Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Diseases and Medical Disabilities of Enslaved Barbadians, from the Seventeenth Century to around 1838 (Part I)1

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Diseases and Medical Disabilities of Enslaved Barbadians, from the Seventeenth Century to around 1838 (Part I)1

Article excerpt

Introduction

Many of the diseases and ailments that befell enslaved Barbadians also afflicted Whites. Certain problems, however, were almost entirely confined to the enslaved population. Moreover, as a group, enslaved persons, particularly children, as Governor Parry reported in the late eighteenth century, were "more liable to take diseases from their numbers and general intercourse". Indeed, as in all Caribbean slave societies, infant and child mortality rates were high and life expectancies at birth were low.2 Mortality aside, non-lethal ailments and afflictions could also leave their victims seriously debilitated, and many of the enslaved people also suffered from lingering illness or experienced temporary discomfort or pain. Others were permanently disabled or maimed from one kind or another of accident or disease.

"Along the whole margin of the West Coast of Africa, from St Louis, Senegal, on the north, to Benguela, on the south," wrote a correspondent of the London Times in 1864, "this gigantic range of territory is one cesspool of fever, dysentery, and everything that is deadly and detestable."3 In a relatively unusual vein for a European of this period, the correspondent spoke well of West African peoples, finding them "courteous, thorough men of the world, loth [sic] to shed blood", but his characterization of their early disease environment was echoed by many European contemporaries, and is readily endorsed by modern scholars.

In his important and pioneering study of the bio-history of Caribbean enslaved people, Kenneth Kiple argues, following other scholars, that West Africans arriving in the New World were "survivors of one of the most formidable disease environments in the world". Not only did West Africans often suffer from considerable malnutrition and the diseases it caused, but they were also commonly exposed to such infectious diseases as leprosy, scabies, yaws, various skin afflictions, and a variety of parasites and worms; diarrhoea and amoebic dysentery were frequent symptoms of a multitude of infectious and nutritional diseases, and mosquitoes transmitted elephantiasis, sleeping sickness, malaria, and yellow fever. West Africans were also exposed to such easily contagious illnesses as smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, mumps, and influenza. In brief, in Kiple's words, the "slaves destined for the Americas left behind them a land that had molded them with massive malnutrition on the one hand, and a host of man's most dangerous diseases on the other".4

The plethora of infectious and nutritionally based diseases was greatly increased for the enslaved population during the psychological trauma, inadequate diets, congestion, poor sanitation, and maladies of the so-called Middle Passage. Moreover, the slave trade continued to serve as the main channel through which a multiplicity of diseases found their way into the Caribbean. The general epidemiological conditions that confronted enslaved Barbadians fit into this wider pattern. In fact, the island's health problems were not fundamentally different from those in many impoverished tropical areas in today's world. Although modern medicine has eliminated or greatly checked many diseases as well as reduced infant mortality, in another age, of course, the benefits of modern medicine were absent. Still, the tropical environment of Barbados was conducive to the development and spread of organisms that caused infectious disease. These features of the physical environment were amplified for the enslaved population by, for example, their considerably polluted water supplies, generally poor sanitary conditions, and housing and settlement congestion.5 Famine conditions and persistent malnutrition also reduced resistance to infectious diseases. The vulnerability to infectious disease, in particular, was especially pronounced among infants and small children and was compounded by the unsanitary conditions in which enslaved people lived and prepared and consumed their food. …

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