Differential Disease Experience in the Atlantic Slave Trade: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Atlantic Plantation Complex

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Haverford College. Department of History
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The History Department Senior Thesis Prize
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Historically, discussions of race and racism have shied away from science for fear that a biological acknowledgment of racial difference would engender scientific racism. These political and intellectual impediments to communication are only recently beginning to fade away, thereby enabling more integrated and complete discussions of these topics. Any analysis ofthe Atlantic slave trade necessarily addresses the issue of race through examining the racism exhibited by the system or the racial dynamic inherent at all stages of the trade; perhaps, recent trends in historical analysis may enable an interdisciplinary focus that provides a more thorough discussion of both. This study seeks to do just that: to unite the history of the Atlantic slave trade with studies of epidemiology and demography affecting the region. It analyzes the convergent histories of the Atlantic slave trade and disease, focusing on the two most significant cases, malaria and yellow fever. The differential incidences with which these diseases struck various human populations helped not only to influence nineteenth century racial discourse, but also to define European and African experiences in the slave trade; in very different ways, both groups succumbed to the ravages of these diseases: Europeans faced tremendous mortality in the Atlantic tropics and thus turned to Africans as a source of slave labor for their Atlantic plantations. This study contains several self-imposed limitations. Although it examines racial differences in terms of disease and effects of disease resistance, it does not address gendered differences in disease experience. The available records exhibit a strong male bias: women did not serve in the military during the Atlantic slave trade, and military records provide the best source of comparative records for European and African disease experiences. Women, European as well as African, had an important role in the Atlantic slave trade and disease impacted their lives greatly; European women often accompanied their husbands to live in Africa or the New World while African women traversed the Atlantic as slaves. Although simple numbers do nothing to diminish their experience, consistently twice as many men as women were brought to the New World as slaves. This study excludes analysis ofthe different ways women experienced disease only because women's disease history is not accessible given source limitations. This analysis also concentrates on the slave trade between West Africa and the Caribbean; it does not focus on the trade to North America. Although many Africans and their descendants served as slaves in the United States, their relatively high reproductive rates limited the scope ofNorth America's role in the Atlantic slave trade; no more than five percent of the slaves imported to the New World arrived in the North American colonies. Furthermore, although they both surfaced frequently, malaria and yellow fever did not play the same pivotal roles in North America as they did in the Caribbean. Finally, with minor exceptions, the available records limit this study to the experiences of the British during the slave trade; discussions of European disease experience will be based primarily upon British records. Although European nations did form distinct cultural and political entities, they were part of a unified disease environment and were equally sheltered from the African disease environment before the earliest European exploration in the late fifteenth century. Thus, the European, or at least Western European, experience is likely fairly accurately mirrored by the British experience. These self-imposed limitations reduce the scope of this study but do not necessarily detract from its findings. Examining the role of disease in history, however, faces numerous other limitations that shall be discussed in Chapter 1. That chapter begins by examining the historiographical foundations of both Atlantic Studies and historical epidemiology. It locates this thesis in a theoretical framework with roots tracing to the mid-twentieth century. Chapters 2 and 3 provide the historical and biological contexts that frame the analysis. Chapters 4 to 7 build on these foundations to address disease experience in West Africa and the West Indies, apparent racial differences in those disease experiences, and the implications of those differences for Africans in the slave trade. Chapter 4 examines disease incidence and the implications of disease among European troops serving in West Africa. Chapter 5 explores the mechanisms and effects of racially differentiated disease experience. Discussion of the biological basis of some forms of perceived racial differences occupies the remainder of this chapter; this analysis continues in Chapter 6, but focuses on the other side of the Atlantic. This chapter asserts that biologically based "racial" differences combined with European economic motives to drive the system of plantation slavery that flourished during the 18th century. While contributing to modem understandings of European and African disease experiences in the early modem Atlantic world, this thesis also addresses larger issues in historical scholarship involving biological influences on racial conceptualizations, the limits ofhistorical and epidemiological analysis, and the applicability and utility of scientific knowledge and methods to history.