Morbid Geographies: Slavery and Quarantine in the 18th-Century Greater Caribbean

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:50 PM
State Ballroom (Palmer House Hilton)
Elise A. Mitchell, New York University
Recently, historians have deepened our knowledge of the intra-American journeys that enslaved people made after they arrived at American ports, revealing the stadial nature of the slave trade. Though scholars have long recognized the trauma and disorientation enslaved people experienced at every stage of the slave trade, few have addressed how quarantines shaped enslaved Africans’ arrivals in the Americas. This paper will consider the history of quarantine and the slave trade in the Greater Caribbean region. By the turn of the eighteenth century, enslaved Africans frequently endured quarantines near Spanish, French, British, and Portuguese ports in accordance with local and imperial laws. Quarantine laws required that enslaved people remain confined on ships, in hospitals, or semi-permanent structures at outlying islands or peninsulas near a port while they suffered from contagious diseases. Legal records, government meeting minutes, and accounts by Europeans who visited slave quarantines demonstrate that quarantine laws were intended to protect European colonists, rather than ensure the health of the enslaved. I argue that quarantine laws were a cartographic public health practice that rendered black suffering sustainable for Euro-colonial projects. For enslaved Africans, quarantines constituted a brutal introduction to life in the Caribbean and a period of involuntary acculturation and loss.