Jan 05 2015

Keeping Candia clean

On arrival in Crete in 1897, British troops were faced problems in addition to those of keeping the peace between two rival, and antagonistic, groups of the population, and preventing a ‘foreign’ takeover of the island. Located for the most part in Candia (Iraklion) with small detachments in villages close to the town and a token force in Canea, the troops were quartered on the ramparts of the Venetian walls surrounding the town. The town itself was overburdened with an influx of Muslim refugees fleeing from the Cretan Christian insurrectionists, bringing the population up from an estimated 20,000 to an estimated 40,000. Surrounded by the Christian fighters and initially threatened with attack from Greek forces landed on Crete early that year, the already primitive sanitary arrangements within Candia which had suffered from centuries of Ottoman neglect, came close to collapse, and in doing so added another danger not only to the inhabitants, but to the British troops. From the point of view of the British Army, over the period of their presence in Crete, 1897 to 1909, the greatest danger they faced came not from the threat of Cretan or Greek violence, but from disease, much of it the result of the unsanitary condition within Candia town. The situation in Canea, though similar, was not as extreme as far as the British were concerned. Not only were there fewer refugees in the town, but by the end of June 1897, the small number of British troops in Canea were relocated from inside the town to a tented encampment in Halepa, some 3 Km outside the town.

Drawing on the annual Army Medical Reports presented to the British Parliament each year, and the ‘Report on Sanitary Work in Candia, Crete’ produced in February 1899 by Lieutenant T. H. M. Clarke, R. A. M. C., the Sanitary Officer for Candia, it is possible to construct a picture of the sanitary conditions under which the population, and the British garrison, co-existed. On arrival in Candia, the British were faced with a scene in which:

‘Kandia (…) was found in a deplorable sanitary condition. An epidemic of smallpox was raging and decaying offal littered the streets in great heaps as practically no attempt at conservancy was made. The town is partially drained, but the only adequate sewers are the main ones built by the Venetians, the subsidiary ones, of more recent origin, being square in section and built of rough unhewn stone without mortar in many instances. They consequently permit the escape of the fluid portion of the sewage, and quickly become blocked. Some houses are supplied with water closets of ancient and inefficient pattern, but in those of the poor, a cesspit is dug under the boundary wall, partly in the house or its courtyard and partly in the street. These pits are mere holes in the ground and unlined in any way, and so, permitting the absorption of their fluid contents, do not require to be emptied often. They are covered with a few sticks and old mats, on which earth, frequently the dried contents of the pit at its last emptying, is heaped. The ventilation of the drains and those pits is naturally free into the streets and houses. The subsoil is everywhere saturated with the filth of age, and it is rare to see clean soil turned up anywhere in the town. Every street corner is used as a urinal and the streets themselves as latrines by the juvenile population at all times, and by their seniors under the cover of night. The principle streets of the town which alone are fit for vehicular traffic are paved with large flat granite setts and are broad and airy; all the others are narrow and tortuous and paved with rough cobble stones…’

Canea 1911. Candia (Iraklion) would have been much the same.

Canea 1911. Candia (Iraklion) would have been much the same.

The immediate neighbourhood of the town outside the walls, which apparently had always been used for the deposit of refuse and dead animals, was polluted to such an extent that an excursion outside the gates was a most unpleasant experience. Much of the ground was immediately below, and partly to windward, of our camp on the ramparts. On the beach to the west, but outside the town, the municipal abattoir is situated, and the carcases are brought into the town, uncovered, on donkey back, often through clouds of putrescent dust from the polluted area just mentioned. The condition of this building was so bad that it was necessary to erect a private slaughterhouse for the use of the troops and, to avoid the dust, to provide a covered cart for the conveyance of the meat to camp.

Candia; Showing the disposition of British Troops

Candia; Showing the disposition of British Troops

While lack of money played a major factor in the state of the town, ‘[t]he expenditure of the Municipal authorities…amounted to exactly £18 yearly; the expense of keeping a ramshackle cart in use which was more often on the sick list than off,’ added to which ‘the Public Health Officer of the port of Candia, whose duty it was to give the vessels arriving […] pratique [the authority to enter the port on the ship being declared free of infectious disease], had been a leper for eighteen years;’ a more novel explanation was provided by ‘a leading Christian doctor in Candia, an able and cultured medical practitioner.’ According to this account, while overcrowding brought about by Muslims fleeing from the rebellion in the countryside and from the Sitia massacres clearly played its part in the deterioration of conditions within the town, there was another, less obvious, contributor.

‘The orthodox Moslem, owing to the frequent ablutions and hot baths prescribed to him by his religion, keeps his body clean, but in every other respect his habits of cleanliness, either in his indoor or his outdoor life, are very unsatisfactory. On the other hand, Moslem country people, being for the most part affiliated to the sect of “Becktasheeys,” which dispenses with the precept of prayer, and consequently with ablutions, are still less apt to feel horror of filth and dirt. Therefore soon after the arrival in town of the country people, it was reduced to a vast cloaca and centre of infection.’

Before accepting this explanation, relying as it does on the alleged uncleanliness of the Muslim Cretans, it is worth bearing in mind the description of Cretan Christian refugees, provided by a possibly less biased observer than ‘a leading Christian Doctor.’ Some of these Christian refugees, returning from Greece where they had fled during the revolution, arriving in Candia at a rate of over 600 per day and forced to and forced to live in overcrowded conditions in the Greek Cathedral, were described as ‘villagers with habits and customs not much superior to animals.’ It would appear that the gap between the sanitary habits and practices of the townspeople and those from the countryside was more significant than between Christian and Muslim.

The existence and continuation of such insanitary conditions were clearly of great concern to the British Army given both their proximity to the British encampment on the walls of the town, and the need for British troops to pass through to town when carrying out their peace-keeping duties. The response, initiated in August 1897 ‘in anticipation of partial autumnal rains likely to be followed by hot still weather,’ was to engage twelve native scavengers under the control of a British N. C. O., to remove, bury, or burn the refuse heaps outside the walls. In September, a grant of £150 per month from the British Government was sanctioned ‘to take over the conservancy of the town.’ However, given the political situation on the island, security implications – European troops were at this time ordered never to go into the towns alone or unarmed – and presumably the necessity for British troops not to be seen doing menial tasks which might imply their subservience to the local population, it was decided that British personnel could not be employed on such duties within Candia town; only outside the town walls. As a consequence, under the supervision and direction of the Army’s Chief Medical Officer, in 1897 Surgeon – Major Babtie, municipal and gendarmerie employees, headed by a gendarmerie lieutenant, were engaged to clean up the town.

The town was divided into districts and each district allocated a team consisting of an overseer, sweepers and sewermen each team with a number of mules or donkeys and their drivers. Though not carrying out any major works of a permanent nature, using these teams:

‘The accumulations of refuse were gradually removed, and a regular system of scavenging introduced, the drains repaired and cleaned as far as possible, streets mended where dangerous to life or limb, filthy corners, and, wherever possible, houses occupied by refugees washed with quicklime, cesspits, wherever the owners were unable to do so themselves, emptied, dead animals removed from the streets and buried, etc.’ The result was a ‘considerable improvement… effected in the condition of the town.’

The monthly grant was continued in 1898 and the system for cleaning the town maintained in spite of is suspension for a short period immediately following the outbreak of rioting on September 6th 1898, during which the interpreter to the British Sanitary Officer was murdered. The work recommenced in October, the British taking over full responsibility for the sanitation in the town in November with the eviction of all Ottoman forces and administrators from the island. The situation with respect to the health of British troops was exacerbated following the riots by the arrival of British reinforcements; raising the numbers camped on the ramparts from 500 to 5,000, and including three regiments ‘fresh from the short but arduous campaign on the Nile, where the seeds of enteric and dysentery were widely sown’

No reference is made to the monthly sanitary grant in the report for 1899, with the arrival of the High Commissioner Prince George in December 1898 and the provision of British and European loans to the new authority, the grant came to an end. With the ending of the International Provisional Administration on the island in July 1899 and the passing over of civilian authority to the new regime, responsibility for the sanitary condition of the town was handed over to the Cretan Autonomous State – albeit with the exception of ‘a strip of the town 50 yards deep from the ramparts where the British camp was situated, the three Venetian sewers, the ditches behind the camp and the large refuse heap outside the Canea gate.’ The retention of responsibility for the 50 yard strip of ground within the town walls was probably in order to maintain a degree of security given the events of the previous September, as well as to enable the British authorities to continue their campaign attempting to eradicate mosquitoes from the vicinity for the camp; malaria being one of the most significant contributors to the debility of British troops. The inclusion of the ditches behind the camp appears to be related to their previous use as a dumping ground for dead animals and their being the only place in Candia suitable as a recreation ground for the British garrison.

The British clean-up of the moat does not appear to have been as successful as the Parliamentary Reports initially implied, this recreational area being not only inadequate in size but also ‘unhealthy’ in the summer and autumn. The British also retained the right to periodically inspect the rest of the town, in order to bring sanitary defects to notice of the authorities. While not specifically mentioning who is actually carrying out the cleaning work in Candia town, the report does makes reference to convict labour being to assist sanitary staff.

In 1900 the sanitary state of Candia was reported to have been ‘on the whole… satisfactory’ but in October 1901, during a visit by the Principal Medical Officer, Malta Command, it was suggested that the deposit of the town refuse be moved further from the camp. At the time it wasn’t found possible to find a site to the east of the town so arrangements were put in hand for the old site to be abandoned and the soil pits and refuse heaps moved away to the west. However, by the following year, 1902, with the town still being kept ‘superficially clean, and some of the main thoroughfares…remade so it [was] possible for them to be used by wheeled traffic,’ the refuse from the town was now being disposed of at a site ‘beyond the Christian cemetery to the east of the town and camp.’

Little mention is made of the sanitary condition in the Reports of 1903 and 1904, though reference is made to the continuing mosquito eradication campaign in the vicinity of the British encampment. By 1905, the conditions in Candia were described as ‘very bad.’ While the barracks were considered to be mosquito free, admissions to hospital from malarial diseases totaled more than a third of the average strength of troops. The cause was put down to them being infected while on prison guard within Candia or on outpost duty outside the town. In the former case the sanitary conditions of the prisons was described as ‘particularly bad’ and a recommendation made that troops on guard duty be issued with suitable mosquito nets. By 1906 however, it could be reported that mosquito nets had finally been issued to the guards in the town and subsequent reports make no further reference to the sanitary conditions in the town.

Inspired not by any humanitarian impulse aimed at improving the lives of the Cretan population, but rather by self-interest, the need to preserve the lives of British troops, the British ‘clean up’ in Candia undoubtedly saved lives; both British and Cretan. However, in spite of their efforts at improving the surrounding sanitation, the British involvement in the Cretan Intervention still came at a high price. While 14 soldiers and seamen were killed and 27 wounded by enemy action during the thirteen years spent on the island, the army alone lost a further 90 men dead to disease and other injuries, with over 11,000 men hospitalised. No comparable record is available of the number of Cretans who lost their lives during this period.


Table compiled from Army Medical Department Annual Parliamentary Reports


Report Number Year Reported on Average strength On Crete Hospital Admissions Deaths Command Paper Number
XXXIX 1897 1152 1683 24 C 8936
XL 1898 1701 2424 51 C 9453
XLI 1899 1184 1110 12* Cd 521
XLII 1900 592 622 6 Cd 980
XLIII 1901 564 1827 7 Cd 1422
XLIV 1902 460 1338 4 Cd 1906
XLV 1903 410 510 1 Cd 2434
XLVI 1904 439 454 6 Cd 2700
XLVII 1905 720 593 3 Cd 3212
XLVIII 1906 843 262 4** Cd 3797
XLIX 1907 750 459 3 Cd 4057
L 1908 640 386 Cd 4033
LI 1909 339 198 2 Cd 5477

*Includes one murder; excludes the execution of the murderer.
**Plus 1 suicide


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