Suman Seth - Pathologies of Blackness: Race-Medicine, Slavery and Abolitionism

Event date: 
October 11, 2016 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Suman Seth
Cornell University
Angela N.H. Creager
Seminar Series: 
History of Science Colloquium
Princeton University
History Department

This paper explores the relationships between race, medicine, abolitionism, and slavery within the British Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century. While the literature on abolitionist debates is large, comparatively little attention has been paid to the role played—on either side—by medical men. As we will see, however, relationships between medicine, climate, and disease were critical for a debate that turned on who was to blame for the inhuman and near-unimaginable losses of human life due to the ‘seasoning’ or whether black bodies were essential for the cultivation of sugar under a blazing New World sun. Medical men and medical logics were marshaled in arguments over African inferiority and the very question of their humanity. And doctors, surgeons, midwives and others all participated in ongoing discussions over the question of the single or multiple origins of different ‘races.’ As abolitionist critiques provoked changes—more or less cosmetic—doctors became even more thoroughly imbricated within the slave system. From the 1760s one begins to find medical texts written on ways to handle the initial seasoning and later care of slaves. From the 1780s, the writings of men who claimed to administer to the medical needs of thousands of slaves per year were cited, critiqued, and debated in parliamentary sessions devoted to the question of the continuation of the trade within the British Empire. Abolitionists, I show, excoriated planters for the death and suffering—from disease, neglect, and harsh treatment—of the slaves they owned, while some West-Indian doctors used their experiences to offer apologia and negations of precisely these charges.

Area of Interest: 
African American
Colonialism & Post Colonialism
Medicine & Health
Latin America and the Caribbean
United States
17th & 18th Centuries