The Bleached Bones of the Dead

Published on ZNet (first on TomDispatch), by Greg Grandin, Feb 24, 2014 (also on OpenEdNews OEN: Tomgram – Greg Grandin, The Reparations of History, Paid and Unpaid).

… Voyage of the Blind:

  • Consider, for example, the way the advancement of medical knowledge was paid for with the lives of slaves.
  • The death rate on the trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World was staggeringly high. Slave ships, however, were more than floating tombs. They were floating laboratories, offering researchers a chance to examine the course of diseases in fairly controlled, quarantined environments. Doctors and medical researchers could take advantage of high mortality rates to identify a bewildering number of symptoms, classify them into diseases, and hypothesize about their causes.  
  • Corps of doctors tended to slave ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Some of them were committed to relieving suffering; others were simply looking for ways to make the slave system more profitable. In either case, they identified types of fevers, learned how to decrease mortality and increase fertility, experimented with how much water was needed for optimum numbers of slaves to survive on a diet of salted fish and beef jerky, and identified the best ratio of caloric intake to labor hours. Priceless epidemiological information on a range of diseases — malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and so on — was gleaned from the bodies of the dying and the dead.
  • When slaves couldn’t be kept alive, their autopsied bodies still provided useful information. Of course, as the writer Harriet Washington has demonstrated in her stunning Medical Apartheid, such experimentation continued long after slavery ended: in the 1940s, one doctor said that the “future of the Negro lies more in the research laboratory than in the schools.” As late as the 1960s, another researcher, reminiscing in a speech given at Tulane Medical School, said that it was “cheaper to use Niggers than cats because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals.”
  • Medical knowledge slowly filtered out of the slave industry into broader communities, since slavers made no proprietary claims on the techniques or data that came from treating their slaves. For instance, an epidemic of blindness that broke out in 1819 on the French slaver Rôdeur, which had sailed from Bonny Island in the Niger Delta with about 72 slaves on board, helped eye doctors identify the causes, patterns, and symptoms of what is today known as trachoma.
  • The disease first appeared on the Rôdeur not long after it set sail, initially in the hold among the slaves and then on deck. In the end, it blinded all the voyagers except one member of the crew. According to a passenger’s account, sightless sailors worked under the direction of that single man “like machines” tied to the captain with a thick rope. “We were blind — stone blind, drifting like a wreck upon the ocean,” he recalled. Some of the sailors went mad and tried to drink themselves to death. Others retired to their hammocks, immobilized. Each “lived in a little dark world of his own, peopled by shadows and phantasms. We did not see the ship, nor the heavens, nor the sea, nor the faces of our comrades.”
  • But they could still hear the cries of the blinded slaves in the hold.
  • This went on for 10 days, through storms and calms, until the voyagers heard the sound of another ship. The Spanish slaver San León had drifted alongside theRôdeur. But the entire crew and all the slaves of that ship, too, had been blinded. When the sailors of each vessel realized this “horrible coincidence,” they fell into a silence “like that of death.” Eventually, the San León drifted away and was never heard from again.
  • The Rôdeur’s one seeing mate managed to pilot the ship to Guadeloupe, an island in the Caribbean. By now, a few of the crew, including the captain, had regained some of their vision. But 39 of the Africans hadn’t. So before entering the harbor the captain decided to drown them, tying weights to their legs and throwing them overboard. The ship was insured and their loss would be covered: the practice of insuring slaves and slave ships meant that slavers weighed the benefits of a dead slave versus living labor and acted accordingly.
  • Events on the Rôdeur caught the attention of Sébastien Guillié, chief of medicine at Paris’s Royal Institute for Blind Youth. He wrote up his findings — which included a discussion of the disease’s symptoms, the manner in which it spread, and best treatment options — and published them inBibliothèque Ophtalmologique, which was thencited in other medical journals as well as in an 1846 U.S. textbook, A Manual of the Diseases of the Eye.
  • Slaves spurred forward medicine in other ways, too. Africans, for instance, were the primary victims of smallpox in the New World and were also indispensable to its eradication. In the early 1800s, Spain ordered that all its American subjects be vaccinated against the disease, but didn’t provide enough money to carry out such an ambitious campaign. So doctors turned to the one institution that already reached across the far-flung Spanish Empire: slavery. They transported the live smallpox vaccine in the arms of Africans being moved along slave routes as cargo from one city to another to be sold: doctors chose one slave from a consignment, made a small incision in his or her arm, and inserted the vaccine (a mixture of lymph and pus containing the cowpox virus). A few days after the slaves set out on their journey, pustules would appear in the arm where the incision had been made, providing the material to perform the procedure on yet another slave in the lot — and then another and another until the consignment reached its destination. Thus the smallpox vaccine was disseminated through Spanish America, saving countless lives.

Slavery’s Great Schism: … //

… Follow the Money:

  • Slavery transformed other fields of knowledge as well. For instance, centuries of buying and selling human beings, of shipping them across oceans and continents, of defending, excoriating, or trying reform the practice, revolutionized both Christianity and secular law, giving rise to what we think of as modern human rights law.
  • In the realm of economics, the importance of slaves went well beyond the wealth generated from their uncompensated labor. Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned — not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.
  • Starting in the 1770s, Spain began to deregulate the slave trade, hoping to establish what merchants, not mincing any words, called a “free trade in blacks.” Decades before slavery exploded in the United States (following the War of 1812 with Great Britain), the slave population increased dramatically in Spanish America. Enslaved Africans and African Americans slaughtered cattle and sheared wool on the pampas of Argentina, spun cotton and wove clothing in textile workshops in Mexico City, and planted coffee in the mountains outside Bogotá. They fermented grapes for wine at the foot of the Andes and boiled Peruvian sugar to make candy. In Guayaquil, Ecuador, enslaved shipwrights built cargo vessels that were used for carrying more slaves from Africa to Montevideo. Throughout the thriving cities of mainland Spanish America, slaves worked, often for wages, as laborers, bakers, brick makers, liverymen, cobblers, carpenters, tanners, smiths, rag pickers, cooks, and servants.
  • It wasn’t just their labor that spurred the commercialization of society. The drivingof more and more slaves inland and across the continent, the opening up of new slave routes and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin for the creation of a new commercialized one.
  • Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money — at least in a way. It wasn’t that the value of individual slaves was standardized in relation to currency, but that slaves were quite literally the standard. When appraisers calculated the value of any given hacienda, or estate, slaves usually accounted for over half of its worth; they were, that is, much more valuable than inanimate capital goods like tools and millworks.
  • In the United States, scholars have demonstrated that profit wasn’t made just from southerners selling the cotton that slaves picked or the cane they cut. Slavery was central to the establishment of the industries that today dominate the U.S. economy: finance, insurance, and real estate. And historian Caitlan Rosenthal has shown how Caribbean slave plantations helped pioneer “accounting and management tools, including depreciation and standardized efficiency metrics, to manage their land and their slaves” — techniques that were then used in northern factories.
  • Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Green argued half a century ago, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” Fathers grew wealthy building slave ships or selling fish, clothing, and shoes to slave islands in the Caribbean; when they died, they left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments.” In due course, they donated to build libraries, lecture halls, botanical gardens, and universities, as Craig Steven Wilder has revealed in his new book, Ebony and Ivy.
  • In Great Britain, historians have demonstrated how the “reparations” paid to slave-owning families “fuelled industry and the development of merchant banks and marine insurance, and how it was used to build country houses and to amass art collections.”
  • Follow the money, as the saying goes, and you don’t even have to move very far along the financial trail to begin to see the wealth and knowledge amassed through slavery. To this day, it remains all around us, in our museums, courts, places of learning and worship, and doctors’ offices. Even the tony clothier, Brooks Brothers (founded in New York in 1818), got its start selling coarse slave clothing to southern plantations. It now describes itself as an “institution that has shaped the American style of dress.”

Fever Dreams and the Bleached Bones of the Dead: … //

… (full long text with hyper-links).

(TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin’s new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, has just been published).

Links:

Greg Grandin: on his own website/Essays & Articles, /Traducciones, /News & Events, on en.wikipedia with it’s External Links; on ZNet; on amazon;

More than a million babies die on the day of their birth every year: Save the Children argues that most of these deaths are preventable, on The Guardian, by Sarah Boseley, Feb 25, 2014;

GMO crops may cause major environmental risks, USDA admits, on Russia Today RT, Feb 24, 2014;

Feds delay approval of new Monsanto crops over environmental concerns, on Russia Today RT, May 15, 2013.

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