Maria Camara is a modern woman with a car and a smartphone. But her early years were spent in a Madeira village where life was little different from that of the first settlers who went there in 1420. This is the fascinating and human story of that time in her life.
This is an extract from her book A World Ago. It can be obtained on Kindle at:
Kindle Store Maria Camara A World Ago: memories of a Madeira childhood
Maria’s account of medicine shows how different life was in Santana at that time. To begin with, there was no health service and the only free care was from the nuns. And hospital care was a long journey away. You only went there – or to the doctor – if you really had to. So most of the care was what we would now call “folk medicine”. For instance, many modern Polish women still recommend the use of cabbage leaves in the way described by Maria, for high temperatures and period pains.
It would be very easy to find this quaint, or be sceptical about some of the things she describes. Some things seem magical, or to put trust in numbers, such as seven...
But before dismissing some of the more unusual things she describes, such as the ceremony of the willow tree, it is worth noting that the University of Maryland Medical Centre cites research (for details see:https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/willow-bark) on both the proven and claimed benefits of willow bark. This contains salicin, a chemical similar to aspirin. So it is an effective treatment of in-flammation and pain. Researchers have found that the plant has other valuable chemicals, such as polyphenols and flavonoids, which have further medical uses (for instance, antioxidants). Interestingly though, the article notes that “children under the age of 18 should not take willow bark”, because it can have adverse effects on the young.
A similar situation applies to the oak bark bath described by Maria. This contains tannins which have astringent and antiseptic properties, and are recommended by herbal medicine practitioners for various complaints, including eczema.
Nor is it necessary to share a belief in miracles, in order to accept that olive leaves can also have beneficial effects. They contain oleuropin, which has been found to lower blood pressure, at least in animal experiments, as well as elenolic acid which some researchers believe is effective in combatting bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Maria also tells of using the “juice” (latex) of the fig tree to cure warts. Science has shown this to be effective, including with warts on the teats of cows (US Journal of Veterinary Medicine, 2003).
Less desirable was the mercurio medicine. In earlier centuries it was believed that it could cure venereal diseases, and it is still used in various parts of the world in the form of mercury sublimate (chemical formula HgCl2) as an antiseptic for wounds. It is now prohibited in many countries, due to the recognition of serious effects caused by exposure to the chemical
.....Because it cost a lot for medicines, they often used herbs. Some of the old people knew a lot about that. For instance, from trees in the mountains they got bay leaves. But they needed to know which were better - they have to be more mature. They kept the herbs that were good in the house in a vase or a pot and made a lot of teas with them.
They used the leaves of trees too. At one time my son Victor had very bad eczema. The patches of skin itched a lot, so he scratched them until they bled and he couldn’t sleep. Nothing seemed to work, so I got the leaves of an oak tree, and boiled them with some other herbs and gave him baths in the juice. That seemed to work.
Some people also went to the woods to collect leaves from a special olive tree. This was because it grew in a place where people went to pray. They said that many years before a girl had seen the Virgin Mary, so the local people made a shrine with a statue of the Virgin in it. Then there was a very bad storm and this caused an avalanche. It destroyed all the woods around, but the statue itself was not touched. People thought this was a miracle, and so they believed that the leaves of that tree could make miracles.
We didn’t have special diets, like they do now. At that time you ate anything that was around - there was not much choice.
When someone had a temperature, for example if a child was too hot, they put a wet cloth on the forehead – they even used milk to wet it. And they also used some leaves, such as cabbage. You got big cabbage leaves and then put them on your stomach. The leaves got dry, because you were too hot. It was almost like it cooked the cabbage, and that took the heat away.
...There were treatments for warts. I had one on my hand. You find a fig tree and when you break it, it gives some kind of milk - not much, but you squeezed it out and you used it a few times. Another thing was when you baked bread and the oven was hot, you threw salt over your shoulder into the oven. It made a lot of crackling noise. Then people said the warts went away.
When you had a small cut, it would heal on its own. I don’t know when the pharmacy opened, but it was there when I was young, and there was some medicine like blood. It was called mercurio and when you had a cut, you used that. And I remember we also had a powder and you dropped that on top of the cut and it healed.
If you twisted your arm or leg or it got swollen, they got the leaves of some herbs. They put them on it and it went away. Another thing was they put wine vinegar on the swelling or bruise. Sometimes they put salt as well, and sometimes just the vinegar.
When a person was very sick or injured and they had to take him to the town, they had a special thing they used. I remember my grandparents had a wooden pole and linen cloth, but it had to be strong like the cloth you used for making mats. They tied it up at each end and made a sort of hammock (we called it rede), like some people have in their garden now, and hung it from the pole. One man held each end of the pole and the two men carried the patient. They had walking sticks, because they needed them to go over the hills.
Women often had a period pain, because at that time they worked on the land and got wet, and they got cold, and they worked without shoes. I remember that you toasted a slice of bread in the hot embers – not a fire with a flame. They boiled wine and soaked the bread in the wine and put it on your belly and they brought a towel and they covered it. The wine gets warmer for a while and so you feel warm inside and that takes the cold away and the pain goes. I did that. It had to be at night time, because you had to go to bed and cover yourself well, and sometimes you got a bit sweaty. But you had to keep yourself as hot as you could.
We had a lot of medicines. One was the seeds of the linho plant – we called it linhaça – it’s smaller than wheat. We boiled it and it came all together like a sort of porridge. To make the pain go away, you put it in a cloth and put it on your belly, because it keeps warm for a while. And you had old clothes to cover your stomach too. It was not nice, because it was slimy, you know, like the trails snails make. Even now you can buy linhaça for some medicines.
If the periods didn’t come normally, they made tea with a special herb for the woman to drink. But it was not advised for the women who might be pregnant, because it can bring on a miscarriage.
...There were some very special customs to do with health. One was if the baby had a problem with its belly button. Of course, when the baby is born, they cut it, and sometimes it did not heal well. Then they took the child on June 24 and found a vimieiro (willow) tree. They cut the trees for wicker in March, but they left one or two branches for June 24. They cut the tree in the middle and they opened it. But the top and the bottom had still to be joined together, so it made a hole in the tree, not a split.
Then two children pass the baby through the tree. They have to be called Maria and João, because 24 June is the Dia de São João (St John’s Day). And they have to be virgins, so of course they have to be children! They say a prayer. I did it once for a child of our neighbour. I don’t remember the prayer, but I do remember the way they said “Tomala, Maria” (Hold her, Maria) and they said a prayer “In nome de São João (in the name of St John) cure this baby”. And I had to hold the baby and pass her to the boy, and I said “Pass the baby to João in the name of São João” and so on. But the baby should not touch the vimieiro tree. We passed it a few times and after that they closed the tree. If it seals properly, then the baby will heal, but if doesn’t seal, because the wound needs more time, they need to do it again the next year.
Another thing I did was when my first son, David, was a baby. We think he had asthma, so we went to Madeira to the doctors, and they sent him to Funchal, but he wasn’t cured. But people gave me a lot of different ideas and I tried them.
One was the eucalipto tree, which grows quickly. I went with David to the woods and put him against the tree, and against his height I put a nail. They said the tree would grow and as it did, slowly he would be cured, because the tree grows, and it will take the illness from him. But it had to be in a place where he wouldn’t pass for seven years.
Another thing I did for him was that I took some of his dirty clothes, and dug the ground and put them in the ground and covered them. They said when the clothes got rotten, he would be cured. So it had to be a natural fibre, not nylon, because nylon doesn’t rot. And again it had to be some area he wouldn’t pass for seven years. That was fine, because when the child is small, you know that he won’t go to that area during that time.
I did that for him and another thing was with my door. You make a small hole in the door, at the size he is, cut off a bit of his hair, and put the hair in the hole. Then you cover it. He can pass there any time, but again when he grows, the illness will be cured.
What they advised me, I tried. I don’t know if it is good medicine, but thank God he was cured. Perhaps it helped.
There was one thing they did when the child didn’t walk properly and took a long time to start walking, because it had weak legs. When they made wine, they put the child into the wine – they did that to my sister, Olinda. I don’t know if they kept the child in there for a while or not. But they washed them in the wine, because it was new. The strange thing is that the wine is cold, but it doesn’t feel cold like water.