The Cholera Epidemic of 1832
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Canada at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century
The Cholera Epidemic of 1832
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The Cholera Epidemic of 1832

In June 1832, two events stirred up political conflict in Lower Canada: the Place d'Armes by-election, which turned into a tragedy costing several lives, and the cholera epidemic.

At the beginning of June, the Carrick, a ship that had come over from Ireland, reached Quebec with a few feverish immigrants on board.
Jean-Jacques Lartigue, the Bishop of Montreal, wrote to his cousin during the 1832 cholera epidemic complaining of, "...the invasion of our uncultivated land by British immigrants who threaten to drive us out of our country and reduce our "Canadien" popul
Jean-Jacques Lartigue, the Bishop of Montreal, wrote to his cousin during the 1832 cholera epidemic complaining of, "...the invasion of our uncultivated land by British immigrants who threaten to drive us out of our country and reduce our "Canadien" population, year after year, by the spread of disease." (As portrayed by Benoit Girard in Canada: A People's History)
Three days later, cholera took its first victim.

The illness spread like wildfire all the way to Montreal and then to Upper Canada. It quickly became an epidemic that moved through the shanty neighbourhoods of the urban poor, which were breeding grounds for contagion. The lack of sewers and garbage collection contributed to water contamination. Soon the epidemic was out of control and hundreds died each day, mostly in the large towns.

On June 14, 1832, La Minerve newspaper verified the spread of cholera.

"14 June, 1832: Since Monday morning Montreal is in turmoil and the alarm is growing every minute. There is no longer doubt that cholera is present. We recommend that the public observe strictly the Regulations of the Board of Health."

La Minerve tried to prevent panic from spreading, advising that:

"There is no use in becoming alarmed.
When the illness appears, one must see a doctor and follow his instructions. The apothecaries have the necessary remedies in stock and their prices are affordable to all pocketbooks."

In reality, doctors were overwhelmed and powerless. They thought cholera was transmitted by fumes carried through the atmosphere. To purify the air, English officers tried firing off cannons and the Sanitary Office burned tar.

Alexander Hart, a Jewish merchant from Montreal, saw death all around him:

"None of us go into town anymore.
Many are moving into the country. Yesterday 34 corpses passed our house. Today, 23... not counting those in the old burial Ground and in the Catholic ground. 12 carts are employed by the Board of Health to carry away the dead who are interred without prayers."

By the end of 1832, the epidemic had claimed 9,000 lives, more than half of them in Lower Canada. Some Canadians held England responsible for this misfortune, citing its emigration policy for negligence, if not malevolence.

In a letter to his cousin, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, the Bishop of Montreal, spoke of the Place d'Armes by-election and the cholera epidemic:

"The other subjects that seem to me most worthy of your attention at the present time are: the murder of our "Canadiens" on May 21st, which the governor has since officially condoned; and the invasion of our uncultivated land by British immigrants who threaten to drive us out of our country and reduce our "Canadien" population, year after year, by the spread of disease."

This climate of death, fear and loathing helped kindle a political firestorm in Lower Canada.

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