Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry

Article excerpt

Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry. By Peter McCandless. Cambridge Studies on the American South. (New York and other cities: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. [xxvi], 297. $90.00, ISBN 978-1-107-00415-3.)

Scholars studying the American South often focus their attention on dramatic themes such as slavery and race, revolution, war, and secession, but in doing so they risk losing sight of more commonplace experiences that may have been at least as significant to the people they study. As Peter McCandless shows in Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry, disease played a central role in the history of the early South. From the late seventeenth century until the Civil War, McCandless demonstrates, disease pervaded every aspect of life in the Southeast, influencing economic decisions, shaping cultures and identities, dictating geographical organization, and inflicting emotional as well as physical wounds.

Despite the title, McCandless has written a book that is about disease much more than it is about slavery or suffering. As the author acknowledges, because of the bias of source materials, all but a few of the book's fourteen chapters focus primarily on the free population. Nor does McCandless consider suffering that was unrelated to disease or deal much with the southern Lowcountry beyond South Carolina. McCandless makes no attempt to cover his broad topic comprehensively, but each of the book's short chapters focuses on an important aspect of the role of disease in the Lowcountry. He also divides the book into two thematic but also partly narrative sections, giving separate attention to perceptions of the disease environment and to responses to illness. The book's parameters may be different than one might expect from the title, but they enable McCandless to take a careful, well-thought-out, and well-researched look at how South Carolinians understood and responded to disease. Moreover, as he points out, attitudes toward disease in the early southern Lowcountry "affected a culture that enormously influenced the development of the South and the United States" (p. xvi).

McCandless reveals that, despite the power that disease exerted in the southern Lowcountry, southerners could ignore stark and brutal realities about health. Instead, they often accepted dubious theories about illness that served their own interests or reinforced their image of themselves. Many readers will be most familiar with the example of Lowcountry plantation owners' contention that their slaves faced no danger from disease in rice swamps. …

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