A Review of McCandless’ “Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry” by Benjamin Smith

Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry by Peter McCandless. Cambridge University Press, 2011. Hardback, ISBN: 9781107004153. $90.00

Blending three veins of historiography in a single work, and doing it well, is a task most commendable. Peter McCandless’ Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry artfully accomplishes this miraculous feat in a concise and readable volume of well under three hundred pages. The work is part medical history, part environmental history, and part economic history, but it quickly becomes clear that the elements are inherently intertwined. Focusing primarily on Charleston, South Carolina, McCandless argues convincingly that the lowcountry’s late colonial wealth and health were “intimately connected”(xvi). Indeed, the epidemiological reality of the region during this era, as portrayed by McCandless,underscores the role of disease as a central formative component of southern regional identity.

To be sure, McCandless is not exactly pioneering uncharted ground, for other historians have explored the relationship between the American South and disease. Rather, his contribution lies in his ability to illustrate how disease pervaded the quotidian experience––both social and commercial––of southerners by grounding his analysis in Charleston. Methodologically, this enables McCandless to trace the impact of pestilence temporally against a spatial constant. The work is divided into two parts that together offer crucial insight into how public health policy and public perceptions of disease evolved parallel with the needs of a thriving port city.

Part I, “Talk About Suffering,” is dedicated to showcasing Charlestonians’ public and private perceptions of the diseases most devastating and frequent to the lowcountry, chiefly yellow fever, smallpox, and malaria. McCandless draws heavily on diaries, family letters, and journals, unveilingthe incessant discussion of “fevers, respitory disorders, dysentery, and other excruciating maladies” therein(40).  Through a skillful examination of the personal papers of Henry Laurens and other lowcountry elite, he provides a detailed account of the ruinous effect epidemics often had on commerce.  Because wealthy residents were actively trying to promote economic growth and settlement in the lowcountry, insalubrious conditions were often concealed or misrepresented by resident physicians and the local newspapers.

Part II, “Combating Pestilence,” focuses on exactly that. McCandless demonstrates that Charleston’s doctors were largely clueless when it came to diagnosing and treating cases of yellow fever. To be fair, he asserts that this ignorance was not unique to lowcountry physicians, but spanned North America and the Atlantic world. What was unique to South Carolina, according to McCandless, was the direction it took in the national debate over the contagiousness of yellow fever. Having decided uniformly against its contagiousness, the Medical Society began questioning the effectiveness of quarantining for the disease and eventually advocated for relaxation of said quarantine measures(227). It is here that McCandless furnishes his nuanced indictment of lowcountry elites.  His adroit ability to uncover the reckless lengths to which they went in order to preserve “the economic vitality of the city” is praiseworthy and instructive(83).

For all of its virtues, this book is not without weakness. However, the expected critique leveled at all case studies––that of representativeness––will likely remain sheathed by the usual skeptics because McCandless contextualizes Charleston so firmly in an Atlantic network. That being said, his title is a bit misleading. This is not a book about slavery,though the lowcountry economic system and slave trade play a vital role in the manifestation and perpetuation of disease in the area. McCandless also does not paint a comprehensive picture of the lowcountry, and though Savannah occasionally surfaces throughout the narrative, there is no effort to examine it in any serious way. This is odd because the few offerings McCandless provides indicate that elaboration on Savannah would bolster the foundation of his argument. Lastly, the chapter “Revolutionary Fever,” though interesting, feels a bit obligatory and unnecessary. Omitting this section would not have been detrimental to the overall argument and would have liberated space for further analysis in his other chapters.

Nevertheless, the book’s merits vastly outweigh its shortcomings. That McCandless’ Slavery, Disease, and Suffering offers a refreshing perspective on colonial and early republic America is unequivocal and it indisputably highlights that scholarship pertaining to epidemiological impact on this era is far from complete. His use of contemporary documents and primary sources is masterful, and both students and general readers can appreciate his writing style. With an adjustment to the exorbitant price,this book would make for an invaluable addition to graduate courses covering capitalism, colonial and Revolutionary America, and the history of the Atlantic world.

Benjamin A. Smith                                                                             University of Georgia

Benjamin is a graduate student in History at the University of Georgia, where he is currently developing his M.A. thesis on colonial and early republic South Carolina, slavery, and capitalism.

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One Response to A Review of McCandless’ “Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry” by Benjamin Smith

  1. JHW says:

    Ben–This is an excellent review. Very well written and cogently organized to convey the main thesis of the work, its strengths, weaknesses, and its historiographical foundations, contributions, and oversights. Many thanks.

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