Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Niklas Thode Jensen: For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, Medicine and Power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies

Niklas Thode Jensen: For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, Medicine and Power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848

Article excerpt

Niklas Thode Jensen

For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, Medicine and Power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848

Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2012, xi + 352 pp.

Of the many colonial outposts in the 19th-century Caribbean, the Danish West Indies was perhaps one of the most obscure, occupying as it did only a small handful of islands east of Puerto Rico that were ultimately ceded to American hegemony, becoming the US Virgin Islands. In this comprehensive and detailed monograph, Niklas Thode Jensen analyzes the medical history of this colony during the four decades leading up to emancipation (in 1848), illuminating the ways in which "the health of enslaved workers became a central concern for the Danish West Indian plantation owners and colonial administrators" (1). This twilight era of slavery witnessed a steady decline in the population of enslaved workers, as mortality rates were so high that the enslaved population could not reproduce itself. This demographic state of affairs, not unknown in the Caribbean, threatened the future of the sugar plantations. As a consequence, it forced the Danish colonial administrators to respond with public health measures aimed at stabilizing the working population for fear of social and economic implosion.

Jensen focuses on St. Croix (aka Santa Cruz), an island dominated by private and "Royal" sugar plantations. Indeed, it was the Royal plantations--ones that had been taken over by the crown due to insolvency--that yielded some of the richest primary material, ultimately preserved in the national archives in Copenhagen. The author's sources are wide ranging, including doctors' annual medical reports, the admission registers of plantation hospitals, church records, legislation of various public authorities, and the correspondence of diverse authors and visitors to the island. Jensen adopts a largely quantitative approach in mapping out the morbidity and mortality of the enslaved, comparing his results for St. Croix with published literature on the British and French West Indies. The book is divided into two parts, one dedicated to providing a background to disease and healing in the West Indies, as well as the epidemiological, economic, and environmental climate of St. Croix. The second part is devoted to detailed case studies of three domains: nutrition, smallpox vaccination, and midwifery.

A brief review cannot do justice to the diverse findings that Jensen presents, but suffice it to say that life was exceedingly precarious for the enslaved of St. …

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