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The Other Early Modern Pandemic: Slavery, Colonialism, and Novel Coronavirus

Thomas Franke
University of California Santa Barbara

Journalists, doctors, and public intellectuals in the United States have turned to history in search of precedents for the novel coronavirus since the implementation of social distancing and stay-at-home measures began. For writers interested in medieval and early modern Europe, this search for historical precedent has often focused on the bubonic plague. Typically, articles trying to put these two pandemics in dialogue with one another have focused on broad ways in which the history of the plague might inform our understanding of the novel coronavirus pandemic.1 This tendency to favor superficial comparisons is most evident in the recent surge in online popularity of the figure of the seventeenth-century plague doctor.2 One of the more headline-grabbing manifestations of this phenomenon has come in the form of individuals running errands or roaming their towns in plague-doctor garb, complete with wide-brimmed hats and beaked face masks.3 But there is another pandemic linked to early modern history that has not been mined for its relevance to discussions of the novel coronavirus: the pandemic of racism. As early modernists, instructors, and people living through a modern manifestation of the pandemic of racism, it is imperative that we incorporate it, especially as it unfolded in the early modern global phenomena of colonialism and slavery, into our instruction.

Examining the historical pandemic of racism, or the intersections of racism and disease, is not a new intervention, but amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic it is a project now infused with a sense of urgency. The ways in which the novel coronavirus has been rhetorically and literally shaped by systemic racism and white supremacy is manifested most graphically in the racial disparities in the spread and health outcomes of the virus. In the United States, for instance, people of color—particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities—have experienced disproportionately high rates of infection and mortality.4 This racism is also on display in the rhetoric espoused by people, including the current president of the United States, who have characterized the novel coronavirus as a “Chinese” virus or dubbed it the “Kung Flu.”5 These racist discourses around the novel coronavirus have predictably created an environment in which Asian Americans have reported becoming increasingly frequent targets of suspicion, insults, and threats of violence.6 These are just some of the symptoms of the pandemic of racism that accompanies the spread of the novel coronavirus.

These aggressive outward displays of systemic and rhetorical racism during the pandemic have prompted open acknowledgement of the enduring interplay of racism and disease. Cities and states across the USA, for instance Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Baltimore, Denver, and Pittsburgh, have declared racism a public health crisis.7 The notion of racism as a pandemic has also gained currency in public discourse about the novel coronavirus.8 Meanwhile, some historians have foregrounded race and racism in their public-facing discussions of the history of disease.9 These discussions have primarily focused on the histories of the United States or of modern medicine. But early modern world history—particularly as it relates to European colonialism, conquest, and slavery—offers its own valuable insights into a broader history of the pandemic of racism.

This is evident in the published primary source texts that highlight moments in which disease and early modern European systems of oppression collaborated to produce especially damaging outcomes to non-European populations. My students and I read and discussed a handful of these sources in my Modern World History class this spring, and the sources that comprised these discussions are the topic of the rest of this paper. But before discussing these sources or how we used them in class, I want to outline the conditions under which my students and I met during this quarter. Doing so will provide the context in which our discussions occurred.

My university is on the quarter system, and this year our Spring Quarter began in April, well after it had become clear that in-person classroom meetings presented a public-health risk.10 As such, our campus had transitioned to remote instruction weeks before Spring Quarter began, giving instructors some time to adjust to our new remote-learning environment. In the Modern World History course, which covers the period from 1500 to the present, I was one of nine teaching assistants leading classes under the direction of a professor. The instructor of record adopted an asynchronous approach to their lectures, which they posted online at the beginning of each week. To complement this mode of instruction, I decided to teach my discussion sections in synchronous meetings that took place on Zoom (though I provided alternatives to students who, for various reasons, were not able to take part in these meetings). I had three classes of between twelve to eighteen students on this platform, and each class met once a week.

The primary sources on colonialism and slavery that I used in class came from the textbook that I had used in previous iterations of this class, Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader.11 It was only in the context of a global health pandemic that I appreciated that these documents, which I had used in the past, illustrated how disease intersected with the early modern phenomena of slavery and conquest. My approach to using these sources to talk about the historical pandemic of racism was largely improvisational. But in outlining how I taught these texts I hope to offer a starting point for thinking about the different ways in which the pandemic of racism can be easily introduced to class discussions of early modern history, specifically in a remote learning context.

The first source that we discussed in this capacity was The Conquest of New Spain (ca. 1560) written by Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz. Diaz recounted that the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez, had “a negro servant with him ill with the smallpox, through whom this terrific disease, which…was previously unknown in the country, spread itself through New Spain.”12 Diaz was not alone in recounting this narrative move of associating smallpox with enslaved Black carriers. The story of an enslaved Black person introducing smallpox to the Americas had its origin in a text called the Memoriales, a fable based on the Spanish conquest written by the Franciscan Motolinia (1482–1568). Although there is no clear factual basis for the Memoriales’s tale of how smallpox was introduced to the Americas, it persisted and was recounted in multiple Spanish accounts of conquest. It also appeared in accounts of the conquest included in textbooks in the United States throughout the twentieth century.13

Although excerpts from Diaz’s text are included in Worlds of History, the passage about the introduction of smallpox to the Aztecs is not.14 As such, I presented the short passage about smallpox to my class on a slideshow. I then asked my students why they thought Diaz and other Spanish chroniclers were so quick to blame the spread of smallpox on an enslaved African, a question they discussed in small-group breakout rooms. Once we reconvened and had discussed their responses to this question, I presented another question for full group discussion: what groups are blamed for or strongly associated with the novel coronavirus? This allowed for a frank discussion of contemporary anti-Chinese and anti-Asian rhetoric related to the novel coronavirus and drew clear lines between past and present examples of racializing disease. The next two sources I used in class to discuss the pandemic of racism discuss disease explicitly and at length, and I used them both for a single class discussion.

The first source that we discussed in this capacity was an appeal that the king of Congo Nzinga Mbemba sent to the king of Portugal, João III, in 1526, in which Mbemba offers a very different account of how disease spread outside of Europe than that presented by Diaz. Although Mbemba, known by his European contemporaries as Afonso I, sent the appeal to request that the Portuguese king restrict the illegal economic and slaving practices of Portuguese merchants, he also offered passing insight into the biological consequences of these actions. Mbemba ended his appeal by noting that “we have continuously many and different diseases which put us very often in such a weakness that we reach almost the last extreme.”15 Because the Portuguese had introduced these diseases to the African continent, Mbemba requested that the Portuguese king “be agreeable and kind enough to send us two physicians and two apothecaries and one surgeon, because we are in extreme need of them.”16 Before discussing the implications or modern resonances of this account of disease, we first discussed another set of sources linking disease and slavery.

These were journal entries by J. B. Romaigne, a thirteen-year-old French boy who, in 1819, recorded his experience aboard a slave ship travelling from the Guinea coast to the Caribbean. Romaigne recounted an outbreak of ophthalmia, “which produces blindness,” on the ship. Initially, the captain deemed that enslaved Africans who fell ill with the disease should be “attended by the surgeon the same as if they were white men.”17 However, as the disease proceeded to infect both the enslaved Africans and crewmen on board, the captain declared that the enslaved “have cost us enough already” and should not be treated any further.18 As the journey neared its conclusion, the captain eventually ordered his crew to drown the thirty-nine enslaved Africans on board who had not recovered from their blindness. In murdering these enslaved people before arriving at their destination, the captain intended to collect insurance on his lost cargo, which surely would have yielded a higher price than selling blind enslaved people. These journal entries, paired with King Mbemba’s appeal to the king of Portugal, set up a productive set of reference points for connecting the early modern pandemic of racism to the current coronavirus pandemic.

These sources connecting disease and slavery helped set the stage for discussing two aspects of the novel coronavirus pandemic: the intercontinental transmission of disease through European movements and structural factors that create racialized disparities in medical care. To facilitate these connections, I presented information from recent news reports about the coronavirus via slides that I screenshared with my students. First, I shared quotes from articles reporting that European tourists had introduced the novel coronavirus to New York.19 Then, I summarized some data from recent reports about racial disparities in the infection and mortality rates of COVID-19, and provided links to relevant articles on the matter.20 Lastly, I summarized claims from recent articles arguing that the lack of adequate medical supplies and capacity in the United States was the direct result of a profit-oriented model of healthcare. 21

Having presented this information to students, I asked the following question: “Can we compare any of this information about the spread of the coronavirus to information presented in our sources about slavery and the spread of disease?” Students then went into breakout rooms to discuss this question and had access to the slides with the information I had just presented. When we reunited in our full class discussion, students drew connections between our sources and the present by talking about profit motives or the systemic valuing (or devaluing) of the health and well-being of Black and Brown people. Some students who did not make these explicit connections nevertheless indicated that they were happy to talk about and give shape to these issues, which they could not talk about in other classes, either because they were taking place asynchronously or because their instructors did not address the pandemic at all in class.

In all, students recognized that these sources’ stories of disease, disparate outcomes, and narratives of contagion resonate with multiple elements of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Just as European slave traders introduced new and socially disruptive diseases to the Congo, so too did European tourists play a significant role in bringing the novel coronavirus to New York, one of the early epicenters of Covid-19 in the United States. And just as Diaz pinned the spread of smallpox on a single enslaved Black man, racist politicians such as the presidents of the United States and Brazil have blamed China for the disease’s spread.22 In the United States, this racialized polemic has taken place against a backdrop of tangible racial disparities in the disease’s spread and fatality. It is a disparity fueled, at least in part, by models of medicine driven by an interest in profit rather than equitable healthcare, a calculus of medicine that the captain of Romaigne’s ship enacted to its brutal extremes.

This is not to say that the modern pandemic of racism as it is currently being expressed through the novel coronavirus can only be understood through the lens of early modern slavery, colonialism, and disease. Rather, it is to say that amidst these dual pandemics it is our responsibility as educators to mobilize our expertise in ways that are responsive to the health and social crises our students are navigating. A failure to do so makes us complicit in the continuation of these unjust systems and extends the life span of the pandemic of racism indefinitely.

Thomas Franke is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California-Santa Barbara who is studying free and enslaved Black communities in sixteenth-century Spain. He has taught courses on ancient and modern world history, medieval, early modern, and modern European history, Latin American history, and the crusades. He is also the cocreator and cofacilitator of the Strike Syllabus, an activist teaching resource hosted through Strike University, an open-access public university.

1 Examples include Adam McBride, “The Black Death Led to the Demise of Feudalism: Could This Pandemic Have a Similar Effect?,” Salon, 26 Apr. 2020; and University of Rhode Island, “Comparing COVID-19 to Pandemics of the Middle Ages,” MedicalXpress, 23 Apr. 2020.

2 See, for example: “A Tip From PlagueDoctorMasks.com,” FaceBook post, 1 Mar. 2020; Winston Black, “Plague Doctors: Separating Medical Myth from Fact,” LiveScience, 19 May 2020; Erin Blackmore, “Why Plague Doctors Wore Those Strange Beaked Masks,” National Geographic, 12 Mar. 2020; Mark Earnest, “On Becoming a Plague Doctor,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 20 May 2020; Madeline Mant, “Behind the Beak: Plague Doctor Iconography in 2020,” Synapsis, 15 May 2020; and Colleen Walsh, “What Pandemic Dreams May Come: Harvard Researcher Says Many Having Nights Full of Bugs, Masks, and Natural Disasters,” The Harvard Gazette, 14 May 2020.

4 John Eligon, Audra D. S. Burch, Dionne Searcey, and Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States,” New York Times, 7 Apr. 2020; Liz Mineo, “For Native Americans, COVID-19 Is ‘The Worst of Both Worlds at the Same Time,’” Harvard Gazette, 8 May 2020; and Maria Godoy, “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?,” Shots: Health News from NPR, 30 May 2020.

5 Bruce Y. Lee, “Trump Once Again Calls Covid-19 Coronavirus the ‘Kung Flu,’Forbes, 24 June 2020; and Mari Webel, “Calling COVID-19 a ‘Chinese Virus’ Is Wrong And Dangerous—The Pandemic Is Global,” The Conversation, 18 Feb. 2020. 

6 Neil J. Ruiz, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, and Christine Tamir, “Many Black and Asian Americans Say They Have Experienced Discrimination Amid the COVID-19 Outbreak,” Pew Research Center, 1 July 2020.

7 Christine Vestal, “Racism Is a Public Health Crisis, Say Cities and Counties,” Pew, 15 June 2020.

8 Linda Wiggins-Chavis, “We Also Face a Pandemic of Racism,” The Progressive, 11 May 2020.

9 Isaac Chotiner, “How Racism Is Shaping the Coronavirus Pandemic,” The New Yorker, 7 May 2020, features an excellent Q&A with Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard professor of the history of science who studies race and disease in the history of the United States.

11 The most recent edition is available in both hard and digital copies.

12 Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, vol. 1, trans. John Ingram Lockhart (Enhanced Media, 2017), location 261, Kindle.

13 Robert McCaa, “Spanish and Nahuatl Views on Smallpox and Demographic Catastrophe in Mexico,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 25, no. 3 (1995): 404.

14 Bernal Diaz, “The Conquest of New Spain, c. 1560,” in Worlds of History: A Comparative Reader, 7th ed., ed. Kevin Reilly (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020), 2:547–55.

15 Nzinga Mbemba, “Appeal to the King of Portugal, 1526,” in Reilly, Worlds of History, 2:567.

16 Mdema, “Appeal,” 568.

17 J. B. Romaigne, “Journal of a Slave Ship Voyage, 1819,” in Reilly, Worlds of History, 2:574.

18 Romaigne, “Journal,” 576.

19 Nathan Layne and Jessica Resnick-Ault, “Coronavirus Came to New York from Europe, Not China—Governor,” Reuters, 24 Apr. 2020.

20 For a more recent account of the racial disparity in coronavirus infections, see Richard A. Oppel Jr., Robert Gebeloff, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Will Wright, and Mitch Smith, “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus,” New York Times, 5 July 2020.

21 Amy Kapczynski and Gregg Gonsalves, “Alone Against the Virus,” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, 13 Mar. 2020.

22 Ishaan Tharoor, “It’s Not Just Trump Who’s Angry at China,” Washington Post, 13 Apr. 2020.

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