Manuel Barcia, The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade , New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2020, 281pp, US$ 72.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-300-21585-4.
In The Yellow Demon of Fever, Manuel Barcia delves into ordinary people’s struggles against diseases such as yellow and other fevers, smallpox, and various kinds of infections during the “illegal phase” of the transatlantic slave trade particularly between 1807 and through the end of the 1880s. Throughout this period, the English-led mixed commission courts and ship patrols that tried to put an end to the slave trade forced slave traders to hide their practices thus leading to an increase in the suffering of enslaved persons transported across the Atlantic. As Barcia shows, while disease was more deadly for captives who lacked access to a proper diet, water, and air, slave traders and abolitionists themselves were also extremely vulnerable to deadly illnesses.
Most of Barcia’s sources were produced by British courts, navy commanders and sailors, missionaries, and travelers. Yet, showing the Atlantic scope of his research, the author also analyses Spanish, French, Portuguese, Brazilian, and American accounts of the slave trade and abolitionist efforts. These sources allow him to explore the “morbid ecosystems” of “contact zones” (32) such as ships, both those used to transport enslaved persons and those used to quarantine sick people; slave factories and barracoons on the West and East African coasts; and the anti-slave trade mixed commission courts established in Freetown, Havana, and Rio de Janeiro. In these areas of intense cultural and biological exchanges, everyone involved in the slave trade and abolitionism fought diseases with whatever they had in hand. Their resources ranged from naïve experiments with dangerous metals to effective indigenous plants and treatments to Western scientific propositions such as theories of contagion and inoculation. Barcia provides rich descriptions of the materials and methods used by health practitioners, occasionally zooming in on medical case studies of the symptoms and progression of treatments administered to enslavers, sailors, and health practitioners themselves.
Whereas the first four chapters are straightforward descriptions of the diseases, health policies, and treatments available in contact zones, chapter five shows how Africans and their descendants contributed to what Barcia calls Atlantic medical cultures. The author recognizes that his attempt to bring African and African-descended medical practitioners into his research was an “uphill battle” because the sources available were mostly produced by Westerners who often approached African medical knowledge with skepticism and the usual stereotypes of inferior and uncivilized Africans (17). But although the evidence is fragmentary, it is also clear. Many descendants of liberated Africans received medical education in Britain in the 1850s before returning to Sierra Leone as health practitioners. A few Western practitioners discussed in detail the important role of African practitioners, their knowledge of roots, seeds, fruits, and other ingredients, and the ways they prepared medical remedies. They also noted that Africans were experts in bleeding and the extraction of guinea worms, among other surgeries. These Westerners occasionally even recognized the superiority of African medical practices. Moreover, these exchanges continued in places such as Brazil, Cuba, the West Indies, and the United States, where enslaved and free Africans and their descendants also contributed to local medical cultures.
Throughout the book, Barcia develops the connection between public health and the early nineteenth-century roots of Western imperialism in Africa. The people who operated the illegal slave trade and those who tried to suppress it paved the way for the free trade and colonial enterprises that dominated most of the region in the late nineteenth century. Under the “veil of hygienic containment,” both slave traders and abolitionists used health regulations such as bills of health and quarantines to “hide their own embryonic expansionist colonial ambitions” (29). The discovery of medicines such as quinine, which was used to treat malaria and other illnesses, allowed colonialists to survive environments that their European predecessors had described as “the white man’s grave” (198). Many Western and African health practitioners who tried to save the lives of Europeans, Americans, and both enslaved and free Africans therefore inadvertently contributed to early colonial expansion.
Barcia’s book is a captivating narrative of struggles against both slavery and disease. Through diverse archives and sources, the author shows how medicine and public health were produced in Atlantic interactions; advanced people’s ability to survive deadly environments; and opened the door for the colonization of Africa. As any ambitious project, this book does not fully engage with the historiography on African health practitioners and practices in places such as Brazil, where the history of medicine and public health is a well-developed field of study. The author nonetheless notes that the dissemination of these practices across the Americas is evidence that ordinary people participated in Atlantic medical cultures. This book therefore must be read in conjunction with these local historiographies as a connective contribution to our understanding of disease and treatment in the Atlantic world. For historians of slavery and abolitionism, the book brings a new perspective about the environments where slave traders, abolitionists, enslaved persons, and others circulated, as well as about the operation of mixed commission courts. In The Yellow Demon of Fever, historians of colonialism and Africa will find an account of how early nineteenth-century enterprises prepared the ground for the age of imperialism.