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This paper draws on material from Suman Seth's new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth Century British Empire (Cambridge, 2018) to explore relationships among race, medicine, abolitionism, and slavery. While the literature on abolitionist debates is large, comparatively little attention has been paid to the role played—on either side—by medical men. As we will see, however, relationships between medicine, climate, and disease were critical for a debate that turned on who was to blame for the inhuman and near-unimaginable losses of human life due to the ‘seasoning’ or whether black bodies were essential for the cultivation of sugar under a blazing New World sun. Medical men and medical logics were marshaled in arguments over African inferiority and the very question of their humanity. And doctors, surgeons, midwives and others all participated in ongoing discussions over the question of the single or multiple origins of different ‘races.’ As abolitionist critiques provoked changes—more or less cosmetic—doctors became even more thoroughly imbricated within the slave system. From the 1760s one begins to find medical texts written on ways to handle the initial seasoning and later care of slaves. From the 1780s, the writings of men who claimed to administer to the medical needs of thousands of slaves per year were cited, critiqued, and debated in parliamentary sessions devoted to the question of the continuation of the trade within the British Empire. Abolitionists, excoriated planters for the death and suffering—from disease, neglect, and harsh treatment—of the slaves they owned, while some West-Indian doctors used their experiences to offer apologia and negations of precisely these charges.
Suman Seth is an Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Professor Seth works on the social, cultural, and intellectual history of science and medicine. His interests include the history of medicine, race, and colonialism, the physical sciences (particularly quantum theory), & gender and science. He is the author of Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and Locality in the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, and Crafting the Quantum: Arnold Sommerfeld and the Practice of Theory, 1890-1926 (MIT, 2010). He has served as the guest editor of a special issue of the journal Postcolonial Studies on “Science, Colonialism, Postcolonialism” (December, 2009) and of a ‘Focus’ Section of the Journal Isis on ‘Re-Locating Race.’ He is co-editor (with Prof. Patrick McCray) of the Journal Osiris and jointly leads (with Prof. Laura Stark) a working group on “History and Theory” as part of the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.