African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

Environment, Work and Health of Low Country Slaves

“All the good qualities of this tea, … [that he drank in North Carolina] … praised as they are, cannot however prevent the sickliness of the inhabitants, especially prevalent in the low, overflowed, and swampy parts of this country, and giving the people a pale, decayed, and prematurely old look. This is the case not only about Edenton, but along the entire low-lying coast, which this fall, from Virginia to South Carolina, was visited with numerous fevers…” wrote Dr. Johann Schoepf in 1783 as he traveled through the Carolinas(Schoepf [1783–1784] 1911).

Fevers and “Ague” [chills]

Low country climate was notoriously unhealthy for Europeans and for Africans alike, but from different causes. Europeans were most susceptible to "fevers and ague" caused by mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever. Eighteenth century planters observed that Africans were least likely to succumb to these fevers. Twentieth century anthropological research has since verified their observations. West African adults living in environments where mosquitoes transmit malaria throughout most of the year will almost never have the fever and chills and other symptoms of malaria and rarely die from the disease. The opposite of this is true for West African children, especially those under 5 years of age. Survivors have a high immunity to malaria that they pass on genetically as a sickle cell (red blood cell) trait that increased their descendants' resistance to malaria (Livingstone 1958:533–562). However, enslaved people who were immune to malaria because of sickle-cell trait or disease were subject to recurrent bouts of debilitating symptoms related to impairment of the red blood cells. Intensive, prolonged labor in high ambient temperatures such as enslaved people in the Carolinas experienced would have increased the probability of those with sickle-cell trait or disease experiencing symptoms of fatigue, joint pain, fevers and, in children, delayed growth. It is possible that many of the ill-defined malaise that enslaved people experienced and that slave owners labeled “malingering” were in fact episodes of “sickle-cell crisis.”

In respect to yellow fever that brings about a high mortality in a brief time span, people acquire immunity by contracting and surviving the disease rather than through inherited immunity. Even when people contract the fever, it is least fatal to infants and children. West Africans who came from an area where yellow fever was endemic were more likely to have been infected as children, and thus were immune to the disease by the time they arrived in Low Country. Furthermore, African infants received “passive immunity” from their mothers (Wood 1974:90–91).

“Pleurises” and “Parapneumonias”

While Africans were less likely to suffer from the fevers and chills associated with malaria and yellow fever, they were equally susceptible to Small Pox as were the English and had greater susceptibility to respiratory conditions than the English. Neither African or Western medicine could prevent the devastating effects of some of the conditions that plagued Africans. Respiratory diseases accounted for the high death rate among the enslaved who were susceptible to respiratory diseases brought on by sharp changes in weather in winter months probably exacerbated by overwork, inadequate diet and clothing. According to Wood, that whenever respiratory ailments were infectious, like influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis, they seemed to occur among the enslaved Africans in epidemic form. In 1748, Governor Glen acknowledged that planters who invested in negroes ran the possible risk of having them “swept off” by pleurisies if not small pox.”

Small Pox

Slave sale advertisement describing Africans as small pox survivors and free of the disease.

In 1711, and again in 1770, observers recorded that enslaved Africans suffered and died from Small Pox at a rate equal to Whites (Wood 1974:77). Africans knew about Small Pox and some of them knew about inoculation. Inoculation was practiced in Senegal and other parts of Africa by the negroes. Cotton Mather learned about inoculation from his African servant. The man showed Mather his smallpox scar and told him that you: “‘…take the Juice of the Small Pox, and Cut the Skin and put in a drop: then by ’nd by a little Sick, then a few Small Pox; and no body dye of it; no body have Small Pox any more (Morais 1968:8–16).’”

This advertisement in Charleston newspaper announcing forthcoming sale of Africans from the Windward Coast; stresses their knowledge of rice culture and freedom from smallpox. It also notes that half of the Africans have had small pox in their own country, indicating awareness that people who had survived the disease had acquired immunity to it.

Care of the Sick

On some plantations, sick enslaved people were treated in a slave hospital like one Charles Ball describes.

Many planters hired white physicians to attend enslaved people. From runaway advertisements and planter records, it is clear that there were also African doctors in Low Country, as there were in the Chesapeake, who were described variously as “Negro doctor,” “doctor, Guinea born,” “pretending to be a doctor.” “In 1749,” writes Morgan, “the master of an Igbo fugitive named Simon, thought to be harbored by slaves on Johns Island, described him as pretending “to be a doctor (Morgan 1998:626) ” Another slave owner advertising for a run away slave, as Morgan relates, described him as “‘remarkable for having a bosent (swelling?) which he tried to have cut out by, and was cured bay a doctor, Guinea born’ (Morgan 1998:626).” By 1788, there were slave-born “Negro” apprenticed-trained doctors, one of whom had even attended college (Morais 1968: 8–16). At least one enslaved woman was a doctor said to be “a good midwife and nurse, can weigh out medicines and let blood, which she has done for many years on a plantation (Morgan 1998:627).” However most slave women were nurses and midwives.

Childbirth and Childhood

“…[T]he labour (sic) of the rice plantation formerly prevented the pregnant negroes from bringing forth a long-lived offspring. It may be established as a maxim that on a plantation where there are many children the work has been moderate (John Davis Travels of four years and a half in the United States during 1798,1799,1800,1801,1802, p.86 In 1916 Travelers Impressions)

Reproductive rates of enslaved women in the Low Country resulted in growth of the population by natural increase. Their fertility exceeded that of women enslaved in the Caribbean and the Chesapeake, yet the phenomenal growth of the Low Country enslaved population during the 18th century resulted for the most part from importation of West Africans (Wood 1974:145). Strenuous work as well as the anemia of malaria, two states common among enslaved women, both adversely affected pregnancy and may have contributed to maternal miscarriages and low birth weight of infants pre-disposing them to infant mortality.

As the rate of rice production rose after 1720, there was an apparent reduced life expectancy for enslaved people, particularly infants and children, which offset the high birthrate. Morgan estimates 342 out of 1000 children died, commenting that these data are probably not representative (Morgan 1998:91). Examining data from enslaved people in the 19th century, Steckel estimates that infants died at the rate of 350 per 1000 live births and another 201 children died before their fifth birthday (Steckel 1986:733).

While Morgan (1998:93), concluded that the North American diet was adequate for enslaved adults, Kiple and Kiple (1977) Savitt (1978) and Steckel (1986) addressing the issues of enslaved people’s health, concur that the poor health of enslaved children was probably related to inadequate nutrition. According to Steckel, high rates of infant and early childhood death and small stature of children living pass infancy but dying before adulthood supports this conclusion. He points out that in slaveholder’s journals on ‘care and feeding of slaves,’ that food allowances are stated in terms of work performance and that if children are mentioned at all, the journals note they receive “‘proportionately less.’ … [food] (Steckel 1986:744).’”