Monday, 9 November 2015

Prosperity, Pestilence, and Perversity

South Carolina, the wealthiest and unhealthiest colony in British North America at the time of the Revolution, was long notorious for its deadly fevers, notably malaria and yellow fever, both transmitted by mosquitoes.

Prosperity and pestilence both arose from the cultivation of rice with enslaved Africans, who made up a majority of the population from 1708.

It is well known that whites suffered terribly from disease in Carolina lowcountry plantation areas. In Christ Church Parish in the early 18th century, 86% of baptized children died before age 20. Between 1750 and 1779, planter Henry Ravenel and his wife had 16 children. Eight died before age 5. Only six survived past 21. Of their seven daughters, none lived to be 20. Many other families fared the same or worse.

Less well known is that Africans also died in large numbers from these diseases and many others. This is due to the staying power of pro-slavery arguments of the 19th century, which claimed that Africans were immune to the “tropical” fevers that killed so many whites. A benevolent God had “designed” African constitutions for this work. 

Gov. John Drayton summed it up in 1802: “these situations are particularly unhealthy, and unsuitable to the constitutions of white persons … that of a Negro is perfectly adapted to its cultivation.”

In contrast, 18th century observers had often commented on the heavy mortality of the enslaved. Dr. Alexander Garden, a physician-naturalist for whom the gardenia is named, inspected slave ships, which he found appalling: “Most have had many of their cargoes thrown overboard; some one-fourth, some one--third, some lost half; and I have seen some that have lost three-fourths of their slaves … they are so filthy and foul it is a wonder any escape with life.” (Image: JMW Turner, Slave Ship, showing sick slaves being thrown overboard, alive, based on the infamous Zong Case 1783)

Many Africans died on the ships in harbor waiting to be sold. Their bodies were often thrown overboard into the Cooper River to save the cost of burial. In 1769, the royal governor published the following proclamation in the South Carolina Gazette: “… a large number of dead Negroes have been thrown into the river … the noisome smell arising from their putrefaction may become dangerous to the health of the inhabitants.” The governor offered a reward to be paid “on the conviction of the perpetrators” in hopes of ending this “inhuman and unchristian practice.” Yet the practice continued. (Image: Charleston harbour, c. 1768)

In 1807, The Courier of Charleston reported on an inquest on the body of an African woman found floating in the harbour. The jury concluded that “she came to her death by the visitation of God. [They] supposed her to belong to some of the slave ships in this harbour, and thrown into the river, to save expence of burial.” This was not an isolated incident. The editor of The Courier added that “this nuisance has become so common, that the citizens should interest themselves in discovering the authors of it. … It is by no means a pleasant reflection, that [the citizens] may eat the fish which are caught in our harbour, that have fattened on the carcasses of dead Negroes.”

Alexander Garden also treated many sick and injured Africans, of whom he wrote:  “Masters often pay dear for their barbarity, by the loss of many … valuable Negroes, and how can it well be otherwise -- the poor wretches are obliged to labor so hard … and often overheat themselves, then exposing themselves to the bad air…” The result was pneumonia and other respiratory disorders, “which soon rid them of cruel masters, or more cruel overseers, and end their wretched being.”

Further Reading: Peter McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, PB, 2014) Winner of the SHEAR Prize for Best Book on the early American Reoublic, 2012. Available at Amazon.


  1. Nicely done, icky stories. I was horrified by those tales when I was growing up and still am.

  2. A very intesting post! I like that you covered loss and disease in the slave population.

    Have you read Ship of Death: A Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World by Billy G. Smith about how yellow fever came to the Americas? That was a fascinating read.

  3. Thanks, Ann. No, I haven't read the Smith book. Guess I should. Thanks for mentioning it. Cheers, Peter

  4. A fascinating if sickening read Peter. Thank you. As for that book? I'll add it to my Amazon wish list.

    I am currently reading Jefferson Davis' account of the gerrymandering of state numbers in the north, thereby making US laws ignoring that was fair to the southern states easy. At least, that's what Jefferson Davis argues.

    I am a great believer in two sides to every story Peter. The National Museum in Bermuda sure as heck taught me that Britain was far from neutral in the American Civil War.