How was new knowledge tested in the Atlantic World?
An extraordinary experiment pitted purported slave cures against European treatments in Grenada, a small island south of Barbados, in 1773. Plantation owner A. J. Alexander experimented with his “Negro Dr’s” medical techniques in an effort to cure yaws, a horrid tropical disease infecting the skin, bone, and joints bred of poverty and poor sanitation. When Alexander tested his slave’s cure, what was he actually testing? African cures transported to the Americas? Remedies developed by Amerindians and transmitted to African slaves, who, unlike Europeans, were familiar with what we today call tropical medicine? Cures developed by plantation slaves in the Americas? Or, by some great twist of irony, cures communicated by Europeans to the slaves via the plantation complex?
Alexander considered his slave’s cure for yaws to be part of a body of medical knowledge derived from Africa, referring to the slave’s cures as “Negro Materia Medica.” And, indeed, historians writing about “slave medicine” often assume an African origin of a cure. Did Africans bring medicines and medical techniques with them from their homelands or did they experiment with new plants and cures found in the West Indies? More generally, how did knowledge circulate in the Atlantic World?
The Circulation of Knowledge in the Atlantic World Medical Complex
Three major routes characterized the dynamic multidirectional trade in people, plants, and medicines between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The European colonial nexus linked Europe and the Americas. The African slave trade nexus joined Africa and the Americas. The Amerindian conquest nexus carried Amerindian knowledge into plantation complexes. The Atlantic World medical complex arose from a fusion of African, Amerindian, and European knowledge traditions. Knowledge of African and Amerindian origins developed in the West Indies shipped along with other cargoes into Europe, often transshipping out again back to the colonies and beyond.
European colonial doctors, enslaved and indigenous peoples avidly collected, cultivated, and tested medicines to create new and, occasionally, effective cures. Yet these healers were not mere medical innovators, but men and women situated in the push and pull of life and death struggles for political, economic, cultural, and personal survival. Some, such as the European doctors and surgeons, were employees of empire—whether private contractors to plantation owners in the British islands or pensioners of the king in the French islands. Others, such as Alexander’s “Negro Dr,” were enslaved in the plantation complex.
The origin of Alexander’s enslaved man’s cure and its route of transmission exemplify the complexities of the circulation of knowledge in the Atlantic World. The plant at the center of his cure for yaws—the bois fer—is indigenous to the Americas, and data suggest that French doctors collected knowledge of the plant’s use from Amerindians in Saint-Domingue and French Guiana. Yet, if the cure is Amerindian in origin, how did this knowledge circulate to an African doctor in Grenada? Did the slave find African flora he was familiar with again in America? Did he, through trial and error, devise a new cure using an American tree, or did he learn the medicinal uses this plant from the Amerindians or, perhaps, even from the French and then pass the knowledge along to his British owner, Alexander?
What we do know is that the flow of knowledge in the Atlantic World was promiscuous and multidirectional, but it did not always move freely. Amerindians and enslaved Africans strategically held much knowledge secret. Bertrand Bajon, French military surgeon and later private physician working in Cayenne, envied the “numerous plant cures” known to “Indians and Negroes,” but remarked that it was impossible to “discover their secrets.” This was particularly true of cures for snakebite, a grave danger in South America.
Bajon was devoted to experimentation, but he could test only those remedies available to him. When one of his slaves was stricken by a snakebite, Bajon resorted to the colonial remedy eau de luce because he could not crack local secrets. He very much regretted that he had not entrusted his slave to an Indian woman in the neighborhood who “always” treated poisonous bites with success. In this case, the new empiricism was thwarted by colonial power struggles, fears, and secrecy. Bajon noted that especially “Negroes” possessed a multitude of cures that they kept secret. He pleaded that trials be made of these “astonishing” remedies—by, he wrote, “persons more educated than are the Negroes.” In a remarkable passage, he noted that a particular “Negro” (unnamed), who was owned by the former governor of Cayenne practiced a successful cure for tetanus made from local plants. But, alas, Bajon could not discover the active ingredient.
The flow of knowledge in the Atlantic World was promiscuous and multidirectional, but it did not always move freely.
Alluding to the violence and mistrust endemic to the Atlantic World medical complex, Bajon remarked that much controversy arose concerning slave cures in general and this one in particular. “Many colonists and a great number of Negroes,” he wrote, claimed this tetanus cure to be “infallible,” but, they cautioned, it was enough for a licensed physician or surgeon to prescribe it for it to lose all its value. Physicians, for their part, warned against the remedy and rejected it “without any examination.”
Bajon pleaded that “for the good of humanity” the slave be obliged to “communicate the plants he used and the manner in which they are employed” to some local physicians for testing in the “most impartial” and unprejudiced manner by gens de l’art who sought nothing but the “public good.” This, Bajon proclaimed, was the only “means to know the truth.” In return, Bajon recommended that the slave be offered his freedom—but not until “a great number of experiments confirmed the cure’s virtue.” Bajon was here perhaps thinking of Dr. Papaw in Virginia or, more famously, Graman Quassi, the slave in Suriname, for whom Quassia amara is named and who had won his freedom for revealing his cure.
It is important to keep in mind that knowledge is fragile and often suppressed. Barriers of prejudice, violence, and conquest created agnotological ripples in the Atlantic World. Obeah, healing practices developed by slaves in the British West Indies, provides a prime example of African knowledge that did not circulate throughout the greater Atlantic. Europeans, rather than seeking to understand Obeah, attempted to destroy it. Although they recognized the power of a patient’s state of mind to heal the body, they tended to deride the spiritual aspects prominent in slave healing regimes. Europeans were interested in the material aspects of African healing traditions—the specific herbs or bathing techniques used—but they shied away from the spiritual or mystical aspects of Obeah.
Agnotological Barriers in the Atlantic World Medical Complex
This is surprising since European physicians understood the potential benefits of what we today call placebos. In 1799, the well-known English physician, John Haygarth, preformed a placebo-controlled trial to understand the role imagination plays in the “cause and cure of disorders of the body” and to unmask the fraud of Elisha Perkins’ tractors—metallic conductors of electricity purported to cure a variety of diseases. European physicians often depended on what they called “medical faith” to enhance the effects of their medicine. In the Caribbean, the British, however, did not often see (or at least did not acknowledge) the continuities between their beliefs and practices and those of Obeah doctors. What was diagnosed as “imagination” in Europeans was judged “superstition” in Africans.
What was diagnosed as “imagination” in Europeans was judged “superstition” in Africans.
The fear of Obeah, revolt, and revolution was so great that experiments with electricity were conducted on Obeah men alleged to have instigated Tacky’s Rebellion in Jamaica in 1760. The condemned men were submitted to “experiments” with “electrical machines and magic lanthorns [lanterns].” The report of the experiments noted that these “produced very little effect.” While a strong tradition of experimenting with prisoners condemned to death still prevailed across Europe and its colonies, no results benefitting medicine were recorded from the so-called experiment.
The Atlantic World set in motion people, plants, and medicine from three continents. The very populations West Indian medical men treated—slaves, soldiers, sailors—were created by the political and economic ambitions of European states. And the diseases physicians sought to cure were bred in the mixing and melding of peoples, the disruption of environments, and the squalor of plantations and urban ports. The Atlantic World represents a step in globalization—the potential enrichment of the human experience when worlds collide. But the extinction of people, such as the Amerindians in the Greater Antilles, coupled with the fear and secrecy bred in the enslavement of Africans, carved contours into medical knowledge and practices that continue to shape our world.