Enslaved people and the birth of epidemiology

Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine Jim Downs Belknap (2021)

“History performs a social task,” wrote George Rosen in his classic 1958 book A History of Public Health. “It may be regarded as the collective memory of the human group and for good or evil helps to mold its collective consciousness.” Rosen’s book grounded modern US public health in the experiences of European immigrants in urban areas. It scarcely mentioned ill health among enslaved or formerly enslaved people — but his words were prescient.

Historian Jim Downs has now given global context to nineteenth-century advances in medicine and public health, beyond the dominant histories rooted in Western Europe and the ancient world. In Maladies of Empire, he centres slave ships, people living in colonized countries, prisoners and wars in the narrative of medical discovery, at the foundation of epidemiology. He barely mentions what is often cited as the field’s origin story, when British doctor John Snow removed the handle from a London water pump and ended a cholera outbreak in 1854.

Downs’s first goal is to “make visible” how epidemiological thinking emerged from imperial conquest and the exploitation of enslaved people. He delves into archival records to recount how Western medical men — they were nearly always men — drew on the transatlantic slave trade. These researchers studied the health consequences of enslavement and thence began to understand disease transmission. For example, the study of ventilation emerged from the holds of slave ships and crowded prison cells. British and other European doctors observed and discussed cholera outbreaks in the Caribbean and elsewhere before Snow stopped one in London.

…(read more).

Globe to gut: inside Big Food

Felicity Lawrence absorbs three books on the illogical route from farm to fork.

Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating Robyn S. Metcalfe MIT Press (2019)

The Grand Food Bargain: and the Mindless Drive for More Kevin D. Walker Island (2019)

Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food Timothy A. Wise The New Press (2019)

Every year, roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste. The booming global livestock population accounts for 15% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. Its more than 20 billion chickens, 770 million pigs and 1.5 billion cattle eat around one-third of all cereals produced. More than 390,000 tonnes of asparagus are flown to rich countries from regions of Peru experiencing acute water shortages and extreme poverty. Some 820 million people go hungry. More than 650 million adults are obese.

That our current food system is not fit for purpose is now a widely accepted diagnosis. The symptoms are severe. In addition to its implications in climate change and water scarcity, Big Food is a factor in crises of soil depletion, biodiversity loss and pollution. The aetiology of the disease remains disputed, however; so, as three new books demonstrate, the proposed remedies differ wildly.

Robyn Metcalfe’s Food Routes argues for total reinvention through technology: with big data’s marriage to Big Food, technology companies and engineers will soon take over from farmers to produce what we eat. In The Grand Food Bargain, Kevin Walker counters that view, warning of our tendency to overestimate short-term benefits of new technology, and to underestimate any damaging consequences. And in Eating Tomorrow, Timothy Wise writes a powerful polemic against agricultural technology that is sold to developing countries as progress towards the common good, but that ends up as a tool of agribusiness oligopoly and profit.

Metcalfe, a food futurist, declares herself a technology optimist. Food Routes is a fascinating catalogue of ‘miracle’ solutions in development. Some — 3D printed pizzas, say — are from the wilder shores of business-school horizon scanning. Others, such as gene editing of seeds, are about to be embedded in our lives, yet we’re mostly oblivious to their unforeseen consequences.

…(read more).


How the peanut trade prolonged slavery

The legume’s history in West Africa is intimately linked with conquest.

Slaves for Peanuts: A Story of Conquest, Liberation, and a Crop That Changed History Jori Lewis The New Press (2022)

The peanuts we devour today, seeds of the legume Arachis hypogaea, originated in South America and spread around the world because of the peanut’s popularity as a snack and a source of oil. But as with many commodities, their expansion is also a story about the conquest of land and of humans.

In Slaves for Peanuts, environmental journalist Jori Lewis reveals how the rise of the peanut crop was intertwined with slavery, abolition and religious conquest in West Africa during French colonization in the nineteenth century. To unearth this history, Lewis pored over archival documents, newspapers and botanical manuscripts stored in Senegal, Gambia and France, along with oral histories and the lyrics of griots — singers revered as historians and poets in West Africa. Her drive to tell the stories of people excluded from history books stems, at least in part, she writes, from her own curiosity as an African American whose ancestors were enslaved.

The hard facts of the material are made lively through a few main characters and Lewis’s imagery as she traverses the land where the dramas of the book unfolded. “We traveled like the people whose steps we were retracing might have in the nineteenth century, in our horse cart that clip-clopped on a dirt trail toward the horizon,” she writes.

The modern peanut dates back more than 10,000 years, to the lowlands east of the Andes Mountains, where it derived from a hybridization of two older types of peanut — possibly thanks to a chance pollination by a bee. By the time Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, people across South America were cultivating peanuts. As waves of European conquerors and clergy arrived on the continent, some returned with peanut plants as gifts for royalty waiting to learn what goods they might gain from foreign lands. It isn’t clear when A. hypogaea reached West Africa, but Lewis suggests that the crop could have been flourishing in the region by the end of the sixteenth century. The peanut succeeded in its new home thanks to the climate and the farmers’ familiarity with another crop that produces small, edible seeds in the ground: the Bambara groundnut, Vigna subterranea.

When the transatlantic slave trade began to wind down in the first half of the nineteenth century, French officials living in colonial outposts in what is now Senegal focused on the peanut in their search for alternative sources of revenue. Demand for vegetable oil and soap was rising in Europe, and peanuts offered a low-cost resource as long as ample supplies could be provided for a low price. Key to this was the availability of free human labour.

Legal loopholes

Lewis delves into the powerful kingdom of Kajoor, which by 1850 was producing the majority of Senegal’s peanut exports. Its peanuts were often grown by people enslaved by Africans, despite France’s formal proclamation that it would end slavery in its colonies. A series of loopholes and justifications allowed the practice to continue. For example, France determined that slavery was permissible if enslaved people were classed as ‘domestics’ or ‘servants’. French officials in the late nineteenth century wrote to their superiors in Europe about the “delicate question of captives”, Lewis reports. One official warned: “If you suppress the supply of these captives to the colonies, you will destroy farming everywhere and in short order.” He grotesquely argued that captive people had volunteered for servitude and that it would be “inhumane” to grant them freedom.

…(read more).

What Susan Collins said about abortion and the Supreme Court

Washington Post – May 3, 2022

In 2017 and 2018, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) defended her support for Supreme Court Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, in part, by pointing to their respect for precedent. Read more: https://wapo.st/3vDJjjZ.

BBC World Service – Newshour, Ukraine: Explosions in the southern city of Mykolaiv [Russia accused of weaponizing food and stealing Ukrainian grain supplies].

[On “…using food as a weapon of war…” see excerpt of BBC Newshour broadcast, Saturday, 2 July 2022 in which Russia is accused of “weaponizing food” and stealing Ukrainian grain supplies.]

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See related stories on the vulnerability of the global, hyper-coherent and petro-dependent food system:

Preview trailer: 2020 Reading of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Oration

Beinecke Library at Yale – Jul 2, 2020

For several years, the Beinecke Library has marked the Independence Day holiday with a public reading in early July of the United States Declaration of Independence and the oration by Frederick Douglass given on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, in which Douglass asked: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”

These readings have been accompanied by an exhibition of the Beinecke Library’s first editions of both works, providing an opportunity to consider how these powerful words were put on paper to be shared across and beyond the United States.

This year, when public health requires avoidance of such indoor gatherings, the library is offering these readings online. We look forward to resuming this tradition on-site in 2021.

Video of 2020 readings of the Declaration & Douglass’s Oration will be posted July 2 https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dec…

Rethink Talks: The role of food in the COVID-19 pandemic

Jun 24, 2020

When you think about the corona virus currently sweeping the globe, chances are that ‘food’ is not the first word to comes to your mind. Yet food has amplified the devastating effects caused by COVID-19 and exposed vulnerabilities across our food system.

How exactly is food related to the pandemic? And how can we redesign our food systems in a way that helps us avoid similar crises in the future?

In this episode Amanda Wood talks to professor Jess Fanzo at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and Dr. Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. Both are experts on global food systems and the links between people, the environment and food and together we will search for silver linings for our food system in the midst of this crippling pandemic.

About Rethink Talks Rethink Talks is Stockholm Resilience Centre’s multimedia podcast series on resilience thinking and global change. It spotlights conversations between experts on a range of topics that highlight how resilience thinking and biosphere stewardship adds value to current debates on for instance COVID-19.

Stockholm Resilience Centre is an international research centre which advances sustainability science for biosphere stewardship. The centre is a joint initiative between Stockholm University and The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

More information: https://rethink.earth/rethink-talks/

See related:


Rethink Talks: Misinformation, disinformation and sense making in crisis

June 24, 2020

Digital technologies have created an information deluge. It is impossible to keep up with the flood. But digital technologies have also changed the flow of information in the world. The old gatekeepers like the media have been bypassed. What does this mean during a crisis when we need to make rapid decisions under uncertainty and we need to act collectively?

In this episode Owen Gaffney speaks to Kate Starbird, who is associate professor at the University of Washington. Kate is an expert in how communications technologies are used during crises. Owen also talks to Victor Galaz, an associate professor and deputy director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University where part of his work looks at the spread of disinformation online.

About Rethink Talks Rethink Talks is Stockholm Resilience Centre’s multimedia podcast series on resilience thinking and global change. It spotlights conversations between experts on a range of topics that highlight how resilience thinking and biosphere stewardship adds value to current debates on for instance COVID-19.

Stockholm Resilience Centre is an international research centre which advances sustainability science for biosphere stewardship. The centre is a joint initiative between Stockholm University and The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

More information: https://rethink.earth/rethink-talks/

Year of Return: The African Americans moving to Ghana – BBC Africa

Oct 31, 2019

1619 marks the year of the first documented arrival of enslaved Africans in what’s today the United States of America. The West African country of Ghana – which was a major hub during the transatlantic slave trade – declared 2019 the year of return and is encouraging the African diaspora to visit the country. According to the country’s tourism board from January to June this year, there was a 20 per cent increase in the number of Americans visiting the country and an 11 per cent increase in visitors from the UK. But some young African Americans have decided to return for good.

Video journalist: Efrem Gebreab. Producer: Elaine Okyere.

What the Supreme Court’s monumental rulings tell us about the new conservative majority – YouTube

Jul 4, 2022

The Supreme Court is off this Fourth of July after working overtime the last couple of weeks reshaping the country’s legal landscape surrounding abortion, guns and religion. NewsHour’s John Yang and The National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle unpack the historic term and what we’ve learned about the court.