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.

John Brickell too, in his 1737 Natural History North-Carolina, largely based on Lawson’s text,5 developed Lawson’s attention to medical matters and added some original considerations. Speaking of the diseases afflicting European settlers and Indian nations in Carolina, while treating more extensively the most widespread at the time, gout and syphilis, he mentioned smallpox as a plague imported from Europe. The consequences in terms of demographic dynamics, in favour of the European colonists, were already clear: “The Small Pox proved very fatal amongst them in the late War with the Christians, few or none ever escaping Death that were seized with it. This Distemper was entirely unknown to them before the arrival of the Europeans amongst them”.6  The disease was fatal: “neither has the small Pox ever visited this Country but once, and that in the late Indian War, which destroyed most of those Savages that were seized with it”.7

The Plague seemed to have remained unknown, but the contribution of smallpox to the rapid decimation of American populations was clearly identified alongside other causes, which were part of the stereotypical image of the American “savage” in the eighteenth century: wars between nations – a state of perpetual belligerence – and intemperate alcohol consumption above all:8

[…] the Small Pox, their continual Wars with each other, their poysoning, and several other Distempers and Methods amongst them, and particularly their drinking Rum to excess have made such great destruction amongst them, that I am well informed, that there is not the tenth Indian in number, to what there was sixty Years ago.

The diachronic and diatopic variations in terminology are clear indications of the stratification and upheavals affecting the cultural construction of American societies as instances of a pre-civilised humanity on the part of Euro-American observers. The variety of American societies flattens out under labels such as ‘Indian’ or ‘Savage’9 Alongside the linguistic-conceptual category used to designate the ‘other’, there is an oscillation between the traditional designation of the colonists as ‘Christians’ and the use of a category that is decidedly less consolidated but destined to particular fortune: that of ‘Europeans‘. This agglutination is conspicuous in a colonial context in which the competition between imperial powers, British and French above all, was still far from being resolved. 10 An epidemiological aspect was at work in the conceptual schematisation of a European self in the mirror of American otherness.

John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina (London 1709). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Notes

[1] For Native American nations, the exonyms currently used in secondary literature are adopted in the text, giving in brackets any variants adopted in primary sources. In general on nomenclatural confusion: M. Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières, 1971; Paris, Albin Michel 1995, pp. 26 and ff..

[2] J. Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina, edited and with an Introduction by H. Talmage Lefler, 1709; Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press 1967, pp. [24-25], see also editorial note 22.

[3] New Style calendar year, for Lawson was 1700.

[4] Lawson, A New Voyage, p. [17], see here editorial note 11 on Sewees.

[5] J. Brickell, The Natural History North-Carolina: With an Account of the Trade, Manners, and Customs of the Christian and Indian Inhabitants […], Dublin, Printed by James Carson 1737. On the vexata quaestio of plagiarism of Lawson see: P. G. Adams, John Lawson’s Alter-Ego: Dr. John Brickell, «The North Carolina Historical Review», 34, 3, 1957, pp. 313-326.

[6] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 397.

[7] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 253.

[8] Brickell, The Natural History, p. 308.

[9] On the conceptual and linguistic evolution of ‘savage’: S. Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi, 1972; Turin, Einaudi 2014, p. 4 and passim; J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1999-2015, 6 vols., vol. 4: Barbarians, Savages and Empires, 2005, pp. 2-3, 158 and ff. On the ‘savage’ and the formulation of ideas of development and progress and with the framing of human variety within a universalist perspective in the eighteenth century: S. Sebastiani, The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress, New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2013.

[10] Dynamics that can usefully be read in terms of a complex interaction between «inner-European process of Europeanization and something once referred to as the “Europeanization of the Earth”», W. Schmale, Processes of Europeanization, 2010, in EGO – European History Online, http://ieg-ego.eu, ad vocem, par. 2.

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:

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Plagues from the Old World and European identities in North America," in Geographies of Time, 01/05/2022, https://ian.hypotheses.org/2073.

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