Testimonies of Trauma: Enduring Tetanus in Colonial Haiti, 1781-1786

By Will C. Little

Members of the Cercle des Philadelphes viewed colonial Haiti as a laboratory for medical experimentation and observation. French royal physicians first established this society in 1784 to bring academic science and medicine to the French Empire.[1] Their dissertations and pamphlets effectively used the trappings of scientific reasoning to articulate the contours of French authority over medical science in colonial Haiti. A key element of the Cercle’s push for knowledge collection in colonial Haiti centered on the exploitation of the enslaved, and the audience for these collections and dissertations were typically slaveholders.[2] Medicine was a central component of the Cercle’s publications, but they were particularly concerned with tetanus—a serious infection caused by Clostridium tetani, which can cause stiffness in muscles and is most commonly associated with lockjaw. This post explores how the Cercle des Philadelphes in colonial Haiti espoused ideals of a medical Enlightenment where supposed progressive notions of humanity depended on the utility of enslaved subjects for medical findings.[3]

Medical texts published by the Cercle were highly racialized, showing how the enslaved—and anyone of color—were vehicles of disease and death. The people hidden in the footnotes and testimonies of these medical dissertations masqueraded as “hard” evidence to the authors’ findings. The language of these scientific discourses represented a significant, but often overlooked, moment in French imperial culture before the French and Haitian Revolutions. Scholars, such as James McClellan III, discuss what these findings were, but largely ignore the very real accounts of enslaved men, women, and children who were subjected to laxatives, enemas, vomit-inducing medicines, and barber-surgeon-like procedures in the name of knowledge-collection.[4]

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 8.43.21 AMAccording to the Cercle’s Dissertations et observations sur le tétanos, there were three types of spasms. First, a twitching muscle spasm that “withdraws [the enslaved] from the will to work.” Second, “the posterior muscles of the head, neck and back are in a tonic and painful contraction which throws the body back.” And third, “the contraction of the anterior muscles causes the body to bend forward, without being able to be straightened.”[v] The introduction to the Dissertations recognized that the enslaved acquire the disease from puncturing the skin with something like a thorn, pins, or something foreign to the body that became infected.[5]

In dozens of testimonies, the language of Cercle members centered on how to diagnose and prevent tetanus rather than detailing a cure. One recorded case of tetanus from Dr. Vantage, a surgeon in Dauphin, involved a ten-year-old enslaved boy who was kicked by a horse in his right thigh. On 11 December 1785, the boy was first treated with compressions and pain relievers to dispel the swelling and pain. Eight days later, Vantage revisited the boy because of an ear infection and spasms in his jaw, neck, and spine with convulsions that increased his pain. Vantage first gave the boy a mixture of semen and mercury, then a carminative enema as a purgative, and finally, aromatic wraps for the pain. However, Vantage concluded that the only thing to resolve the pain and allow the boy to walk was bathing.[7]

The boy was not a patient; he was a subject for experimentation. There is no research from the other testimonies to suggest that semen was a common treatment. Vantage does not identify where the semen came from or why it was used in a mixture with mercury. He also did not confirm whether this was indeed a case of tetanus or simply the effects of a horse kick. Vantage experimented with an enslaved boy in tremendous pain and used him to judge different treatments for tetanus. This case illustrates that the Cercle’s intentions revolved around white health instead of human health. Over time, Cercle members increasingly used black bodies to develop their instructional guides for grand blancs in the Empire and those abroad in the metropole.

From the Cercle’s perspective, enlightened understandings of medicine in colonial Haiti illustrated the limits of experimentation and universal cures. Although the Dissertations recognized that the Royal Society of Medicine’s recommended cure for any type of tetanus was a cordial of opium in red wine, the Cercle argued that this was not in fact effective and only provided comfort.[8] This did not stop one physician, M. St. Bris, from using daily opium cordials, baths, and laxatives on an 11-year-old enslaved girl for “eighteen to twenty days without any improvement, but the physician ultimately moved on when his experiments failed.”[9] There was no mention of the girl’s condition after these treatments.

These testimonies can and should be read against the grain. In them, we find a social history from below or from the perspective of the enslaved who were subjected to medical colonial laboratories, and whose stories ultimately propped up white medical authority. In her work on enslaved women and the origins of American gynecology, Deirdre Cooper Owens argues that, “if closely studied, this history evidences how race, class, and gender influenced seemingly value-neutral fields like medicine.”[10] Without recognizing black voices within these medical documents, scholars cannot fully recognize the importance of the Cercle, or of histories of colonial Haitian medicine. Failing to direct proper attention to these subjects of experimentation only reinforces the racialized power imbalances captured in the documents.

Will Little is a PhD Candidate in Modern European History at the University of Mississippi where he is at work on a dissertation on political culture and empire during the French and Haitian Revolutions, 1780-1794. Twitter: @wc_little

Title image: Enslaved Africans with tetanus culture overlaid.

Further readings:

Hogarth, Rana A. Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Johnson, Erica. Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018.

McClellan, III, James E. Colonialism and Science: Saint-Domingue in the Old Regime. 1992. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Owens, Deirdre Cooper. Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017.


[1] Charles Arthaud, Observations sur les Lois, Concernant la Médecine et la Chirurgie dans la Colonie de St-Domingue, avec des vues de Règlement, adressées au Comité de Salubrité de l’Assemblée nationale et à l’Assemblée coloniale (Cap-Français: Chez Dufour de Rians, 1791), 2-4. Accessed with Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/b29333209. James E. McClellan, III, Colonialism and Science: Saint-Domingue in the Old Regime (1992, repr.; Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010), 8-9.

[2] Londa Schiebinger, Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 100. Here, she notes how slaveholders felt inconvenienced by illnesses of the enslaved.

[3] On medicine and the Enlightenment, Peter Gay notes, “Medicine was the most highly visible and the most heartening index of general improvement,” in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Science of Freedom (1969, repr., New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 12. Also, see Karol K. Weaver, Medical Revolutionaries: The Enslaved Healers of Eighteenth-Century Saint Domingue (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

[4] Rana A. Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). “The construction of racial difference and the medicalization of blackness were mutually dependent forces, essential to the development of medical knowledge in the Atlantic World. The story I tell […] reveals how physicians in the English-speaking Greater Caribbean engaged in this process […] for their own intellectual, professional, and pecuniary gains,” (2-3). My larger work builds on this by giving a narrative to the Francophone Atlantic, but there was a deeper, cultural work at play—one to solidify French medical control.

[5] Cercle des Philadelphes, Dissertation et observations sur le tétanos, (Cap-Français, n.d.), 6. Accessed with the National Library of Medicine digital database. http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/100935853. This document is undated, but Dr. Charles Arthaud presented it to the Cercle on 25 September 1786.

[6] Cercle des Philadelphes, Dissertation et observations sur le tétanos, 11.

[7] “Observations sur le tétanos par M. Vantage, maître en chirurgie au quartier Dauphin, associé colonial du Cercle des Philadelphes,” in Cercle des Philadelphes, Dissertation et observations sur le tétanos, 68-70.

[8] Cercle des Philadelphes, Dissertation et observations sur le tetanos, 42.

[9] “Observations sur le Tétanos ou Spasme par M. St. Bris, maître en chirurgie à l’Acul, associé colonial du Cercle des Philadelphes,” in Cercle des Philadelphes, Dissertation et observations sur le tétanos, 54.

[10] Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 3.

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