African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Africans in the Chesapeake—Cultural Patterns

Health & Health Care

For Africans and the English, health care in the 17th and early 18th centuries mostly consisted of providing for childbirth, treatment of common conditions such as accidents, colds, fevers and “flux” or intestinal disturbances. Conditions that were more serious usually resulted in death. The life span of both Africans and English were shortened by the onerous and hazardous conditions of life on the colonial frontier.

In European and African cultures, childbirth attendance was in the purview of women. Fewer African women than men immigrants arrived in the colonies in the 17th and early 18th centuries. This disproportionate male-female sex ratio developed because Virginians preferred buying adolescent boys, “men-boys”, 14–18 years old and girls, “women-girls,” 13–16 years old. Young African girls had little knowledge or experience in delivering babies. As a result, in the early colonial period, white professional midwives were hired to deliver African and English babies.

The Burwell accounts show payments to white midwives in their family records up until around 1775. After that, one finds no birthing fee in these records. From this “negative evidence,” according to Walsh, one may infer that by the 1770s, enslaved women had gained almost complete autonomy over their child birthing (Walsh 1997:175). Landon Carter’s diaries note a “slave midwife” was delivering babies on his plantation in 1770 (Greene (ed.) Carter’s Diaries, 1965:514 19 October 1770 as cited in Savitt [1981] 2002:184). Further supporting Walsh’s contention, Thomas Addison’s 1775 probate inventory lists Beck, age 56, as a midwife living on Oxon Hill Plantation in Prince George’s County, Maryland. (Addison, Thomas Esquire, 1775, Gunston Hall Probate Inventories). Neither Carter nor Burwell record compensating free mulatto midwives like Mary Roberts who practiced in the 1740s and Betty Armfield in the 1780s. Both of these women delivered babies for “Negro” and English women in 18th century Virginia. (Walsh 1997:132,175).

The few slave death records available indicate that winter and early spring were hazardous months for the Africans although the causes of death are not in the records. Influenza and smallpox periodically afflicted slave and master alike. Carter’s Grove slaves succumbed to an epidemic of smallpox that struck the Williamsburg area in the winter of 1747–1748. During the Revolutionary War, when smallpox was spread by troops, Nathaniel Burwell II had the entire group of Carter’s Grove people inoculated against smallpox.

English medical practice consisted largely of bloodletting, purges, “physicks,” and poultices. English physicians were few and often considered too costly to call for commonplace slave ailments. African traditional medical practices like Native American medicine relied on herbs, roots, and barks. Traditional African interpretation of illness included explanations grounded in social dissonance between an individual, and their kin, community and ancestors. Diagnosing and treating the symptoms of these kinds of conditions required skill in divination, incantations, making and dispensing charms and magical potions as well as healing herbs and other natural medicines. Archeological evidence from a number of geographically dispersed sites suggests that African people enslaved in the 18th century continued to rely on traditional rituals and ritual objects to protect them from harm. Read more about the possible ritual significance and uses of objects found in 18th century slave quarters in the section on African Systems of Meaning.

It is highly probable that the early generations of enslaved people, separated as they were from their social milieu, had great and frequent needs for this kind of treatment. These were probably some of the factors that account for the frequency with which 17th and 18th century enslaved people were treated by “Slave Doctors.”

Slave Doctors

Slave doctors” were usually employed to treat illnesses of other enslaved people and the families of white plantation owners as well. Some of these doctors were “country-born,” that is born in Africa, healers. African-born slave healers, were also known as “root doctors” because of their extensive use of native plants to heal. Because they were widely believed to use traditional African healing methods described as casting “spells,” conjurer was another title used for them. Conjurers is a word derived from the Middle English “conjuren” developed from the Old French “conjurer,” meaning to use a spell.

A slave healer trying to cure a client of some illness, using her spiritual powers.

Knowledge of home remedies prescribed by Africans healers circulated secretly through the slave quarters and passed down privately from generation to generation. Some medicinal plants like okra used to cure sores had African orgins. Other plants were indigenous to the Americas like blue cohosh used to promote rapid childbirth (Mooney 1982). Africans may have gained knowledge of their curative powers from American Indians. Some of these cures were local plants while other medicines had superstitious value only. Enslaved people viewed these men and women as healers of illnesses that white doctors could not cure with their medicines. They also viewed them as being able to cause sickness through “spells,” ideas firmly rooted in traditional African beliefs about health and illness (Morgan 1998:624–629). “Root doctors” and “conjurers,” African or “native-born,” practiced in Virginia from at least 1729 when Governor Gooch emancipated a slave for revealing his secret cure for venereal disease and yaws.

By 1748 so many Africans claimed to be doctors—some, according to Savitt falsely, in order to procure and prepare poisons against their masters or enemies,—that the Virginia colonial legislature prohibited slaves, on pain of death, from administering medicines without the consent of the owners of both the “doctor” and the patient (Savitt [1981] 2002:175). Most of these medical practitioners remain anonymous, however descriptions of them suggest they were born in Africa. A 1745 description of a runaway without a name, simply “a Negro man,” says that he had “Marks of his Country” on his face, spoke “pretty good English,” and “pretends to be a doctor.”

In the middle decades of the 18th century, it is clear, from the Carter’s Grove account books, bills and receipts for Kingsmill, that Carter Burwell, William Byrd II and Landon Carter relied on local physicians to treat more serious ailments or lingering conditions of adults. In general, physicians were almost never called to treat accidents, fevers, colds, or intestinal disturbances suffered by enslaved people. Ordinary adult ailments and most childhood illnesses were treated by some combination of slave doctors, quarter overseers, estate managers and the resident master or mistress. (Walsh 1997:176–178; Morgan 1998:321–324).

Twenty-two years after the prohibition of slaves from practicing medicine, Tom, Robert Carter’s coachman, enjoyed such a good reputation as a doctor that he was called upon to treat enslaved people on the surrounding farms. Carter and other planters apparently continued to disregard the law for in 1786, after Guy, one of Carter’s slaves, was ill for 18 months with no relief from various treatments, Carter willingly sent him for treatment to David, another slave healer owned by William Berry of King George County. Carter consented to “his…[Guy]…going up to yr house to be under the care & direction of David.” He expected Guy to remain several days for David the doctor to “observe the operation of the first…[dose of]…medicine (Robert Carter Letterbooks as cited in Savitt 2002:175).”

Benjamin Harrison of Berkeley Plantation owned a woman slave doctor. Women “slave doctors” were as renowned as the men (Savitt 2002:174–175). In 1781 Michael an African American slave recommended to Robert Carter that he obtain the services of Black Hannah, an enslaved woman living in Charles County, Maryland who “traveled great distances to visit sick people,” to cure Suckey, who suffered from fits. Another woman, Jenny was a popular “Flux Doctor” who had “great liberty in going about and attending people sick with the Flux in the Neighboirhood [sic]” of Charles County, Maryland (Morgan 1998:627–629).

As the 18th century came to a close, the runaway advertisement for one enslaved African American doctor describes him as follows:

…[He]…“is fond of prescribing and administering to sick negroes, by which he acquired the nick-name of Doctor among them, a name perhaps he may attempt to pass by; he reads, writes, and knows something of figures, and for some time before his departure had exercised his talents in giving passes and certificates of freedom to run-away slaves” (March 4, 1789, Romeo, “Geography of Slavery” 2004).

Over time, Chesapeake planters came to rely more upon western medical practitioners than on slave doctors to treat enslaved people. Slave doctors in turn came to use western medical procedures and by the late 1820s, free African American “self-taught” doctors began to emerge in the northern states (Morais1969). The knowledge and use of traditional African healing methods would come to be called “Hoodoo.” Read more about “hoodoo” Africans in the French America section of this module.