Elise Mitchell – Smallpox Inoculation in the Era of Atlantic Slavery
The transatlantic slave trade and Atlantic World slavery had an indelible impact on the cultural significance of inoculation in the eighteenth century. By the early eighteenth century, generations of West Africans were already familiar with smallpox inoculation (also known as ‘variolation’ or ‘engraftment’). West Africans performed inoculations by removing pus from a smallpox pustule and inserting the pus into one or more incisions on another persons’ body. In addition to controlling the spread of smallpox, inoculation functioned as a mode of expressing and protecting kin and community relationships in some West African communities. In the early eighteenth century, European medical practitioners and slave owners appropriated inoculation to control the spread of smallpox along Atlantic slave trading routes in Europe, West Africa, and the Americas. They used inoculation to protect their families, safeguard colonial settlements, and expand the slave trade and slavery. Nevertheless, Africans and their descendants continued to perform inoculations in contexts where slavery and colonialism constantly threatened their social ties. Enslaved Africans imbued inoculation with new significance as they struggled to protect and reaffirm their communities’ intergenerational ties to place, ancestry, and kin.
Elise Mitchell, Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in History at Princeton University
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This event is part of the New York History of Science Lecture Series.
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