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strange news: from covid-19 to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic

April 13, 2020


by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, Vice-President of the Institut des Amériques, professor in North American studies at the University of Paris. She is a specialist in anti-slavery in the United States before the Civil War.


For specialists of the early American Republic, the coronavirus epidemic in the United States is reminiscent of the yellow fever epidemic which struck Philadelphia in 1793.


The circumstances of the two events are different of course. The current crisis highlights the limitations of the US health care system which is torn between the public and the private sectors, among other problems. In addition the federal government has never been able to impose a uniform solidarity across age groups and states. But the yellow fever of 1793 revealed a major social problem, still relevant today. It clearly demonstrated the growing discrimination against free Blacks in the North of the United States, where they had been freed during the American Revolution and the following years. Echoing this sad moment in history, more and more data show that African-Americans are more affected by Covid-19 today than any other group in American society.


Today one can be vaccinated against the yellow fever. The disease appeared in North America at the end of the 17th century.  Endemic in West Africa, it is propagated by a tropical mosquito. Initially this viral disease reached the Caribbean on board slave ships, and in the same way, it spread to North America. In 1793, Philadelphia, then the largest city in the nation with 50, 000 inhabitants, was also the federal capital which it was to remain until 1800. As early as August 1793, the death count rose and the epidemic only abated in November when temperatures fell. All together 4,000 inhabitants died, that is to say, 20% of those who had stayed in the city during the epidemic. Members of the federal government, like many inhabitants, fled the city as early as September, when the nature and the seriousness of the disease were known. The epidemic was attributed to the arrival of many Saint-Domingue refugees over the summer. War between France and Britain had started so it was easier to flee the slave insurrection by going to the United States than by facing an Atlantic crossing and the British Navy. Today, it is also said that a British ship coming from Africa may have imported the mosquito and the disease

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society
Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Thanks to the many narratives of the epidemic, with some published as early as November 1793, we know exactly what took place. There are many reasons which explain this profuseness, one being the rivalry between editors on a hot topic, another being the need for self-justification on the part of some protagonists. In the wake of the current pandemic we can also imagine a train of publications, narratives, and, of course, Hollywood films and mini-series.


So, by November 1793, Mathew Carey, a journaliste and editor, probably tried to cash in on the epidemic when he published his Short Account of the Malignant Fever. Doctors, like Benjamin Rush, then tried to answer the criticisms of other doctors by justifying their diagnoses and treatments (blood-letting in the case of Rush…). And the leaders of the African-American community decided to pay a tribute to the African-American community, which had acted bravely during the epidemic,  by denying Mathew Carey’s accusations. They thus published A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, during the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia. This small 25-page volume, the first copyrighted publication by African-Americans in the United States, is one of the first analyses of the mechanisms of racial prejudice in North America, and one of the first formal protests against discrimination.


In A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Carey had hardly criticized black people, who volunteered as nurses and grave-diggers. Benjamin Rush, the famous doctor, had publicly urged them to come to the rescue, on the pretense that they were immune to the disease (on account of their African origins). This was not true unfortunately, but African-Americans trusted this committed antislavery activist, and set out to replace departed white domestic servants and family members at the bedside of the sick. So when Carey, congratulating the black population, qualified his praise by also hinting they had overcharged for their services, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen took offense. Historian Julie Winch thinks their publication aimed at straightening the record and clearing the name of the African American community who had come to the assistance of Euro-Americans, paying a heavy price in the process. The parallel with today’s situation is striking as African-Americans often occupy ill-paying jobs in hospitals and must face the pandemic head-on.


Observers may find Jones’s and Allen’s anger disproportionate to Carey’s criticims. However this bitter response revealed the growing disillusionment felt by Northern blacks. After being freed at the time of the American Revolution, and believing passionately in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, they were trying to be accepted as equals by a Euro-American population which was in fact getting more and more hostile as time went by. Having to justify even such a brave conduct was unsufferable. As they wrote : « The judicious part of mankind will think it unreasonable, that a superior good conduct is looked for, from our race, by those who stigmatize us as men, whose baseness is incurable, and may therefore be held in a state of servitude […] ».


The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia confronted the free African-Americans of Philadelphia, the largest free black community in the nation, with the rise of racial prejudice. They understood that, however exemplary their behavior, they would be despised. This was the start of the « black protest » movement, in a way of the « civil rights movement ». It is to be hoped that in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, American progressives will draw all the lessons from the health and social crisis, demanding real solidarity within the nation. This is all the more crucial as African-Americans may pay a heavy price to this disease.

Marie-Jeanne Rossignol is Vice-President of the Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique latine, Professor in North-American studies at the University of Paris (UMR LARCA). A specialist in anti-slavery in the beginning of the United States, she manages with Claire Parfait the collection "Slavery Narratives ("Récits d'esclaves") at PURH. In 2018, she edited  Undoing Slavery. American Abolitionism in Transnational Perspective 1775-1865 (Presses de l’ENS) with Michaël Roy  and Claire Parfait.