Elise A. Mitchell


Elise A. Mitchell, New York University

MCEAS Consortium Fellow


 “Smallpox and Slavery: Morbidity, Medical Intervention, and Enslaved People’s Lives in the
Greater Caribbean”

Elise’s research attends to the histories of ill enslaved Africans in the early modern Greater Caribbean region, including the Caribbean islands and coasts as far east as the Carolinas and Maranhão. She focuses on smallpox to examine enslaved people’s responses to contagious illnesses, encounters with medical practitioners, and experiences of Euro-colonial public health policies before the late eighteenth and nineteenth-century ameliorative reforms. Elise used Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English manuscript and printed sources to create a database of over 400 smallpox outbreaks that occurred on Caribbean-bound slave ships and in the Caribbean during the prevaccine era (roughly 1519-1803). She reads across juridical and commercial records, correspondence, travel narratives, medical treatises, maps, newspapers, plantation records, and personal papers to reconstruct microhistorical accounts of smallpox outbreaks and medical interventions from the perspectives of enslaved people.


In “Smallpox and Slavery,” morbidity serves as a heuristic for conceptualizing enslaved people’s imbricated social, spiritual, and physical experiences of illness and survival. Smallpox and Euro-colonial responses to the disease often harmed and killed enslaved people; nevertheless, many enslaved people survived both. Smallpox and smallpox treatments shaped enslaved people’s forced and free migrations, impacted the power dynamics in urban and rural slave societies, affected kinship and ancestral ties, precipitated spiritual and political consequences, altered medical epistemologies, and influenced enslaved people’s perceptions of the world around them. By centering the enslaved, Elise’s work places the nexus of colonialism, enslavement, forced migration, and commodification at the crux of early American public health and medical history.


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