Fieldwork for my archaeology-based dissertation research is taking place at Estate Cane Garden, St. Croix. Estate Cane Garden was a large sugar producing estate during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The property is now under the ownership of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and the Richard Hampton Jenrette Foundation.The focus of my research is on the plantation hospital, or ‘sick house’. The first mention of the sick house is from a property inventory from 1798, which describes a ‘building containing a sick house, stable, and storage area’.
In the years following the abolition of slavery by Denmark in 1803, the Danish crown and plantation owners in the Danish West Indies became increasingly concerned with the exceptionally high mortality and morbidity rates of enslaved populations in its Caribbean colonies. Because the Danish government, planters, and colonial administrators viewed the abolition of the slave trade as a direct blow to the sugar economy, the health and physical fitness of enslaved workers became a primary concern to the Danish colonial administration. Health policy interventions by the Danish colonial government took the form of forced vaccination and quarantine programs, more ‘healthful’ living arrangements, midwifery legislation.
The development and application of public health policies during the 19th century was not unique to the Danish West Indies. Throughout the British and French colonies, so-called “amelioration policies” were developed in order to extend the lives of enslaved workers. Frequently, these healthcare methods were based on new scientific and medical theories that were developing in Europe during the same time. These included ideas about reproduction and surgery, the development of new types of medication to treat communicable disease, and ideas about how domestic living arrangements could be made more ‘healthful’.
It is also important to remember that public health policies were not humanitarian efforts, but tied directly to processes of racialization, labor, and economic profit. In Germany, Denmark, and England, public health concerns were rooted in a desire to increase the number of people within both urban and rural areas, thus increasing the profitability of political and economic districts in these countries. Public health policies targeted those who were poor, children and women, and those who were seen as “too ignorant” and “too lazy” to care for themselves and their families. Healthcare was, and continues to be, a political field tied to population management and labor productivity. Today, the existence of workplace wellness programs, worker compensation programs, and monetary rewards to employees by businesses for reaching health and fitness goals reinforces the idea that workers must be fit and healthy. The central idea governing incentives for employees to be healthy is that they will be more productive. For example, Google and other technology companies have figured out that spending money on certain health services benefits companies by making workers fitter and more efficient, which in turn increases overall profit.
Of course the flip side of all of this is that private and state enterprises, in tandem with theories of ‘health’ according to biomedical and clinical standards, drives how wellness and healthcare are practiced. Do we, at an individual and community level, view our own health as the ability to work and be productive? Or do individuals also strive for beneficial relationships with their families and community members, seek spiritual well-being, relationships with their land, and connections to their history as part of overall health? Do attempts to be healthy require a broader range of activities and practices beyond seeking physical fitness? How do contemporary understandings of health affect how we view healthcare in the past?
The goals of the research project at Cane Garden are to historicize our current understandings of healthcare. How did individual plantations implement the Danish administration’s health policies? How and to what extent were health policies implemented at the local level and to what extent were they tied to labor and productivity? To what degree did enslaved individuals reject colonial medical practices by implementing alternative methods of care? How did colonial administrators and physicians think about ‘health’? How did enslaved patients and enslaved nurses view ‘health’? How did these ideas affect the kinds of healing that were carried out in the plantation sick house?
This is in no way to argue that enslaved populations would have met contemporary (or their own) standards of physical and mental health. Nor do I in any way wish to minimize the traumatic physical and psychological horrors of enslavement and colonization. Rather, I wish to explore how medicine, healing, healthcare, and definitions of health are historically, socially, and politically defined.