Plagues from the Old World and European identities in North America

A new post in the smallpox series: An epidemiological aspect was at work in the conceptualisation of a European self in the mirror of American otherness.

In the journal of his voyage to the Carolinas published in 1709, John Lawson connects the arrival of syphilis in America to Columbus, describing the striking consequences for the Santee,1 a Siouan population near the river of the same name in present-day South Carolina, which declined from about a thousand in the seventeenth century to less than ninety at the beginning of the eighteenth.2

On behalf of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, to whom he dedicated his New Voyage, Lawson set out from Charleston on 28 December 1700, and arrived at the mouth of the Pamlico River (Pampticough) on 24 February 1701,3 drawing a wide arc in Carolina territories. It crossed and described an unmapped area, about which Europeans’ knowledge was largely lacking. The observer clearly identified the role of diseases of European origin, smallpox above all, in the rapid decline of populations such as the Sewee, another nation probably of Siouan stock, whose numbers, estimated at around eight hundred in the seventeenth century, were reduced to seventy-five in 1715:4

the Sewees have been formerly a large Nation, though now very much decreas’d since the English hath seated their Land, and all other Nations of Indians are observ’d to partake of the same Fate, where the Europeans come, the Indians being a People very apt to catch any Distemper they are afflicted withal; the Small-Pox has destroy’d many thousands of these Natives.

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Smallpox, North America and a global Europeanness

A new post in the smallpox series: geographies of diseases in the eighteenth century and the dawn of a consciousness of globalisation

During the eighteenth century, the development of historical-geographical knowledge and philosophical disputes in the Old World connected the themes of disease, contagion and inoculation to discussions of the physical difference of the American humanity and the environmental and climatic conditions that determine it.

The Histoire Philosophique et Politique des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes connected, for example, the speed of the course of diseases to the climate in the Americas,1 exemplifying the reflections of the coeval neo-Hippocratic medical climatology of the Enlightenment that informed the treatment of these themes also in Abbé Prévost’s Histoire générale des voyages and in Robinet’s Dictionnaire universel des sciences.2 The climatic and environmental elements were seen to interact in a complex way with customs, habits and lifestyles, and with differences in constitution between genders and races. In Raynal’s Histoire, the geography of diseases, so to speak, is the product of a stratification and articulation of factors between natural history and physical and socio-cultural variety.3

This series discusses the theme of smallpox in some eighteenth-century witnesses, with particular regard to travel accounts significant for the observers’ interest in American societies. These accounts are placed against the backdrop of the attempts of description and systematic explanation mentioned above, but stand out for the weight they give to direct observation and testimony, often combining cognitive ambitions with tasks in policy, diplomacy, colonial administration, in the context of specific imperial apparatuses, and particular biographical experiences.

These examples constitute the background for a deepening of the theme in Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Here, the construction of medical knowledge closely linked to the expansion projects of the republican government.4  By adopting as sources the reports of the expedition, the correspondence between some of the protagonists, the coeval medical publications that influenced the preparation of the expedition, this particular perspective of analysis will allow to focus on smallpox as a catalyst of a proto-consciousness of European globalization processes by the actors involved. The awareness of the devastation brought by epidemic phenomena coming from the Old World plays an important role in the very genesis of the Jeffersonian project of documentation of the North American native populations whose extinction is noted or foreseen. Thus, in the journals kept by the participants, recur notations of the role of smallpox, alongside syphilis and other not always identified plagues, in the destruction of specific nations or human groups.


[1] G.-T. Raynal, Histoire Philosophique et Politique des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, A Geneve, Chez Jean-Leonard Pellet, Imprimeur de la Ville & de l’Académie, 1780, University of Chicago, ARTFL Project,, see t. 3, Livre onzieme, chap. XXXII – Maladies auxquelles les Européens sont exposés dans les isles de l’Amérique, p. 233; and XXXI – Caractères des Européens établis dans l’archipel américain.

[2] D. Droixhe, Les maladies des Antilles et de l’Amérique du Sud dans l’Histoire des deux Indes. Climat, environnement, santé, in Autour de l’abbé Raynal: Genèse et enjeux politiques de l’Histoire des deux Indes, éd. par A. Alimento et G. Goggi, FerneyVoltaire, Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle 2018, pp. 125-169. On the connection between physical degeneration and climate in Raynal: A. Gerbi, La disputa del nuovo mondo. Storia di una polemica: 1750-1900, a cura di S. Gerbi, con un saggio di A. Melis, 1955; new ed. Milan: Adelphi 2000.

[3] Raynal, Histoire, t. 3, Livre onzieme, chap. XXXII. The moral geography of the behaviour of Europeans in the West Indies affects their exposure to disease, as they indulge in pleasures that habit makes less harmful to men born in those climates, t. 3, chap. XXXI, p. 234. On the other hand, scurvy also afflicts the savages of Hudson Bay because of the unhealthiness of some aspects of their lifestyle. However, the adoption of the moeurs of policés peoples is not necessarily beneficial to the natives: «Peut-être aussi les mœurs des peuples policés, sont-elles plus contraires que leur climat à la santé des sauvages?», t. 4, Livre dix-septieme, chap. VI – Climat de la baie d’Hudson. Habitudes de ses habitans. Commerce qu’on y fait, qt.. p. 187. See also on climate and health in Louisiana: t. 4, Livre seizieme, chap. VI – Etendue, sol climat de la Louysiane; VII – Caractère général des sauvages de la Louysiane, & celui des Natchez en particulier, esp. p. 98.

[4] On of the evolution of Jefferson’s attitudes towards state power, international relations, territorial expansion and the use of force: F. D. Cogliano, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press 2014; for an in-depth study of Jeffersonian concepts and policies towards indigenous peoples: B. W. Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian, New York, W. W. Norton and Company 1973 (Sheehan’s theses are echoed by J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York, Vintage Books 1996, pp. 239, 404 note 54); A. F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press 1999.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

«in the raging time of the small pox»

A new series on smallpox and the documentation of American otherness in the late Eighteenth century

The series in brief

This post inaugurates a series focussing on the perception of the effects of smallpox on the demographic decline of the native North American populations by some English-speaking writers in the eighteenth century. The series will highlight the awareness expressed by contemporary observers of the circulation of new infectious diseases imported from Europe into North America, and of the effects of these diseases – of which smallpox is a critical but far from unique case – on the decimation or incipient extinction of native peoples.

The aim of this series is to show how this awareness favoured, in English-speaking observers, the agglutination of the category of “European”, and an urgent need to document American human diversity before its disappearance.

Works by John Lawson, John Brickell, James Adair, and Cadwallader Colden are considered before dwelling on the Lewis and Clark expedition and on Thomas Jefferson’s role in the expedition’s cultural aims and interests in medicine.

Redman Coxe, Practical observations on vaccination, or, Inoculation for the cow-pock, Philadelphia, Printed and sold by James Humphreys at the corner of Walnut and Dock-streets 1802. illustration preceding the title page, comparison of the development of smallpox and vaccine sores
Redman Coxe, Practical observations on vaccination, or, Inoculation for the cow-pock, Philadelphia, Printed and sold by James Humphreys at the corner of Walnut and Dock-streets 1802. illustration preceding the title page, comparison of the development of smallpox and vaccine sores at 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 18-20 days after inoculation or contraction. In the same volume appear a letter by Jefferson in support of the vaccine practice and the data recorded by Jefferson during the Monticello experiments. Copy at Yale University, Cushing, Whitney Medical Library, no known restrictions on reproduction for academic use.

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Vocabularies, Accounts, (Hi)Stories

Remarks on linguistic historicisation, concluding the Languages and/in time series

By paying close attention to the relationship between the vocabularies and the narrative accounts in travel journals, it is possible to trace the subtle changes gradually taking place in the relationship between the use of written sources and the value placed on direct observation. Writings such as Sagard and Carver’s represent different stages in a process of complex negotiation between first-hand experience as a validating factor of knowledge and pre-existing cultural notions. Far from being a linear process, this negotiation produced different outcomes in each case, making it necessary for an in-depth analysis of each source within its specific cultural and historical context. These early vocabularies are a fascinating example of the thematisation of issues connected to how orality is documented, and of the axiological and temporal hierarchisation of linguistic forms and media, as the Dixon-Beresford account makes particularly evident. Vocabularies also reflect the gradual definition of a system of scientific disciplines from which indigenous American forms of knowledge are excluded. As made plain by Colden and Carver’s reluctant use of French sources, this, in turn, helped to consolidate the idea of a distinct European – and, later, Euro-American – cultural identity and civilisation, notwithstanding the existence of competing imperial projects.

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Lewis and Clark’s Lost Vocabularies

The temporal hierarchisation of the indigenous American other and the Lewis and Clark expedition: a new post in the Languages and/in time series

The endpoint of this survey is one of the most significant collections of indigenous American languages made at the end of the long eighteenth century: it was also the prelude to a whole series of systematic studies, grammars, and dictionaries that would go hand in hand with the establishment of linguistics and lexicography as autonomous academic-scientific disciplines in the nineteenth century. This endpoint was the collection of vocabularies prepared as part of the expedition west of the Mississippi led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark between 1804 and 1806. Promoted by Thomas Jefferson immediately after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the symbolic significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition in North American history can hardly be overestimated.[1]

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Futuristic fictions and power relations through the globe

Some remarks on the long history of imagined conflicts to come, against the backdrop of the emergence of a world technology-mediated interconnectedness – closing the future wars series

La guerre infernale’s case study, explored in this series on future wars which comes to an end with this post, can today foster a better understanding of how the representation of the future begun to work as a pliable setting for speculative narratives, and how related genres emerged and found success in early-contemporary European cultural consumption.

This 1908 feuilleton invites today’s reader to mind a plurality of levels, exploiting critical tools at the intersection of different scholarly traditions, so that it might in turn be used to provide concrete evidence of phenomena involving complex historical traditions and communicative circuits. In other words, what one might call a global microhistory of Giffard and Robida’s fiction locates its object against the backdrop of a long history of ideas, as an apt expression of the emergence of a world technology-mediated interconnectedness in its specific early-contemporary European historical and cultural context, and as a unique embodiment of its author(s) ideas. Continue reading “Futuristic fictions and power relations through the globe”

Translation and Appropriation in the (Indigenous) Eighteenth Century

Canadian Society for the 18th Century Study (CSECS) & Midwestern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (MWASECS) Annual conference: 13–16 October 2021 @ University of Winnipeg. Translation and Appropriation in the Long Eighteenth Century

I am thrilled to be part of an incredibly stimulating and diverse programme. I look forward to share research experiences, questions, and perspectives at the Roundtable Researching in the Indigenous Eighteenth Century:

Thursday, 14 October 2021, 2:45-4:00 pm / jeudi, 14h45-16h (ET time = 7:45pm London time)
3F. Roundtable / Table ronde: Researching in the Indigenous Eighteenth Century
Moderator / Modérateur, modératrice : June Scudeler (Métis, Simon Fraser University)

Roland Bohr (University of Winnipeg)
Mary Baine Campbell (Brandeis University)
Dr. Peter I-min Huang (Tamkang University, Taiwan)
Giulia Iannuzzi (Birkbeck, University of London – Universities of Florence and Trieste)
Livia Jacob (Rio de Janeiro State University)
Fred Leonard (Haudenosaunee Historian and Author)
Peter Cooper Mancall (University of Southern California)

I will be presenting my lates research on indigenous languages in eighteenth-century European travel accounts on Friday, contributing to a stimulating panel on Places and peoples, part of the Indigenous Eighteenth century programme:

9:00-10:15 am / vendredi, 9h-10h15 (ET time = 2pm London time)
Session 5 / Séance 5
5E. Panel : Places and People
Moderator / Modérateur, modératrice : Mark Meuwese (University of Winnipeg)
Lauren Beck (Mount Allison University), Eighteenth-Century Indigenous Influences on Canada’s Place Names
Giulia Iannuzzi (Birkbeck, University of London – Universities of Florence and Trieste), ‘The language of Uncultivated Man, in Remote and Fresh Discovered Quarters of the Globe’: Nuu-chah-nulth People and the Conceptualization of Linguistic Otherness in the Account of Cook’s Third Voyage
Andreas Motsch (University of Toronto), Native American Belief Systems between Nature and Culture, Religion and Idolatry: Picard and Bernard’s Cérémonies et coutumes de tous les peuples idolâtres

Conference website at this external link

Full conference programme at this external link

James Cook and James King (ed. John Douglas), A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean … (London: 1784), appendix VI, “Vocabulary of the Language of Nootka and King George’s Sound, April 1778”. Copy at Biodiversity Heritage Library under CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication license.
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