 22, the governor issued a statement stressing: "I think the best way to accomplish my task is to visit the affected areas myself and take drastic measures to protect the rest of Greece from the epidemic." Soon afterwards he departed to visit the two islands, using the Russian frigate "Helen".

e) On April 24, he visited Spetses. There he met with the governing elders and local doctors. He appointed John Kolettis as Extraordinary Health Commissioner for Spetses. He provided him with military forces and detailed instructions.

f) On April 25, the Dutch admiral of the Russian fleet, Longinus Hayden (one of the three Admirals in the Navarino Navy) arrived in Hydra with two dinghies and a pontoon and met the frigate "Helen" offshore. The Commander met the Admiral, observing all the health precautions and asking for his help in controlling the marine sanctuary.

g) On the 26th of April the governor went to Hydra. He met with the governing elders there and listened to the doctors' reports. He assured Hydra that he would give them the fastest help they needed, by all means.

h) The governor returned to Aegina on April 29 but remained on the Russian frigate. From there he dispatched orders with a large number of ships to the commanders and communities of Greek territory. French and British ships helped to rigorously enforce the maritime sanctuary.

i) The governor landed in Aegina on May 1 and settled in the farmhouse of Demetrios Voulgaris in the bay of Perivola, a location with a particularly healthy climate. On the same day he sent two ships with food and money to Spetses and Hydra to provide basic food for the poorest inhabitants of the two islands. He appointed his brother, Viaros Kapodistrias, Extraordinary Health Commissioner for Hydra. Viaros immediately left with the doctor Nikolaos Kalogeropoulos. He took very drastic measures that disrupted trade and led to the first Hydra-Kapodistrias conflict.

(j) On 3 May, the government announced that no outbreak had occurred in the Peloponnese, Eastern Central Greece and Syros. On the same day, the government received a letter from the Hydra Qualifiers stating that since April 23 no new outbreaks have occurred, no patients have died, all those hospitalized in quarantine have survived.

k) On 4 May, Viaros Kapodistrias returned from Hydra confirming the above. No new outbreaks, no deaths in Hydra from April 23 to May 3. The same goes for Spetses, according to letters from Ioannis Kolettis from there.

(l) On 5 May the government decided to maintain sanitary sanctions for an indefinite period of time, strictly adhering to them, particularly in the maritime area between the two islands and the Peloponnese. But the disease struck afterwards in Methoni and other places still under Egyptian control (such as the Tower of Ilias). At the same time, outbreaks occurred in Salamis, Megara, Poros and Chalkida but were severely restricted immediately. In early August the governor announced the lifting of measures and passed Resolution 15 which is extremely interesting and strikingly detailed. It is one of the most important texts in the Greek (and European) history of public health. In mid-December, however, the disease hit Achaia, starting with Kalavryta. The governor imposed the blockade of the area with the help of the French military corps, under General Nicholas-Joseph Maeson.

The following year, in 1829, the outbreaks were minimal and reduced instantaneously. A freedom-loving philhellenist who had arrived in Greece a year earlier, the Swiss physician Louis-André Gosse (1791-1873) from Geneva, was instrumental in limiting the epidemic. If you know French, you can read more about the 1828 epidemic, Ioannis Kapodistrias and Doctor Gosse, in this very interesting scientific article.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.