7. Yellow Fever & Racism of the Founding Fathers

Submitted by Fozzie on April 28, 2020

"Aedes mosquito study" in which "freshly grown, unfed mosquitoes in carefully prepared biting cages are applied to the forearms of volunteers for a period of ten minutes."

California Department of Corrections, Research and Review (c.1971).

That the 1790s was a decade of "revolution" is plain to all, for who can avoid the hoi-polloi of the bicentennials? We have the "miracle of Philadelphia" when the White Men of Means drew the shutters closed and shut themselves in to organize the 5/6's Clause in the U.S. Konstitution. And we have plenty of the red-white-and-blue, the "Marseillaise," Left-Right-and-Center, Bastille storming, and all, over in France. But to the discerning mind what is remembered from that decade is the colossal warfare of the West Indies, slaves who defeated three European Empires, abolished the plantation, and established an independent Haiti, on Christopher Columbus's first port of call. Indeed, the mixture of American, African, and European peoples in the Caribbean in the 18th century can be compared to the formation of the intercontinental gene pool in the Mediterranean during antiquity. Only in the Caribbean what had taken several centuries, if not half a millennium, in the Mediterranean, was accomplished in a duration of a few years, reaching a demographic and revolutionary climax in the 1790s. And thus from an epidemiological standpoint, as well as a political one, Haiti came to occupy a position analogous to that of ancient Greece and Rome.

Yet the differences were many. The main one now was the centrality of the African experience. The pandemics of the late 18th century put the slave experience at the forefront. Like the epidemics of antiquity they were thought by Europeans to have originated in Africa, but unlike them, this European interpretation was infected by racism root and branch. In opposition, pan-Africanism developed, the experience of liberation wars, and as we read in Aime Cesaire, the philosophy of negritude: "At the end of the wee hours burgeoning with frail coves, the hungry Antilles, the Antilles pitted with smallpox, the Antilles dynamited by alcohol, stranded in the mud of this bay, in the dust of this town sinisterly stranded."

Another difference: the 1790s did not have its Thuc'. Instead, the parson, Thomas Malthus, wrote his pious lines, lines dripping with mathematical genocide, from the orderly perspective of his flower garden. Food production increases arithmetically, people reproduce geometrically, you see: this is the postulate of his "reason," and therefore people have to be killed. Q.E.D. War, plague, and famine were the "laws of nature", and he calibrated them exactly to the needs of the plantocrats with their whip crackings and to the factory owners with their eighteen hour days.

His perspective was a) worldwide and b) it substituted Nature for Jahweh. And it was all for our own good. Of course. Killing with kindness. It is a perspective that still reigns sovereign in the pages of the official press. Thus, Stephen Jay Gould taking the metaphysical distance of the biologist in discussing the AIDS pandemic, refers to "nature" thirteen times in a single column of newsprint! Thus it is at the very moment when nature becomes a realm subsumed under society that the social rulers proclaim its "laws" as determinants over society.

"Mange kou bef" [eat like an ox] said Dr. Jean William Pape in Port-au-Prince. He said it over and over again as each wasting patient left the AIDS clinic. It does not take the brilliance of modern science with its train of ambitious virologists with its government bankrolls or its high-tech labs to understand the proposition, nor the political suggestion implied by such therapy.

Philadelphia was the new capital of the United States, and try as it might to disguise the slave basis of the "democracy," chickens came home to roost. For it was not long after the ship Sans Culottes arrived in July 1793 bringing with it the white, black, and mulatto refugees from the slave rebellions of the West Indies that the Founding Fathers of the "new nation" decided to skip town.

They were frightened, for the ship also brought with it a new mosquito, aedes aegypti, carrying the yellow fever virus. But they did not know this. "The fever of Bollam" or "the fever of Barbadoes" as it was variously called seemed to be the result of African or Caribbean revolution. Through the summer and fall of 1793 the population of Philadelphia was decimated. Watches and clocks stopped. Poverty and starvation were rampant. Children were abandoned. The Federal gentry fled.

The official response to the epidemic, led by Dr. Benjamin Rush, gave an atomspheric etiology to the disease. It was something in the air. Consequently, smoking tobacco and explosions of gunpowder were recommended as effective preventatives. Unofficially, the bourgeoisie of the town blamed the freed slaves of the Caribbean and they let loose race riots against the Philadelphia Afro-American population as the best way of ending the epidemic.

Yet, the working class of Philadelphia took the opportunity to settle some scores. Half the servants deserted their masters. Prisoners were freed from the jail. Nurses were accused of robbery. Others demanded a pay raise to $3 a day. Within the epidemic, as we have seen so often, the people who in fact suffered most from it, took it as an opportunity to deal with the macroparasites. It was a moment of potential. However, let us not accept the bourgeois fears of the working class during the epidemic, according to whom the working-class rage in a terrible, apocalyptic, thieving moment of rebellious redemption. At least not entirely. It is a one-sided, despairing view.

It was from the ranks of the suffering that leadership emerged. Richard Allen, born a slave, founded the Free African Society in Philadelphia in 1787 and later the first Methodist Church for Afro-Americans. Absalom Jones, also a slave, founded the first Episcopal Church for Afro-Americans in mainland America. Together they coped with the epidemic by organizing treatment and comfort. They sat with the afflicted. They comforted the dying. They wiped the brow of the feverish. They acquired the hearses. They built the coffins. They dug the graves. Working without wages or reward they accomplished the duties of humanity while the well-to-do fled in dread and shame.

The epidemic became an event for collective self-recognition and the construction of a collective historical identity.