Race, Sex, and Disease in the Early Caribbean: Yaws and Syphilis

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Dr Paugh will discuss the story of syphilis in the early Caribbean, focusing on how Britons and West Africans understood the disease.

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Dr Paugh will discuss the story of syphilis in the early Caribbean, focusing on how Britons and West Africans who were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade and new world slavery understood syphilis.

These groups brought different names for syphilis with them on their journeys across the Atlantic, and they understood the disease very differently. Britons called it ‘the great pox’, and Africans called it ‘yaws’. Britons associated the great pox with sexual disorder, blaming it at various times on prostitutes, promiscuous lepers, and tropical women. African healers, on the other hand, believed that yaws was best managed by childhood inoculation, and did not see it as a sexual disease. Exploring understandings of syphilis in the early Caribbean thus offers us an opportunity to think about how powerfully ideas about disease mediated attitudes toward sexuality and racial difference.

About the speaker:

Katherine Paugh is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on gender, race, and medicine in the early Caribbean and North America. Her first book explored the politics of motherhood in the slave societies of the British Empire during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She is currently at work on a second book on the history of venereal disease in early America. Her article, ‘Yaws, Syphilis, Sexuality, and the Circulation of Medical Knowledge in the British Caribbean and the Atlantic World’ won the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Article Prize. She has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, including awards from the Huntington Library, the American Philosophical Society, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and the Harvard International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World.

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