The Foreigner’s Disease: Syphilis and Its Cures in the Indian Ocean Region

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 2:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4C (Colorado Convention Center)
Anna Winterbottom, University of Sussex
This paper sketches the spread of syphilis across the Indian Ocean region from its 1497 appearance in Egypt and discusses responses to the disease up until the nineteenth century. The spread of associated treponemal diseases, mainly yaws, during the same period is also noted. Factors involved in the spread of these diseases include warfare and forced migration. Syphilis was classified variously in the different societies it afflicted across the Indian Ocean region, most of which shared an understanding of disease and medicine based on concepts of balance. Most commentators agreed in regarding syphilis as a disease spread by close contact with foreigners, particularly foreign women. The paper asks how the appearance of the disease impacted ideas about epidemic disease, foreigners, and sexual intercourse in each of the societies it affected. Treatments for the disorder, notably mercury, Guaiacum (wood from a genus of flowing plants in the family Zygophyllaceae), and China root (from species of Smilax) are described with reference to the international early modern trade in medicinal substances. Spaces for the communication of cures included courts and army camps. While the use of mercury was well known across the region, the other two substances were novel; nevertheless, the classification and applications of all three cures reveal borrowings, overlaps and differences between the difference medical cultures of the region.
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