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date: 22 October 2020

Abstract and Keywords

This article reviews scholarship on the biology of African slaves. Mother Africa ensured that her sons and daughters could tolerate a disease environment sufficiently harsh that it served as a barrier to European outsiders for many centuries, keeping them confined to the coast and, save for some notable exceptions, away from the interior. Falciparum malaria and yellow fever, however, the chief ramparts in this barrier, did not remain confined to Africa. Rather, they reached the Americas with the Atlantic slave trade to rage among non-immune white and red people alike. But they largely spared blacks who were relatively resistant to these African illnesses, as well as to the bulk of those Eurasian diseases whose ravages were mostly directed at indigenous peoples. The sum of these pathogenic susceptibilities and immunities added up to the elimination of the latter (and white indentured servants) as contenders for tropical plantation labourers, and placed that onus squarely on the shoulders of the Africans. Yet, such a nomination in an age of rationalism bore with it the notion that black people, because of their ability to resist fevers, were sufficiently different biologically from Europeans as to constitute a separate branch of humankind and a lower one at that.

Keywords: biological aspects, slaves, blacks, race, yellow fever, malaria

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