In the mid-14th century, the Black Death became one of the earliest and deadliest pandemics history has ever encountered. This pandemic spread like a wildfire and almost one-quarter to one-third population died in Europe affecting areas in North Africa.
According to the memoir written by the Italian Gabriele de’ Mussi, some shocking revelations were made through his narrative — the Mongol army catapulted plague-infected cadavers into the besieged Crimean city of Caffa transmitting the disease to the inhabitants and fleeing survivors. Therefore, carrying the plague from Caffa to the Mediterranean basin.
Although this was not the principal source of Black Death’s spread, the historians believe that this incident was plausibly the first-ever case of biological warfare.
History to the Siege of Caffa
In the late 13th century, the traders of the Republic of Genoa arrived and bought the city of Caffa from the ruling Golden Horde. Soon, Caffa (Now Feodosia in Ukraine) became a trading giant monopolizing the black sea region and Europe’s biggest slave markets.
Ibn Batuta, who visited the city of Caffa claimed it to be the great harbor port inhabited mainly by Christians.
The Mongols under the reign of Janibeg invaded Caffa and the Italian region at Tana in 1343. The Italians and Muslims residing in Tana had a tussle leading to the Italians moving to Caffa.
The first siege of Caffa lasted until February 1344 after the Italian forces killed 15,000 Mongol troops. Janibeg reinvaded Tana and sieged it until 1345 but was forced to lift it because of the spread of plague killing thousands of people in his army.
Biological warfare at Caffa
Gabriele de’ Mussi, born circa 1280, wrote a narrative, the copy of it had been traced by the historians and various authors. It is presumed to be written in 1348 or early 1349.
“The narrative begins with an apocalyptic speech by God, lamenting the depravity into which humanity has fallen and described the retribution intended.”
In 1346, the Tartars (Mongol forces) ruling Tana were struck down by a mysterious illness that brought sudden death. The whole Tartar army contracted the disease and thousands of them were killed daily; swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating tumors, followed by a putrid fever.
The death ratio in the Tartar army was so enormous that they lost interest in besieging Caffa. However, the Tartars could not back off, without giving Caffa a piece of their own torment.
So, they put the corpses on their catapults and hurled them into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside Caffa.
The rotting corpses were thrown and appeared to be as ‘mountains of the dead’. That in turn tainted the air and poisoned the water supply. Furthermore, nobody could escape the stench and became infected carrying the poison to others.
Many of the Italian Christians who fled from Caffa through boats to other parts of Mediterranean ports carried the contagious pestilence and infected a huge population in those areas.
Thus Gabriele de’ Mussi made two important claims —
- The Mongol forces could not dispose of the corpses. So they used hurling machines to throw the plagued cadavers as a solution to their mortuary problem.
- The fleeing of the Italians from Caffa to other neighboring cities and ports spread this contagious disease and implicated the transmission of plague from the Black Sea to Europe.
These claims appeared to be consistent and the biological attack was probably responsible for the transmission of disease from the besiegers to the besieged.
The siege of Caffa is a powerful reminder in the history where the disease was successfully used as a powerful weapon.