Amidst the sour disorder

Carmen Gomez

I have previously written about how in the America’s, the arrival of Spanish conquistadores brought disease to many indigenous people who had no immunity to new infectious; and by exposing them to these they died in their thousands. Curiously, in my browsing recently through history, I came across a very similar scenario; except this time the happening was attributed to the English. 

Enemy in the air

It appears that back in 1585, the great Elizabethan scientist, Thomas Harriot; recognized for his contributions in astronomy, mathematics and navigational techniques and also credited amongst other things, with the introduction of the potato to the British Isles; was sent on an expedition on account of his expertise in the Carolina Algonquian language; funded by Sir Walter Raleigh, to found the first permanent English settlement in North America.

He landed in the Roanoke Colony, off the coast of North Carolina, in order to assess its natural resources, observe the Algonquian inhabitants, and weigh the colonists’ chances of survival. He was most impressed with what he saw. Here was a vast, uncharted land, inhabited by well organised, prosperous and proud peoples. It did not take him long to realize that they could not be effortlessly subjugated. Instead he believed that English settlers could profit from the knowledge accumulated there about life in the New World.

However, wherever the English went, within a few days after their departure from every town, the people began to die; many in a short space of time; from a disease so strange, they never knew what it was, or how to cure it; the likes of which they had never experienced before. In some towns it was twenty; in others forty; in some sixty and in another one hundred and twenty. They were of course subject to the terrible effect of viruses; small pox, measles, influenza and the like. Not knowing this they imagined the enemy to be in the air, invisible and without bodies, shooting bullets into them. Apparently Thomas Harriot believed that disease struck those who were secretly plotting against them. The Algonquians in turn, saw it as a murderous technology that the English had brought into their midst to facilitate the destruction of their society. I find all this thought provoking; when you think on the present unknown killer we are faced with!

On the nature of things

But even well before that; during the devastating epidemic that struck Athens in the Peloponnesian War; Lucretius, Roman poet and philosopher, wrote his one and only poem which represented more than a historical event.

Regarded as a masterpiece; which translated into English reads “On the nature of things;” it not only alluded to the tumultuous state of political affairs in Rome of the day and its civil strife, but gives a remarkable description of Brownian motion i.e. the erratic random movement of microscopic dust particles, which he called “the seeds of things.” I quote: “It falls on the water or the grain fields, falls on other nourishment of beasts and men; or hangs suspended in the very air from which our breath inhales it, draws it down all through our bodies.”

If we make a comparison to today, although we are led to believe that Covid-19 is not airborne, when particles hostile to us begin to move, confusion stirs and changes are enforced in our familiar quarters. Here we are in our self imposed or forced isolation, wondering what the hell is going on and asking ourselves when it will end. Wondering how in Italy, so far away from China, they were suddenly in its grip; wondering how something strange happens to the world we thought we knew so intimately.

Light that shines through the darkness

A pandemic, such as the one which has so rudely and cruelly invaded our lives, tests us in unique ways. It ruthlessly takes the measure of our values and calls into question our familiar assumptions. It makes us wonder if the poem’s closing focus on epidemic disease might in fact, have been fully intended. This is precisely the existential challenge which Lucretius thought any society worth inhabiting, and any philosophy worth embracing, should address. I think that however much we may try to understand how it all came about; whether it was man made or as a result of our abuse of the environment and its creatures, we will have our own opinions on this but at the end of the day it will not help our predicament.

I sense that if we can face the “invisible bullets” with courage, determination and a bit of good luck; remain rational, and somehow find ways of taking pleasure in life as it presents itself within our confinement, we may eventually come out of this a better and stronger community. Gibraltar already knows about confinement; ours was an almighty struggle which cost us a great deal, both economically and psychologically; yet we resisted the 16 years of siege with great fortitude and won the day. Admittedly our present confinement is much greater in terms of space, and we can no longer enjoy a liberty we fought so hard to achieve. It seemed to us that everyday a new conflict arose in some foreign part of the world, except this time we are all in it together. In this epoch of ours amidst the sour disorder, let us find the light that shines through the darkness.