The history of the Pitiusas has been influenced by some of the major epidemics that have cyclically affected humanity over the centuries and which were also felt on the islands. Fortunately these were overcome, even though later crises would follow. But the islands have always managed to come out on top.
The Black Death of the mid-14th century was one of the most devastating demographic and social crises of the Middle Ages in Europe, and the main cause of the beginning of the depopulation of Formentera, a situation that would last until the late 17th century, when the work of Ibiza’s Marc Ferrer facilitated the definitive repopulation of the southern Pitiusa. Two centuries later, in 1899, a malaria epidemic wreaked havoc among the residents of Estany Pudent. The plight of the people of Formentera reached the ears of the national capital through the islanders’ political representatives, but only 3,000 pesetas were provided to help affected families. One hundred years later, the landscape and environmental characteristics of Estany Pudent and Estany Es Peix became one of the many attractions that make the island an exceptional place.
These days, wetlands are spaces of unquestionable environmental value and they are targeted for protection and restoration efforts. A case in point is Ses Feixes, which runs around the bay of Ibiza and has been used for its resources since the days of Muslim rule. But in the 19th century these areas were considered insalubrious and a source of diseases such as malaria.
Some of Ibiza’s landmark monuments are intimately linked to epidemic episodes that attacked a fragile if resilient population. The Church of Jesus, built in the 15th century in the plain of Vila and inhabited years later by a community of Franciscan friars, was in 1652 a hospital for victims of the bubonic plague during an epidemic that did so much damage to the population of the island, especially those who lived within the city walls. The historian Enric Fajarnés Tur collected the number of victims calculated by the old University of Ibiza and Formentera: 711 residents died of a disease that affected public, civil and ecclesiastical officials alike, and made no distinction between the rich and the poor, just as in many towns and cities of the other islands and on the mainland. In Portmany, for example, ‘only’ four deaths were recorded. Luckily, the people of the countryside, thanks to the dispersal of their homes, were mostly spared from an infectious disease that mainly attacked the most heavily populated neighborhoods. For a century, the town of Ibiza had been surrounded by Renaissance walls that would be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO three and a half centuries later, in 1999, along with the historical complex of Dalt Vila, the necropolis of Puig des Molins, the Phoenician settlement of Sa Caleta and the posidonia meadows of Caló de S’Oli in Formentera.
In Ibiza, it was thanks to the fact that the walls protecting the city were not demolished that it preserved in its entirety one of the world’s few remaining walled enclosures reinforced with bastions. The hygienist criteria of the 19th century considered walled cities to be insalubrious because they did not allow populations to expand and air themselves. Urban development did the rest.
Epidemics almost always arrived by ship across a sea that also brought numerous pirate attacks, but in many cases also protected and saved local populations. Perhaps thanks to this protection, the Pitiusas islands were spared infections such as the plague that in 1720 dramatically reduced the population of Marseille, a port city that was heavily punished from an epidemic point of view; or the plague that in 1820 took a third of the population of eastern Mallorca; or the yellow fever epidemic of 1821 that also attacked the big island and cities such as Barcelona; or the cholera outbreak of 1865 experienced in Palma and other towns, and which once again underscored the solidarity of the Ibizan people, who raised funds and sent donations to families in the most affected neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, this was not the case with the inaccurately named Spanish flu of 1918 that did wreak havoc in Ibiza. Formentera was not affected as much and the inhabitants of La Mola, in the eastern tip of the island, continued to enjoy good health, long lives and few diseases. These days, when travellers arrive by sea at the port of Ibiza, they may fail to notice a small tower rebuilt at the port entrance, very near which there is a 19th century building known as the House of Consignment or Health.
It is located at the end of Sa Penya, at a spot known as Sa Riba, a neighborhood that was part of the old portuary area and reminiscent of the bow of a ship of stone and lime that welcomes visitors. From the House of Health and the Turret of the Sea, incoming ships were monitored and crews, passengers and goods examined on board to ensure that they came from a clean port without any declared outbreaks. It was then decided whether to let them in or send them to quarantine for a few days on the nearby islets that acted as isolation wards: Plana Island and Grossa Island, which today are an extension of the bay. So much history for such a small territory!
It’s quite likely that our modern-day visitors are unaware that this area now dotted with tourist boats and yachts was for centuries the destination of numerous civilizations and vessels that came from the far ends of the Earth to trade with Ibiza and Formentera because of their salt. This natural treasure, which gave rise to a thriving industry, has also left its mark on the landscape in such a valuable wetland as the natural park of Ses Salines d’Eivissa i Formentera. These salty, stagnant waters, guarded by the defence towers of Sal Rossa and Ses Portes, have been watching for centuries over islands that have been both witnesses and protagonists in the rich history of the Mediterranean.