Yellow Fever Immunities in West Africa and the Americas in the Age of Slavery and Beyond: A Reappraisal

By Watts, Sheldon | Journal of Social History, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Yellow Fever Immunities in West Africa and the Americas in the Age of Slavery and Beyond: A Reappraisal


Watts, Sheldon, Journal of Social History


Lawrence Stone, one of the most respected members of the history profession, conducted a vigorous campaign against "extreme" post modernism, particularly as exemplified by the later works of Simon Schama of Harvard. [1] In the same spirit I would like to call attention to another problem.

In the last twenty five years historians have begun to turn their attention to the history of medicine and disease. [2] Among the illnesses that have captured their attention is yellow fever, one of the most lethal diseases in the Atlantic World. Commenting on human responses, William Coleman, the senior medically-trained historian at the University of Wisconsin, had this to say in 1987:

Africans do not possess an innate immunity [to yellow fever] but those populations living in infected areas first touched by European seafarers surely enjoyed a high level of protection, presumably an immunity acquired during childhood when the disease is relatively less severe. (Childhood mortality due to yellow fever might, nevertheless, have been high.) The Europeans possessed no such immunity and the result was usually disastrous. [3]

Specialists in the field may (or may not) have inferred that Coleman's cautiously worded statement (with its use of the word "Africans") was intended to refute quite different claims about "Africans" and yellow fever which were being regularly made in and after the year 1977 by Kenneth Kiple of Bowling Green State University. [4] In any case, the two historians seem to have been talking past each other. In his "survey of recent literature" published in 1988, Kiple makes no mention of Coleman's major contribution. [5] However in 1999, Kiple did make a direct attack on an historian of medicine who strongly supported Coleman's position. [6] In light of this development, it is appropriate to re-examine and re-assess Kiple's yellow fever thesis.

Since 1977, Kenneth Kiple has been claiming that the indigenous inhabitants of pre-modern West Africa, together their enslaved descendants in the New World and their present-day heirs, [7] have displayed a peculiar ability to resist the worst ravages of yellow fever and that "white men" never shared this immunity. [8] According to Kiple, "blacks" (he generally uses this term rather than referring to any specific ethnic group, such as Yoruba or Ibo) [9], have a "genetic immunity, (which he sometimes terms "inherited" community and sometimes "refractoriness" or resistance to the disease). Building on this concept, he claims that the present ethnic composition of those islands in the New World in which Afro-Caribbean people form the majority is the result of the inability of 17th, 18th and 19th century whites to keep themselves alive in the face of yellow fever, which left "blacks" all but untouched. Other than his use of disease determinism as an all-purpose explanatory device, perhaps of more direct concern t o historians in their professional capacities is Kiple's claim that "history makes a very compelling case for ... innate Black yellow fever resistance" [10]

Kiple bases these assertions on the findings of what he terms "biological history", a field which he and his several followers consider to be well-established and respectable. Yet among modern research scientists, for reasons Kiple can not understand (quoting his words):

... yellow fever has failed to stimulate genetic research, even though historically the black has revealed an incredible agility in sidestepping that plague's lethal scythe, a scythe which invariably chopped a wide swath through whites. [11]

Kiple is convinced that:

But, in fact, the black did possess innate yellow fever immunities, immunities that medical science has yet to acknowledge let alone explain, but immunities that nevertheless are discernible within the history of black, white and red men and the yellow plague. [12]

Both comments were written in the 1980s: one must allow for the possibility that Kiple later modified his position. …

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