Contrary to certain beliefs, wherever it was unhealthful for Whites to live, it was also unhealthful for Negroes. Both white and black southerners were very vulnerable to epidemic and endemic diseases. They suffered from inadequate medical facilities and lived in extreme frontier conditions. These conditions (long summers, mild winters and undrained ponds and swamps) enabled insects to thrive in the South. Physicians were in short supply, and medical knowledge was poor. Proportions of death from disease were substantially higher for Negroes than for Whites. Lower living standards, greater exposure, heavier labor, and poorer medical care gave slaves a shorter life expectancy and a higher mortality rate than whites (Stampp). Many slaves also suffered from dietary deficiencies. These slaves were victims of ill-informed masters, but a few were also victims of penurious masters. A small planter once said, " I practice on the plan that all of us would be better to be restrained, and that health is best subserved by not overeating." (Stampp 286)
The South was a more deadly environment for everyone, whether they were white or black, slave or free. Although yellow fever and malaria were both serious killers, Negroes usually contradicted yellow fever in a milder form, and suffered fewer fatalities than whites. Africans from West Africa also carried a resistance to some types of malaria in their blood.
Asiatic cholera (a disease of dirt) reached the United States in 1832 and periodically swept through the nation. It was more deadly to Negroes than to whites, and in 1833, it caused more than 300 deaths in Lexington, Kentucky. Pulmonary diseases such as pneumonia, pleurisy, and pleuropneumonia were also common.
The mortality rate from tuberculosis was incredibly high among slaves, as well. Mississippi mortality table accounts for 80% of slaves dying from consumption. Other diseases present throughout the slave population were: dysentery, diarrhea, measles, mumps, influenza, whooping cough, dengue, scrofula, scarlet fever, rheumatism, typhoid, typhus, small pox, diphtheria dropsy, and tetanus.
Caehixia Africana, better known as dirt eating, also appeared in high numbers. The reason why slaves ate dirt stumped the minds of physicians, as well as, slaveholders. They did not realize that slaves suffered from several dietary-deficiency diseases, and that they had to eat dirt to obtain minerals to survive. These diseases included pellagra, beriberi, and scurvy. Adult slaves suffered from mental and nervous disorders, and most had tooth decay.
Despite all of this, the slave population of the United States grew by 23% per decade (implying higher rates in pregnancy for slave women). (Stampp)
Sterility, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and death in childbirth occurred
two to three times as frequently among slave women as among white. Irregular and painful
menstruation was common, along with suppurative infections of the generative tract, and
prolapsus uteri. The origination of such womb diseases is undoubtedly from great exposure,
and severe labor. Over the course of a slaves pregnancy, the woman would never see a
physician, and simply had the help of another slave midwife during the birth. These new
slave mothers would be sent out to work on the fields the next day. This begins the
explanation of short slave children. The high work intensity of the pregnant, or lactating
slave women produced inter-uterine undernutrtion, and shortened periods of breast-feeding.
Also, poor diets during childhood resulted in protein energy malnutrition. Poor nutrition
from early fetal development through late childhood produced stunted slave children. This
condition was not reversed until the children were put to work, and were given a
sufficient amount of food. Along with these explanations for high infant mortality, low
birth rate, and stunted children, crowded living quarters increased the frequency , and
intensity of infection. This concludes that the late-adolescent growth spurt was not the
result of an improved diet, but from being transported from the penumbra of diseases
encircling the slave nursery.
Slave labor on the plantations was divided between work in the
slavemaster's home or in the fields. Most slaves were given tasks to perform according to
their physical capability. Every slave was given one task per day, and if they finished
that task, they were allowed to spend the rest of the day for personal recreational
WORKS CITED/WORKS CONSULTED
Northrup, Solomon. Twelve years a Slave. Auburn, NY. 1853.
Oakes, James. Slavery and Freedom. New York. 1990.
Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution. New York: Vintage Books. 1956.
Turner, Mary. From Chattel Slaves to Wage Slaves. Indiana University Press. 1995.