Slavery and Disability Discourse

Marché aux Nègres, Painted by Johann Moritz Rugendas sometime in the 19th century (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

In an 1851 report to the Louisiana Medical Association, New Orleans physician Samuel Cartwright coined the term “drapetomania”—the disease that supposedly caused the enslaved to run away. At the time, Cartwright captured the attention of many white southerners, and for the last fifty years historians of antebellum U.S. slavery have regularly discussed his diagnosis. Cartwright had turned running away—a logical and reasoned response to chattel slavery—into a pathology. Rather than reacting to alienation and brutalization, self-liberating enslaved people, Cartwright explained, had a mental disability. This medical leap, as many historians have argued, represented the depths to which pro-slavery whites would go to protect slavery as the institution was challenged by antislavery agitation beginning in the late eighteenth century. Drapetomania and the medicalization of race in the United States more generally emerged out of a century of debates about abolition, as many historians (including myself) have argued.1 Historian Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy’s new book encourages scholars to reach further into the past when considering the origins of this discourse.

In Between Fitness and Death: Disability and Slavery in the Caribbean, Hunt-Kennedy draws attention to how English writers used disability to medicalize blackness dating back to the sixteenth century. Early modern English commenters used much of the same language and medical principles to describe Black people and people with disabilities. Both groups were described as monstrous and their supposed disfigurements were passed matrilineally. Intersecting discourses of race and ability evolved through the history of slavery and by the age of abolition, anti- and pro-slavery writers described enslaved people as disabled but along different lines. For abolitionists, disability was emblematic of slavery’s brutality and immorality. In contrast, pro-slavery writers depicted Black people as animalistic and subhuman, well-suited for a system of bondage that their opponents attacked as inhuman. Utilizing a mix of printed works, colonial laws, and newspapers, Hunt-Kennedy, reveals how blackness became tied to concepts of disability.

The book is organized chronologically and the first chapter is a particularly strong contribution, as it draws attention to how concepts of disability informed slavery’s reliance on matrilineal descent. In particular, early modern English thinkers understood the emergence of monstrosity and blackness through the shared mechanism of maternal imagination. Maternal imagination—literally the thoughts of a pregnant woman—was seen as capable of influencing the physical appearances and mental capacity of women’s progeny. Thus, women were responsible for the births of “monsters” or people with disabilities. This same mechanism imparted blackness and bolstered legal arguments for the status of the enslaved being passed through the mother’s line. “During the second half of the seventeenth century,” Hunt-Kennedy explains, “a variety of English writers insisted that black women passed on their monstrosity—and therefore their enslaveability—to their children” (32). 


The next two chapters reveal how the English could simultaneously frame Black Africans as disabled and an ideal labor force. Plantation laborers existed in a disabled state, legally and physically. Elaborating on the relationship between monstrosity and slavery, chapter two shows how seventeenth-century colonial leaders legally justified slavery as a natural system for punishing and managing a monstrous race. The concept of monstrosity also helps explain how elite English people were easily able to look past the logical fallacies inherent to racialized slavery. Black people were disabled intellectually. They were barbarous and savage, yet they were ideal slaves. Monstrosity created an incredibly fertile race able to work in the field, but their monstrous status justified their brutal enslavement. They could even be treated as animals, forced into breeding and castrated as a means of domesticating them. Thus, monstrosity also located Black people as a link between animal and human. In chapter three, Hunt-Kennedy considers disability as a feature of the material life of slavery. Enslavement made debilitation routine. Epidemic diseases like smallpox scarred bodies. Limbs could be lost in the process of sugar production, an early form of industrial labor. Everyday labor on plantations ailed backs, and pregnancies under malnutrition reshaped people’s bodies. The enslaved, then, lived in a liminal space “between fitness and death.” No one’s body represented the ideal of fitness—“young and free from disease, impairment, deformity, and other corporeal challenges that planters and traders desired” (71).

The last two chapters consider how concepts of disability and slavery evolved in the age of abolition. Chapter 4 asks how runaway slave ads were “disabling” themselves through depictions of “slavery-induced disability” as displays of enslaver power (96). Rather than the supposed natural monstrosity fetishized in the late seventeenth century, runaway ads at the turn of the eighteenth century emphasized how enslavers reshaped the bodies of enslaved people through corporal punishment. From whipping scars to labor-related injuries, “lawmakers and planters attempted to make black skin a living reflection of imperial and slaveholding power” (114). In the final chapter, Hunt-Kennedy interrogates how pro- and anti-slavery depictions of enslaved people as disabled were used “to maintain the social and racial hierarchy of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic World” (128). This was mostly true of enslaved laborers, though, and not enslaved rebels. For example, British anti-slavery artists depicted Black abolitionists and revolutionaries like Toussaint L’Ouverture as the ideal of able-bodied men. Even as the British metropole slowly lurched toward abolishing slavery in its colonies, disability shaped and informed the nature of this discourse.

Between Fitness and Death convincingly shows how concepts of disability informed the discourse around the rise and fall of racial slavery in the British Caribbean. The book’s most powerful insight resides in how notions of disability informed the system of matrilineal descent, a central operating principle for the Atlantic slave system. The argument that notions of disability shaped depictions and concepts of blackness in the early modern period is also particularly convincing. This framework helps explain the paradox of blackness. White commentators defined Black people as simultaneously inferior and uniquely suited to hard labor. Disability provided a framework for both ideas to logically coexist. Black people could be intellectually disabled, even as their monstrous bodies were particularly fecund and physically capable for labor in the tropics.

At the same time, Between Fitness and Death draws attention to how much remains to be written about the history of disability and slavery. First, most work on this subject has been confined to the anglophone Atlantic. Thus, there is considerable room to explore connections between disability and slavery across Latin America and West Africa. Second, Between Fitness and Death tells us a great deal about discourses of disability and European intellectual history of race and slavery, but the material aspects of disability on plantations as a lived experience has received less attention. Likewise, scholars must explore how enslaved people understood and potentially used their disability to navigate the world of Atlantic slavery.

In short, along with works by Dea Boster and Jennifer Barclay, Between Fitness and Death uncovers how concepts of disability were formative for the Atlantic slave system. Disability shaped early modern concepts of blackness, the legal structure of enslavement, its regimes of punishment, and its abolition in the anglophone Atlantic. Between Fitness and Death is essential reading for scholars of health, racialization, and law in the world of Atlantic slavery, and it also gestures toward important future directions for scholars of slavery and race, more generally.

  1. Rana A. Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 (Chapel Hil, NC,  2017); Suman Seth, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge, MA, 2018); Christopher D. E. Willoughby, “Running Away from Drapetomania: Samuel A. Cartwright, Medicine, and Race in the Antebellum South,” Journal of Southern History 84 (Fall 2018), 579-614.
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Christopher D. E. Willoughby

Christopher D. E. Willoughby is the Molina Fellow in the History of Medicine & Allied Sciences at The Huntington and a Visiting Scholar at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. With Sean Morey Smith, he is the editor of the book *Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery*, forthcoming in November with the Louisiana State University Press, and he is the author of *Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in U.S. Medical Schools*, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. He tweets @antiquatedmeds.