In 1856, after a brilliant victory against the invading army of William Walker in the city of Rivas, Nicaragua, the Costa Rican army – commanded by President Juan Rafael Mora Porras – gets ready to continue the liberating march towards the interior from Nicaragua. Suddenly, a much more powerful and ungraspable enemy than the filibuster, “the cholera epidemic”, fell on the troops and began an uncontrollable devastation that forced the massive withdrawal of the Costa Rican forces.
The same army introduced the plague to the country and nearly 10,000 people died, almost 10% of the population at the time (just over 100,000 inhabitants). This would be equivalent to about 500,000 people in Costa Rica today. At that time, science had no idea what caused the disease, how to prevent it, or how to cure it.
The devastation was appalling. But Costa Rica was not defeated. It kept going, overcame the plague, stood up, and a few months later returned to Nicaragua, and this time strike the final blow to the slavery invaders, in alliance with the patriotic forces of all Central America. The country recovered morally and economically to continue the construction of the homeland in which we live today.
Today, Costa Rica like the rest of the world suffers the ravages of a Pandemic that will go down in history as the deadliest so far in the 21st century. The Coronavirus Pandemic has left a trail of pain, death, and economic contraction that current generations have never witnessed before. But, unlike our ancestors, we have identified the enemy, we know how its evil is transmitted and how we can defeat it. We just have to stay home.
For those who are looking for a short reading in these days of confinement, here is a humble contribution on my part: excerpts from my novel “The Promised War” (“La Guerra Prometida”), that tells the story of the “National Campaign” of 1856-57. It describes how the cholera plague was suffered in Costa Rica. We presented here in three parts.
“The Promised War”, Part 1
-Rivas, Nicaragua- Dr. Karl Hoffmann had a very serious expression. He was haggard and his forehead gleamed with sweat, but it was not the effects of long hours and few sleep that overshadowed his face at the time. It’s something else, the President told himself as he made a hasty round of the hospital, shouting encouragement to the wounded. Then Hoffmann took him aside, where no one else could hear what he had to say.
“I have bad news,” the army surgeon announced. We have Asian cholera among us. Yesterday was a single case and the symptoms were not entirely clear. Today there are three and I have no doubt.” –
“Good God!” –Exclaimed the President−, “I hope it does not continue spreading.”
“I have put them in a separate room, hoping that they will not infect other people, but I have to be honest with you, it is not easy to stop that damn plague.”
“Do your best, doctor,” said the President, “For now, let’s keep the situation in reserve. I don’t want panic to break out.”
For several days, the situation was handled as unobtrusively as possible. Doctors maintained rigorous measures to isolate the outbreak, but the number of patients was growing distressingly. The orange blossom and peppermint spirits they were made to drink were useless, as were the cassava starch broths and the chain prayers led by Father Calvo, who never lost hope of a miraculous event.
On the third day there were already twenty infected and the first had died. On the fifth day, the number rose to more than one hundred and there was no way to explain the number of bodies that they piled up in the cemetery, waiting for the overwhelmed gravediggers to finish digging the graves.
It soon became impossible to care for the sick in the hospital. The doctors went from barracks to barracks distributing soaps and the city was filled with regrets and foul smells. Even so, the fortification works continued and the warehouses fattened with the provisions and ammunition that continued to arrive from San José. Apparently, the army was preparing for a long stay in the newly conquered city, but panic was spreading in the troops.
The dreaded moment of facing the severity of the crisis and making a categorical decision, whatever it was, came much earlier than the staff had imagined. Mora called his friends to an emergency meeting. “The reality is this,” Hoffmann explained, “the number of cases is multiplied by three every day. If it continues at this rate, in a few weeks the entire troop will have become ill and eighty percent will have died.”
“−That is not possible!” General Mora exclaimed. “Surely you exaggerate the situation.”
“Not at all,” replied the doctor. “If a magic cure for the disease were to appear tomorrow, surely my calculations would be completely defeated, but I honestly don’t think that will happen.”
“There must be something that can be done,” said General Cañas. “For that, we have a body of prominent doctors.” Hoffman smiled with more sadness than irony. “- Unfortunately, your generous concepts do not make us more capable in the face of this terrible disease, General Cañas. Cholera is the new scourge of humanity, we do not know what causes it or how to cure it. The only thing we understand is that there are unhealthy environments that facilitate its spread.”
“- What do you suggest to us?” –Said the President. Hoffmann ran his hand across his broad forehead, which felt feverish and achy. What he had to say was not easy, but it was – he firmly stated – the most recommendable from a strictly scientific point of view. “- The faster our troops leave Nicaragua, the faster the plague will be extinguished. This whole country radiates a breath of death.”
“That cannot be,” said José Joaquín Mora. “We cannot throw away all this gigantic sacrifice.”
“It all goes overboard, because of the plague, my dear general,” replied Hoffmann. “In any case, the decision is yours. I will be here or where you order it, as long as the body allows it.”
The following day, President Mora gathered the combatants in the Rivas square and announced the withdrawal with a speech that, despite his emotionalism and optimism, failed to remove the immense cloud of frustration that floated over the troops. “There is no dishonor in giving up in the face of inclement unhealthy weather,” he said. “We can withdraw into our territory with serenity and upright head, leaving chastened and at a distance an exhausted enemy, without prestige, without resources, better prepared for flight than for resistance,” he proclaimed. And his words were extinguished in the middle of an overwhelming silence, without applause or a cheer from anyone.
The following day, on April 26th, the retreat began with the more than two hundred wounded who were transferred on horseback or in carts to San Juan del Sur, where they would be shipped to Puntarenas. The President and his brother, General Mora, left simultaneously for Liberia, accompanied by other officers and a small platoon of soldiers. The rest of the army, led by General José María Cañas, began a few days later what would be a long and Dantesque return march.
To be continued… PART II