Science  /  Discovery

How Far Back Were Africans Inoculating Against Smallpox? Really Far Back.

When I looked at the archives, I found a history hidden in plain sight.

Most historians cite 1721 as turning point in the history of smallpox inoculation in the Americas. 1721 was a terrible year for smallpox. Horrible epidemics struck the Caribbean, North America, Western Europe, and the West African coast. As the disease raged around the Atlantic, an enslaved African man in Boston recalled how people addressed smallpox in his West African homelands. He explained that, for generations, after doing what they could to prevent the disease from spreading, his people used a medical practice to control how smallpox spread. The method he described was one that Europeans called “smallpox inoculation,” or “variolation.” It involved deliberately infecting someone with the disease by pricking someone else’s smallpox pustule, removing some pus, and placing that pus inside an incision on the recipient’s arm or thigh. The recipient would come down with the disease and recover, ideally in a controlled environment. Amid the chaos of epidemics, this practice enabled communities to have some semblance of control over how, when, and to whom smallpox spread. This enslaved African man explained that the practice was a last resort for most but that some “brave young men” would seek out smallpox outbreaks to be inoculated so that they could “go and trade anywhere without fear.”

Imagine: a young Black man being able to go anywhere—anywhere at all—without fear. Unfortunately, this is so difficult to imagine in our world today. Any such days of fearless travel and trade would have been behind this enslaved African man too. Enslavement in 18th-century Boston would have limited his mobility. To Benjamin Colman, the Puritan minister who recorded his account, this enslaved man was nothing more than an anonymous “poor Negro.”

This man was not the only Black man in Boston to inform Puritans about smallpox inoculation. More well known among medical and early American historians is the case of Onesimus, a man enslaved by influential Puritan minister Cotton Mather. Though many historians and journalists, writing for academics and the general public, have heroized Onesimus as a sort of father of inoculation in the Americas, their narrow focus on the singular figure occludes a much bigger historical narrative. Mather and many other Puritans first learned of inoculation from Onesimus. However, in his other writings, Mather cites an “Army of Africans” who knew about inoculation in Boston. The demographics of the African community in Boston, and the specific characteristics of the geographies and societies men like the man who spoke with Colman described, suggest that the majority of this “Army of Africans” hailed from sub-Saharan West Africa.