Elise A. Mitchell

HistoryNew York University (NYU)

Award Information

2017 IDRF Program

HistoryNew York University (NYU)

Smallpox and Slavery: Morbidity, Medical Intervention, and Enslaved People's Lives in the Greater Caribbean

For enslaved people, medical treatments existed at the nexus of violation and care. My project considers enslaved African's experiences of smallpox treatments prior to the invention and promulgation of the cowpox vaccine in the nineteenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Greater Caribbean, enslaved people were subjected to deplorable smallpox quarantine conditions, risky treatments, and carelessly performed inoculations. These medical interventions were not used to ensure that enslaved people were healthy; they were to ensure that they were not contagious. Most enslaved people survived smallpox and smallpox treatments despite the inferior care they received. Nevertheless, these medical interventions had lasting effects on both enslaved people's social lives and their bodies. These medical interventions allowed European and Euro-American medical practitioners unfettered access to enslaved people's bodies, forced enslaved people to endure harrowing quarantine conditions, strained kinship relations between enslaved people, and resulted in physical scarring, blindness, and sometimes death. My project brings together scholarship on the black body, the history of medicine, the history of disease, and social histories of slavery to study enslaved people's experiences of smallpox interventions, in the Portuguese, Spanish, British, and French territories in the Caribbean region.