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The edge of utility: slaves and smallpox in the early eighteenth century.

Medical History
Cambridge University Press
Publication Date
  • Research Article
  • Economics
  • Medicine
  • Political Science


Medical History, 1985, 29: 54-70 THE EDGE OF UTILITY: SLAVES AND SMALLPOX IN THE EARLY EIGHTEENTH CENTURY by LARRY STEWART* The outbreak of plague at Marseilles in 1719 caused British authorities great alarm. French efforts to check the spread of the disease were uncertain of success and there was concern that commercial connexions might provide a means by which the dreaded disease could again bring devastation as in the seventeenth century. The terror plague provoked, however, might equally have been directed toward the smallpox epidemics that were occurring with increasing frequency. But there, too, the realization that commerce might be commensurate with contagion was part of a complicated fabric of disease, political factors, religious sensibilities about divine providence, and the defence of profits in an economic climate that was proving difficult for many of the established chartered companies. Thus the Bubble Act of 1720 that tried to prevent a recurrence of the innumerable frauds which had haunted traders and aristocrats alike, and the Quarantine Act of 1721 that endeavoured to control the spread of plague both represented a deliberate act of government intervention. Quarantine is by definition an act of authority, and in the early eighteenth century it explicitly altered the conditions of trade. In a much wider sense, before 1750 there appears to have developed an incipient notion of public health that had the potential to transform trade as well as the conditions of mortal and disfiguring diseases. And in a world terrified by plague, in which smallpox stalked aristocratic families and the slaves of the African Company alike, it fell to the learned Fellows of the Royal Society to form the critical if sometimes tenuous association between the world of traders and politicians. PUBLIC HEALTH AND PUBLIC POLICY IN THE EARLY EIGHTEENTH CENTURY In the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, the righteous may have found justice in the misery of it all. To some, the collapse of stocks pr

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