Health, Medicine, and Nutrition Overview
Health, Medicine, and Nutrition Overview
A true understanding of the daily lives of slaves requires an examination of the complex and multidimensional tapestry of their environment well beyond the superficial context of work. The institution of slavery and the accompanying customs and social attitudes that ensured its survival shaped the health, medical, and nutritional aspects of slaves' lives. Vestiges of these influences are still evident today. Thus, an examination of the health, medical, and nutritional aspects of slaves' lives also aids in understanding the evolution of American culture in general and African American culture in particular.
The primary diets of slaves consisted of foods commonly referred to as soul food in contemporary culture, which is still popular among modern-day African Americans. An examination of the diets and eating practices of slaves tells a more vivid story than their words might convey. They tell of the hardships slaves faced during long and arduous journeys on slave ships en route from Africa to America. Many slaves ate peanuts, okra, black-eyed peas, and sesame seeds on slave ships because these crops lasted long after harvesting. They could also be planted in slave gardens once they arrived in America, which led to many slaves and owners adopting these foods into their diets.
Slaves' eating practices also highlighted the inhumane ways in which they were treated. Many slave owners poured boiled cornmeal or other grains into a trough and forced slaves to eat in the same manner as animals. Owners usually gave their slaves small food rations on a weekly or monthly basis. Perhaps most telling of the low regard in which slaves were held was the fact that prisoners often received larger food rations than slaves. Slaves' diets were also a reflection of their culinary creativity. They were often given rations of corn, which they ground into grits. They also processed hominy or made cornbread out of meal. Despite their resourcefulness, slaves were often underfed. Such malnourishment, when coupled with their strenuous work, made them vulnerable to catching diseases.
The environment in which slaves lived and worked also made them particularly susceptible to diseases. Marshy environments led to high mortality rates among slaves. High temperatures, swamps, and disease-carrying mosquitoes led to the spread of malaria. Slaves working on rice plantations were at risk of coming in contact with waterborne contagions because they were required to stand knee-deep in water. Cholera, yellow fever, pneumonia, and dysentery claimed the lives of many slaves—sometimes as many as more than half the population of a plantation's slaves. Therefore, receiving adequate health care or developing their own system of medical treatment was crucial to their survival.
The harsh realities of slave life were more far-reaching than being owned by another and being forced to work without compensation. Slaves were absolved of all personal autonomy over their lives and bodies—even in the area of medical treatment and procreation. Sick slaves did not have access to medical doctors without the aid and consent of their owners. Even where owners deemed medical treatment to be appropriate, it was the owners who determined what type of treatment the slave would receive. For example, some slaves were even forced to undergo mastectomies and castrations. Women slaves also suffered gender-based brutality, which included being raped or subject to the sexual desires of their owners. Many enslaved women were also used as breeders or breeding women, sometimes birthing as many as twenty children who were then sold to the highest bidders.
Slaves were also robbed of the right to envision an existence for themselves beyond bondage and to yearn for freedom. Social attitudes about the inherent inferiority of blacks informed antebellum medical science, including the definition of mental illness. During the antebellum era, slaves were commonly viewed as being feebleminded and uncivilized by nature. Enslavement was seen as being in their best interest and the solution to subduing and controlling their minds and bodies. Thus, slaves who resisted the institution of slavery were oftentimes labeled as insane or suffering from indisposition. Proponents of slavery argued that freedom caused psychological harm to blacks, and oftentimes cited freedom as the cause of former slaves' insanity.
Owners secured medical treatment for their slaves in the most serious of cases. However, antebellum physicians' refusal to view slaves as individual human beings impeded their ability to provide adequate medical care to the slaves. Although it was the common practice of physicians to examine the patient's symptoms, habits, living environment, and social settings to gain a better understanding of the patient, this treatment modality was not applied to slave patients. Therefore, physicians' treatment of slaves was often ineffective.
The unavailability or inadequacy of medical care caused slaves to improvise and gave rise to many aspects of African American culture that continue to exist today. Their strength and ability to adapt is most notably seen in the area of health care—through the use of midwives, root doctors, folk remedies, and sick houses. The health care system developed by slaves mirrors more modernday systems in many ways. Plantation overseers acted as modern-day triage nurses and performed preliminary examinations of slaves to determine whether they were sick enough to go to the sick house. If the overseer agreed that the slave was sick, he or she was then sent to the sick house or transported there in a cart that served the dual purpose of ambulance and hearse. Sick houses looked like any other building in the slaves' quarters. Elderly slaves of both sexes cared for the sick slaves. Slaves oftentimes used the services of midwives during childbirth or root doctors during other occasions. Fellow slaves and Native Americans served as root doctors, and were trained by other root doctors in their family or older slaves on their plantation. They viewed sickness as being caused by a spiritual imbalance. As a result, root doctors developed folk remedies and used plants to treat various ailments and to restore the spiritual balance. Although these folk remedies were generally frowned upon by slave masters, some masters embraced the remedies.
The social and cultural landscape in which slaves existed influenced every aspect of their lives. The impact of these cultural and social forces upon their lives and their ability to adapt to the medical, health, and nutritional challenges they faced reveal the true measure of their struggles, strength, and ingenuity.
Jodi M. Savage