The Mother Bank quarantine station – The Peninsular War, a letter from the besieged Cádiz

  • The Peninsular War, a letter from the besieged Cádiz

    Historical background

    We write the year 1807. Napoleon’s pact with Russia at Tilsit left him free to turn his attention toward Britain and to the two powers that remained friendly to Britain: Sweden and Portugal. Napoleon summoned the Portuguese to close their ports to the British to complete the Continental System which was designed to make economic war. When the Portuguese proved dilatory, Napoleon ordered General Junot to march with a force of 30,000 through Spain to Portugal. The Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil. Portugal and parts of northern Spain were conquered by the French army. The Spanish minister Godoy, who was known for his friendly policy toward Napoleon I., persuaded his king Charles IV to escape to South America but Charles was overthrown by the revolt of Aranjuez and abdicated in favour of his son Ferdinand. Under the leadership of General Murat, French troops occupied Madrid. On May 5th, 1808 Napoleon forced Ferdinand to return the crown to his father, who gave it to Napoleon. Napoleon made his brother Joseph Bonaparte king of Spain and held Ferdinand in France for the duration of the war (he returned to Spain and the throne in March 1814). Patriotic Spain risen against the invader, and the war for Spanish independence (Peninsular War) had begun. Cádiz is situated on a narrow slice of land surrounded by the sea, was an important naval base and gave the Spanish and their British allies an ideal base for amphibious operations along the south coast of Spain. Following the occupation of Seville, the town became the Spanish seat of power. The French siege of Cádiz lasted from Feb. 5th, 1810 to Aug. 24th, 1812. The Battle of Salamanca (July 22th, 1812) eventually forced the French troops to retreat from Andalusia.

    The letter

    The letter I would like to introduce below is a business letter. He was written in Cádiz by the merchant Don Gerónimo Martínez García on Feb. 14th, 1810, nine days after the beginning of the siege and has a supplement at the end of the letter which was written on Feb. 20th. At this point of war nearly all of Spain was under the rule of Emperor Napoleon. The letter is addressed to Don Juan Lacoste in London and reached the recipient after 19 days.

    The disinfection

    Because of the sea trade with the Spanish colonies in America, the port of Cadiz was often plagued by yellow fever. At the beginning of the year 1810, however, no such epidemic became known. The letter arrived in England at Plymouth Dock (the name was changed to Devonport in 1824) and shows the typical discoloration that are the result from disinfection by splashing with vinegar. The treatment most likely took place at the Mother Bank quarantine station near Portsmouth. The slitting of letters was not common there until Sept. 11th, 1813. According to the quarantine act of 1805 (clause 45) ships to sail to the Mediterranean from any port of Britain have to „provide and take on board a proper quantity of materials and instruments for fumigation and immersion, and shall keep the same on board, to be used in the manner herein directed, upon return of such ship or vessel to any port or place in Great Britain.“ Therefore, it is theoretically possible that the disinfection took place on board of the ship.

    The letter from a postal point of view

    – The recipient had to pay 2/4d (two shillings and four pence) for this double letter. It was charged: a ship letter fee (carried by an Post Office Agent, rate of 1799) of 2x 4d and and an inland fee (Act of 1805) from Plymouth Dock (port of landing) to London of 2x 10d (distance between 170 and 230 miles).

    – The postmark “CADIZ” exist in different variants and it was used from 1779 to 1836. The variant used on the letter is known for the period from 1806 to 1811.

    – Initially the majority of ships accommodated at Plymouth Dock were naval vessels. Merchantmen sailed to and from the adjacent port of Plymouth. The oval ship letter handstamp of Plymouth Dock is known in black ink from 1800–1809 and in red ink from 1810–1814. Robertson noted in his book A History of the Ship Letters of the British Isles that the red version is usually found on letters comming from the Peninsular, and not infrequently on letters carried by naval vessels engaged in the campaigns of that time. The term SHIP LETTER shall means a letter transmitted by a vessel not under contract to the Post Office.


    Encyclopedia Britannica (historical background); Robertson, A.W. A History of the Ship Letters of the British Isles (quarantine in Britain and the ship letter handstamp of Plymouth Dock); Robinson, D. British Postal Rates (postal rates of Britain); Vandervelde, D. Pratique XXXV (Mother Bank quarantine station); Tizon, M. Prefilatelia Español (postmark of Cádiz)