Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery , by Sean Morey Smith & Christopher D.E. Willoughby (eds.)

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Kristen Block University of Tennessee Department of History Knoxville TN U.S.A.

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Sean Morey Smith & Christopher D.E. Willoughby (eds.), Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. xii + 215 pp. (Cloth US$ 45.00)

This essay collection, which brings together scholars of slavery to discuss the intersections (and disjunctures) between terms like medicine and healing, is the result of a conference of the same name held at Rice University in 2018 (at which I participated, though I am not a contributor to this volume). Presenting the authors working on these questions in the United States, the Caribbean, and South America, editors Sean Morey Smith and Christopher Willoughby outline commonalities of scholars across the Americas. They organize the essays in categories such as knowledge of healing practices, the experience of enslaved subjects, and the way the profession of medicine categorized Black patients.

In this review, by contrast, I focus on three themes that, as the editors note, are central to current scholarly inquiries. The first is how recent scholarship is now treating “western medicine [as] just one among many healing cosmologies” (p. 5). Among the essays that discuss alternative healing traditions is Mary Hicks’s study of bleeding and cupping as West African healing traditions, lightly adapted by Black adepts working as barber-surgeons in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Chelsea Barry’s work on poison trials in Paramaribo reinforces current scholarship on the way enslaved people turned to obeah specialists to help solve spiritual and bodily problems within the community; her sources show obeah men administering various sorts of “poison tests” to resolve conflicts, and enslaved communities rejecting obeah practitioners who used their powers to harm instead of to heal. Lauren Derby turns her anthropological eye to the powered stones used by modern leaders of Santería and Vodun temples in Hispaniola, building a case for a history of long-ago collaboration between the ancestors of today’s African healers and Taíno collaborators, who had used stone zemis for similar purposes.

Many of the contributors (including Barry and Hicks) acknowledge the neglect of enslaved perspectives in much older scholarship, and thus they discuss both problems in the archive and new ways to reorient historical inquiries. Brandi Waters’s essay describes how enslaved people in Spanish New Granada (Colombia) who suffered from long-term illness or other disabilities could use white physicians’ expert testimony to corroborate health claims and lower the self-purchase price in manumission contracts. Elise Mitchell provides a stellar re-reading of French, English, and Brazilian medical advice books that discussed what to do if enslaved people “feigned” illness on slave ships and plantations. She explores archival silences to consider the ways communities sought assistance with ailments they knew would go untreated if revealed (or worse, for which they would be punished if discovered), cognizant of the callous disregard for Black suffering. Cooper Owens’s essay employs a “haptic studies” approach to consider the felt/sensory experiences of enslaved people with psychiatric care (and abuse) in nineteenth-century U.S. institutions.

The remaining essays focus on cooperation and conflicts between enslavers and state-affiliated actors who worked to control or benefit from enslaved peoples’ health. State jurisdictional influence was one focus of Waters’s essay, as doctors who served as expert witnesses could “attribute culpability (that is, negligence, abuse, accident, self harm) and calculate [enslaved] litigants’ value as property” (p. 123). Timothy Lockley’s investigation shows British Army surgeons and officers actively promoting theories of Black “immunity” to yellow fever to support the use of enslaved Blacks and freedmen as ancillary (and sometimes primary) military forces in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century warfare. Leslie Schwalm’s essay has a similar argument, showing how the data accumulated by U.S. Civil War doctors was used to “enshrine medical and scientific racism in American print and museum culture” (p. 183). In spaces and times without professional medical schools and hospitals for all (such as eighteenth-century Charleston), private physicians such as Dr. Vincent Le Seigneur, a recent refugee from Saint-Domingue, stepped into the void for both profit and prestige. As Rana Hogarth’s essay shows, doctors with experience in slave-majority settings could easily promote profitable institutions such as Le Seigneur’s “House of Health” as a place where enslavers’ rights to control their human chattel would be supported. Although “State Intervention,” as the editors argue, is an important category of analysis, state interests and private profit rarely (beyond cases like those described by Waters) did anything more than reinforce one another.

Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery is that most useful of volumes where some chapters are appropriate for undergraduate or graduate teaching. Scholars working on related topics will thank the editors for providing access to multiple high-quality essays encapsulating the state of this exciting, developing field.

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