Slave Owner Uses Modern Medicine to Treat Malaria
In late September 1846 several slaves from the Fairntosh plantation in Durham, North Carolina fell sick with malaria. Their owner, planter Paul Cameron, tells his father Duncan how he provided medicine for his sick slaves as well as the traditional herbs and teas.
“Since that time we have a great deal of chill and fever at the mill quarter in [unintelligible] I have made the best arrangements possible that I could for administration of medicine by cutting it up into portions one g[rain] for the elder ones and five grains for the younger [unintelligible] with a little oil with instructions for the use of our usual teas and no doubt I will get about as good accounts from them as from the other.”
Paul Cameron, like many slave owners, was carefully attuned to the health of his work force. Neither his concern over the health of his slaves however, nor his quickness to use newer medical treatments, necessarily indicate that Paul Cameron was a more humane owner of slaves, or that he possessed more egalitarian views. Rather, Paul’s use of medicines was part of a larger debate over medical treatment for slaves. The development and application of medical science was part of the ideological environment of the Antebellum South and an important argument for the justification of Slavery.
The US South in the 19th century was an unhealthy place. Epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid ravaged the population, killing many of those infected. Malaria, though not as lethal as other common diseases, was a great concern for slave owners as it could severely weaken their work force. Spread through the Anopheles mosquito, the parasite causing malaria damages the blood cells and the liver and causes fever, vomiting, chills and headaches. Though it infrequently causes death, the initial infection can last several weeks, and relapses of symptoms can occur months, even years, after the initial infection. 19th century physicians did not understand the origins of the disease, nor that it was spread through mosquitoes, but that did not stop them from prescribing a multitude of treatments for what they referred to as “fever and chills” or the “autumnal fever”. In the early 19th century a debate arouse over the proper treatment of slaves who contracted malaria.
Physicians were not taught specific treatments for slave diseases, despite calls for such training, and owners and doctors alike were left guessing over the proper course of medical treatment. (Savit 1981) Treatments such as bleeding and blistering had fallen out of use on whites, but were still prescribed for blacks suffering from the same diseases. Prevailing medical thought considered slaves to be resistant to malaria and other tropical diseases, and “those few blacks who fell victim to the fever were treated in a simple manner. Hot bricks were applied to the feet, hot brandy or water given in large quantities, as well as hot snake-root tea containing forty or fifty drops of spirit of ammonia.”(Haller 1973) This spirit of ammonia is likely the medicine Paul gave to his sick slaves.
Paul was confident that this minimal treatment would suffice because the leading physicians of his day believed blacks to be resistant to malaria and other tropical diseases. This belief served as a justification for the institution of slavery, as such resistance was seen as evidence of Africans’ natural suitability and inclination for fieldwork. Paul’s treatment of his slaves was modern in comparison to his Alabama overseer Charles Lewellyn, who generally took a less active approach to his sick slaves. Yet, this attention should not be considered to be an indication of a kinder type of slave owner or a rejection of the harshness of the plantation system. The modern medical science practiced in the Antebellum South created new justifications for the institution of slavery. Paul Cameron may have been modern in his application of medical science, but his motives were grounded in an ideology of racial inferiority that served to legitimize slavery.
- Paul Cameron, Letter From Paul Cameron to Duncan Cameron, 3623, 993, Bennehan-Cameron Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- NCSU Department of Curriculum and Instruction, "The Plantation Letters", NCSU Department of Curriculum and Instruction, http://www.plantationletters.com (accessed 11/16/09).
- Todd Savitt, Medicine and Slavery: the Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 7-25.
- John S. Haller, "The Negro and the Southern Physician: A Study of Racial Attitudes 1800-1860," Medical History 16 (1972): 255-252.
- Paul Cameron, "The Plantation Letters", NCSU Department of Curriculum and Instruction, http://plantationletters.com/pcameron/Paul_Cameron_1846_9_26.pdf (accessed 11/16/09).