The bubonic plague- later known as the black death- was considered to be one of the most fatal pandemics that ever affected mankind. It spread throughout the mid-1300s and resulted in the deaths of 75-200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa.
Firstly, trading ships played a large role in the spread of the plague in Europe. But, before these “death ships” pulled onto the port at Messina in Italy, many Europeans had already heard of the dreaded bubonic plague. This was due to the fact that in the early 1340s, the disease was already spreading through China, India, Persia, Syria, and Egypt. It is said that the plague originated in Asia over 2000 years ago and spread to Europe through trading ships, later referred to as “death ships.” However, recent research suggests that the pathogen responsible for the Black Death may have existed in Europe as early as 3000 BC. The Black Death was caused by an infection of the bacterium Yersinia pestis which was transmitted from rodents to humans through the bite of infected fleas. The plague spread through Asia and entered Europe through the rats present on the Genoese trading ships, which sailed from the Black Sea to Italy.
Citizens present at the docks of Messina were met with a horrifying surprise. The majority of the sailors aboard the ship were dead and those who were still surviving were extremely ill with their bodies covered in black boils that ooze blood and pus. The bubonic plague came to be known as the Black Death due to the very reason that it could turn the skin and sores black. The Italian poet, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote, “at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils.” These boils were one of the many symptoms of the horrifying plague. Other symptoms included acute fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, aches, and pains which ultimately led to death.
After seeing the sailors in such a terrifying state, the Sicilian authorities ordered the fleet of the “death ships” out of the harbor; however, it was too late. Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe – sending the continent back by 150 years.