International Mail (1)
This folded letter was written at Havana on December
15, 1833, and taken to the Havana post office for dispatch.
It was stamped “Havana,” an origin mark, and
placed aboard the “Bergn de guerra/ Guadalupe”
(Brigantine of war, Guadalupe). It was carried directly
to Santander, on the northern Spanish coast, and there
landed at the quarantine station.
In 1831, a wave of cholera plague had swept across Europe.
Spain was not affected much until 1832. At that time,
the government established quarantine stations, or “lazarettos,”
along its borders with Portugal and France, as well as
at the principal seaports. There were four types of lazarettos,
but the type we are concerned with is the “lazaretto
of expurgation.” This was the place where a traveller’s
personal effects were taken and disinfection carried out
on all their personal belongings.
Sanitation was primitive in those days. The causes of
disease were not well known. It was thought that plagues
were carried in the air and could be found in the air
surrounding sick people.
In the case of mail, disinfection could be accomplished
by several different techniques. One method was to immerse
a letter in vinegar. Another was to just sprinkle it with
vinegar. A third method was puncture each letter using
a paddle with nails projecting, or make a slit in each
letter with a sharp knife, and then place them in a sealed
box. Sulfur fumes or a burning aromatic herb, such as
juniper berry, were introduced into the box. The idea
was that the holes or slits in the letters would allow
the disinfectant to enter the letter and purify the air
Tome I, p.2b: Havana to Santander,
Spain. 15 December, 1833
(Red arrow added to indicate a fumigation cut).
As the arrow in the illustration indicates, this letter
was disinfected by slitting and then fumigating. After
fumigation, the mail was taken to the Santander post office
where a clerk rated it as 5 reales de vellón postage
due. This was the postage rate for a letter weighing up
to 5 adarmes, per the Spanish Postal Tariff Law of 1807,
still in force.
An adarme was an old unit of measure, the 16th part of
an ounce (28.7 grams). One adarme was equal to 1.79375
grams. Five adarmes was equal to 8.96875 grams, or a little
more than 1/4 ounce.
The “real de vellón” was not a coin
but a unit of money for accounting purposes. It had a
constant value of 34 maravedis or 8 1/2 cuartos.
The addressee could pay the postage due with any coin
he had. It just had to equal 5 reales de vellón.
The letter was not postmarked by a town datestamp of
the Santander post office upon arrival, but the addressee
noted inside that it was received on January 23,
1834, about five and a half weeks after it was written.