Fighting the yellow demon of fever

Medical knowledge production and transfer in the slave trade

For over four centuries the trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the most profitable businesses in the world, but it was one that was not exempt from problems of a different sort. The removal and relocation of millions of people naturally provoked the creation of new disease environments and had a profound social, political, economic, demographic, and epidemiological impact on all those who were involved with this business in one way or another.

Throughout these four centuries African and European slave traders, African slaves, colonial planters, and at a later stage anti-slave trade cruiser commanders and crews, were all exposed to the high morbidity and mortality that accompanied the expansion of the slave trading activities from tropical Africa to the Americas. For slave traders and planters it was clear from very early on that the loss of human life – the life of the slaves – usually equated to a loss of profit, and so they endeavoured to do everything in their power to control, and whenever possible to stop these high levels of mortality.

For the African slaves, especially once they had been transplanted to their new ‘homes’ in the Americas, staying healthy became of paramount importance for their own survival, and so they developed eclectic medical practices based on their botanical knowledge and on their understanding of the natural and spiritual worlds. By the turn of the nineteenth century, British abolitionist efforts in the Atlantic basin led to new approaches and discussions about the diseases associated with the slave trade; approaches and discussions that eventually led to a major transformation of medical practices from the middle part of the century, with the dawn of Germ Theory.

My project focuses on the production and transfer of medical knowledge generated by slaves, slave traders, slave planters, sailors, surgeons, and medical doctors and practitioners during the four centuries of human traffic in the Atlantic, with a specific focus on its final seven to eight decades of existence (1790–1870). The contributions of this varied assortment of people did eventually lead to the creation and transformation of medical terms (especially in the nineteenth century) and by extension contributed to the description, identification, forecast, and treatment of diseases that for most of the period continued to pose more questions than answers to those who had to deal with them. I hope that by investigating this question I will be able to reveal how medical terminologies and practices were subject to transformation over this period, not only because of medical advances, but precisely through the interaction of this set of actors. This forms the core concern of this project: how to assess the changing medical paradigms in operation and the effects these had on the various component groups involved.

My book, which will be published by Yale University Press, will unravel the story of the uninterrupted battle fought across the Atlantic between humans and microbes; a battle that generated a vast amount of information that eventually led to a scientific age of discoveries in the second part of the nineteenth century, when Germ Theory overcame the well-entrenched Miasma Theory, and when vectors carrying disease like ticks, fleas and mosquitos, were finally identified.

Professor Manuel Barcia
University of Leeds