A comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875




НазваниеA comparison of american slaves and english agricultural workers, 1750-1875
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Slave Medical Care


Whether done out of financial self-interest or paternalistic altruism, slaveholders often had (white) physicians treat the slaves. Masters and mistresses usually wanted no treatable diseases or injuries to reduce or eliminate their human property's financial value. (But, as Kemble knew, their rationality could not be assumed).124 Sometimes the master or overseer gave medicine or some treatment such as bleeding to his slaves. The blacks also had their own resources: many larger plantations boasted homegrown "conjurors" using herbs or spells to help cure fellow slaves of afflictions. Since slave midwives assisted other women at birth, they did not necessarily rely on doctors for deliveries. Unfortunately for the slaves and just about everyone else in Southern society excepting perhaps the physicians themselves, the crudeness and backwardness of antebellum medical science ensured it delivered at least as much harm as cure. For many sick bondsmen, the plantation's resident witch doctor's rituals and herbs arguably were more effective than the white physician's bag of tricks, which included leeches for bleedings. Despite its general ineffectiveness, even lethalness, large planters such as Barrow still could pile up the doctor's bills. In a day and age when doctors charged around $1 to $5 per house call, Barrow spent (assuming accurately kept figures) just $69.18 for 1838-39, but $288.25 for 1839-40 and routinely $300 or more annually afterwards.125 The slaveholders' investment in their bondsmen encouraged high expenditures on their medical care, even when paternalism did not.

Masters willingly had the same doctor treat both their families and their slaves on the same visit, which shows some surprising impartiality in providing medical help. Planter Bennet Barrow noted in his diary: "Dr King practising on two of my negros--& my family &c."126 This "race mixing" he took for granted despite his rigid insistence on enforcing the color line other times.127 So long as they were the absolute rulers of blacks, white slaveholders readily and necessarily accepted situations that would have appalled diehard post-reconstruction segregationists. Correspondingly, Barrow (as well as the doctor himself) lightly pass over a white physician treating blacks and whites during the same visit living on the same land.


The General Backwardness of Antebellum Medical Care


Although slaveholders paid doctors good money to treat their slaves, positive outcomes from treatment were hardly guaranteed. Between bad treatments (e.g., bleeding and questionable "medicines") and professional incompetence, it was frequently safer not to have a doctor in the house. Barrow condemned one doctor who visited his place during a small epidemic: "number of sick ones, asked Dr Hail to see Marcus and a more undecisive man I never saw. made great many attempts to bleed him, but failed & large veins at that, Died at 11 ok." Other planters evidently placed less faith in bleeding than Barrow, at least when the overseer did it. Plowden C. J. Weston, rice planter of South Carolina, prepared a standard contract that his overseers signed which included this statement: "Bleeding is Under All Circumstances Strictly Prohibited, Except by Order of the Doctor." Counting a completed bleeding as an accomplishment and a botched one a failure, as Barrow did, accepted the premises of a backward medical "science" still practicing treatments more suited to the Dark Ages than to the nineteenth century's spirit of progress. Despite the general crudeness of antebellum medical science, it still performed some recognizably modern treatments. One day planter Barrow noted in his diary: "Number of cases of Chicken Pox, Vaccinated all my negros, Old & Young Most of them with good taking scars, but have now the appearance genuine." Regardless of what treatments the doctor gave, still patients died sometimes. Overseer George W. Bratton wrote to his employer, planter (and later U.S. President) James Polk, about the fate of one of his slaves: "Losa died the sixteenth of this month [November 1838] I had good atten[tion] paid to her I call in and other phisian to Loosa she died with the brest complaint."128 Good intentions sometimes still brought bad results!


Masters Sought Ways to Reduce Medical Expenses


Undoubtedly, many masters and mistresses cut corners by calling in physicians only when their slaves were really sick or injured. After describing the Old Miss as stingy with the food rations, freedman Tines Kendricks of Georgia said she acted similarly about getting a doctor to help Mose, a young slave boy:


Aunt Hannah, she try to doctor on him and git him well, and she tell Old Miss that she think Mose bad off and ought to have the doctor. Old Miss she wouldn't git the doctor. She say Moses ain't sick much, and, bless my soul, Aunt Hannah she right. In a few days from then Mose is dead.


Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered getting cheap medicine and a doctor's visit being a last resort:


We didn't have much looking after when we git sick. We had to take the worst stuff in the world for medicine, just so it was cheap. That old blue mass and bitter apple would keep us out all night. Sometimes he have the doctor when he thinks we going to die, 'cause he say he ain't got anyone to lose, then that calomel what that doctor would give us would pretty night kill us. Then they keeps all kinds of lead bullets and asafetida balls round our necks.129


Apologists for slavery might have claimed that the slaves automatically got medical care from their owners, unlike the North's "wage slaves" from their employers. But since slavery also gave the masters practically unlimited freedom in determining how to control their bondsmen, no guarantees existed for the provision of medical care regardless of any possible laws stating otherwise. The slaveholders cannot be given total freedom to make the slaves' will their will, yet easily stop those neglecting to give what supposedly gave the slaves material security (here, medical care) that replaced the uncertainties of freedom. The slaves really had neither security nor freedom because the master had practically nearly 100 percent freedom to order them about and to treat them as he wished, excepting the extreme cases where white neighbors mobilized against his excessive cruelty by their (likely low) standards.



Masters and Overseers as Amateur Healers for Slaves


On his or her own a slaveholder might provide medicines or even an infirmary. By administering medicines himself or herself, a slaveowner could avoid calling in a doctor to begin with, thus possibly save a dollar or two. Certainly they had financial motives for seeking medical information, since it could save the lives of their human property while simultaneously keeping the doctors away. Freedwoman Mary Reynolds of Louisiana remembered the (rather dubious) medicines her owner gave out: "Massa give sick niggers ipecac and asafetida and oil and turpentine and black fever pills." As Stampp observes, often overseers or the masters themselves diagnosed and treated sick slaves, using doctors only as a last resort. Granted this, Fogel and Engerman sensibly infer: "Planters sought to be, and overseers were expected to be, knowledgeable about current medical procedures and about drugs and their administration." Planter Weston had his overseers pledge to refrain from using strong medicines, "such as calomel, or tartar emetic: simple remedies such as flax-seed tea, mint water, No. 6, magnesia, &c., are sufficient for most cases, and do less harm. Strong medicines should be left to the Doctor." Because overseers' low educational levels usually corresponded with a minimal knowledge of medical science, this master avoided entrusting too much of his slaves' lives and health to their medical judgment. But Kendricks' mistress dispensed medicine where he lived: "Old Miss, she generally looked after the niggers when they sick and give them the medicine. And, too, she would get the doctor iffen she think they real bad off 'cause like I said, Old Miss, she mighty stingy, and she never want to lose no nigger by them dying." This mistress knew being penny-wise may be pound-foolish. But she still hesitated to admit a slave may be really sick because they frequently shammed sickness to avoid toiling by the sweat of their faces: "Howsomever, it was hard sometime to get her to believe you sick when you tell her that you was, and she would think you just playing off from work. I have seen niggers what would be mighty near dead before Old Miss would believe them sick at all." Kemble's husband's rice-island estate had a six-room infirmary. Despite looking good on paper, in reality it was filled with weakened bodies scattered amidst an appalling spectacle of filth and rubbish, darkness and cold. This place was, supposedly, where its "patients" went to recover from sickness! Some bondswomen attempted to receive a little warmth from a feeble fire in its enormous chimney, while "these last poor wretches lay prostrate on the floor, without bed, mattress, or pillow, buried in tattered and filthy blankets, which, huddled round them as they lay strewed about, left hardly space to move upon the floor." The "hospital" on her husband's sea island cotton estate was still worse.130 Hence, between the crude medicines and primitive buildings used for medical treatment, the provision of health care by masters and mistresses for their slaves did less good than what might be claimed.


Black Medical Self-Help: Conjurors and Midwives


By having their own resources in the form of conjurers (i.e., shamans or witch doctors) and midwives, the slaves did not entirely depend on their owners for medical help. The black community did not just passively wait for what "ole massa" might hand out, but also looked to help themselves in health care and other needs. Like the slave preacher, the plantation conjurer served as an independent source of authority (religious, not just medical) to the slaves. Unlike drivers and domestic servants holding more prestigious positions (at least to the whites), the conjurer's activities did not fully fall under the white chain of command. Sometimes white medical science even adopted the "cures" slaves used on themselves in its own practice. According to Kemble, one physician told his white patient to bind the leaves of the poplar tree around his rheumatic knee, "saying he had learned that remedy from the negroes in Virginia, and found it a most effectual one." "Auntie Rachael," living in a cabin near Raleigh, North Carolina, gave a long list of treatments for diseases based on black folk wisdom. She had learned them from her mother, who had been a "docterin' woman." Her "cures" included giving mare's milk for whooping cough, smearing the marrow of a hog jowl on the skin lesions caused by the mumps, putting on a mud plaster and wearing little bag around the neck with a hickory nut to cure shingles, various buds and herbs for making tea to cure bad colds, and tying a charm around a child's neck to ward off disease: "A bag o' asafetida is good [as a charm]; er, de toe-nails of a chicken is mos' pow'ful!"131 Although these "cures" seem positively naive and superstitious nowadays, they may have often followed better the principle of medicine that states "First, do no harm" than the white doctor's bag of tricks.


Slave midwives were valuable to their owners, not just to their sisters in bondage. Kemble noted that the "midwife of the [rice-island] estate--[was] rather an important personage both to master and slave, [for] as to her unassisted skill and science the ushering of all the young negroes into their existence of bondage is intrusted." Births attended by midwives enabled masters to reduce both medical expenses and the number of doctor's visits. The slave women benefited from having someone of their own race and sex serving them during such an intimate passage of life. Slave midwives helped rebut any contentions that black women could not assist or serve competently in some crucial position in the slave community's life. Zack Bloxham of Florida recalled his mother was a field hand, adding an evident exaggeration: "She was a midwife, too, an' treated right special on 'count of it. Dey didn' need no doctor wid Mammy dar!" Despite her very ordinary main position on the plantation, Bloxham's mother role as midwife greatly raised how much respect others, both black and white evidently, gave her. "Aunt" Florida of Georgia said her grandmother, the "sworn midwife" of the plantation, attended on both blacks and whites in her locality of "Hurricane an' Briefiel'." By helping women of both races, she again shows that whites under slavery often accepted "race mixing," but only under a social system that theoretically ensured the whites' almost complete control over most blacks. Illustrating the importance midwives potentially had, overseer John Garner blamed the death of a newborn baby slave on Matilda telling him only at the last minute she was going to have a child, which kept him from getting a midwife soon enough: "I cold not get the old woman there in time, her lying up at the same time." Of course, the "help" some midwives gave to women in labor could clearly be harmful. One "ignorant old negress" that Kemble encountered would, in cases of greatly long and difficult labor, "tie a cloth tight round the throats of the agonized women, and by drawing it till she almost suffocated them she produced violent and spasmodic struggles, which she assured me she thought materially assisted the progress of the labor."132 Despite this caveat, slave midwives were usually vital members of the plantation community who received respect from black and white alike.


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