Bearing the Scars of Slavery: Illness, Disability, and the Legacies of Seaborne Trauma

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:20 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta)
Sowande’ Mustakeem, Washington University in St. Louis
Slaveholders depended greatly on the commercial enterprise of African females and males for the building and continued replenishment of black laborers through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.   Distant desires were projected for the purchase and import of ideal, robust, and largely healthy African captives to appease varying financial and laboring needs.  However, some slaves - due in large part to the slave ship experience - were contrary to market desires, forcing planters to forgo sale or on occasion purchase those cast as undesirable; both on cash terms and physical interest.    This paper analyzes the complex array of human merchandise made available to interested buyers by exploring the manifestations of illness, physical disabilities, as well as psychological traumas within slave sales.
The various destinations that seamen transported bondpeople is useful to understanding where they landed.  However particularly critical to this project is how they arrived into Atlantic slave societies.  Broadening the categorical view of newly arrived Africans beyond the general rubric of prime, young, male, and presumably healthy slaves allows us to fully consider the diversity of human commodities not only made available within Atlantic slave auctions, but unable to be sent back.  The primary thrust of this paper uses the body as evidence to overturn these imagined ideas of prime ideal bodies while attempting to make more clear the vestiges of the Middle Passage that captives bore in their physical and psychological condition upon import.   Drawing upon ship logs, account sales, surgeons’ letters, and merchant’s correspondence, the intent here is  to argue against the idea of the Middle Passage ever real ending due in large part to to the legacies of illness, trauma, and disability carried on and off ship.  As such, this project expands socio-medical history of slavery while providing the first real treatment bridging disability and the slave trade.