Zakynthos town as depicted in icon of Agios Haralambos wiping out the plague by Nikolaos Kalergis, 1732
Zakynthos town as depicted in icon of Agios Haralambos wiping out the plague by Nikolaos Kalergis, 1732

Plague, pestilence and famine

Following the fall of various Venetian-occupied cities and forts in mainland Greece and the fall of Crete in 1669, Zakynthos became a key port for Venetian trade from and towards the Levant and Constantinople – where the Ottoman authorities lagged western Europe in disease prevention and control. Additionally, Zakynthos was only a short distance from the Peloponnese where again the Ottoman authorities were lax in enacting policies to prevent disease and building appropriate infrastructure to improve sanitary conditions and the health of the inhabitants of the area. Consequently, many merchants and sailors entered and exited the port of Zakynthos from Ottoman controlled ports – these merchants and sailors were sometimes unwilling to undergo the increasingly strict measures Zakynthos enacted to avoid plague, pestilence, cholera and other disease outbreaks. Therefore, the people of Zakynthos were at significant risk of being impacted by the plague, pestilence and other disease epidemics.

Zakynthos did suffer from serious outbreaks of the plague in 1617, 1646, 1692 and 1728 and also smallpox in 1713, 1748 and 1778. One of the most famous victims of the 1728 plague was the painter and sometime doctor, Hieronymous Plakotos. He and his son died in his doctor’s clinic and the local authorities decided to burn it, including his paintings, fearing a further outbreak. From the beginning of the 18th century the sanitary measures taken by the Venetian authorities and enacted by local Cittadini such as strict control of population movements and quarantine, improved lazarettos, better trained public health offices and coastal garrisons, reduced the incidences of outbreaks in the 18th century.

The increasing reliance by Zakynthians on currant production and trade for income given the outsized profits available to farmers and merchants compared to other crops and the resultant rising dependence on grain imports from the Peloponnese increased the risk of famine over time despite the island being capable of self-sufficiency in grain and other basic food crops. These risks were particularly heightened during the often frequent periods of conflict between the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire when access to grain from the Peloponnese was restricted. Zakynthos suffered from serious famine in 1523 and 1687.

Despite the wealth generated by the arable land, favourable climate and geographic position of Zakynthos – and the frequent immigration from other areas of the Greek mainland and Crete – the frequent outbreaks of plague, pestilence, disease and famine during the Venetian occupation had deleterious impacts on the demographic and economic growth of the island.

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