I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History

Kenneth F. Kiple

Alfred Crosby places a great deal of stress in his works on the fact that the Europeans were not able to infiltrate the borders of other continents because they were biologically superior, but rather because they were the beneficiaries of ecological luck. Kenneth Kiple would agree, except that he would argue that part of this luck led to evolutionary features in the European race that may very well have made them biologically, maybe not superior, but at least different and in some ways stronger than the indigenous peoples of the New World. Kiple believes that people are direct products of their environment, and thus, different environments create different “human products.” Kiple firmly denies that this is a racist proposition, but rather it is simply scientific reality.

The main crux of Kiple’s The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History is to demonstrate that what had been increasingly referred to as a myth, the idea that slaves from West Africa were better suited to the strenuous, manual labor of West Indies agriculture, actually has a factual, immunological background. The people of West Africa, due to the realities of their environment, experienced a much more brutal evolutionary process than those humans that evolved in milder climates, such as Europe. When Europeans and West Africans converged in the Caribbean, the West Africans naturally dealt better with the climate because it was very much the same as their homeland’s, while it was completely unlike the climate of Europe.

The greatest advantage that the West African slaves had was that they were already immune to many of the tropical diseases that wreaked havoc on Europeans and the indigenous peoples. Diseases and parasites were a regular part of life in West Africa, and those that survived were especially immune to these biological dangers. Interestingly, Kiple discusses the fact that sickle-cell anemia, while awful in its own right, actually helped the slaves fend off some illnesses. Another advantage that the West Africans had was that they were well-adapted to dealing with lack of food and malnutrition. Kiple uses the fact that the Africans were taller in the West Indies than their West African counterparts, to show that despite the fact that their diets were very poor in slave plantations, they were actually better than the diets that they would have had to settle for in Africa.  Therefore, the African American slaves were able to subsist on a level of food that would have severely weakened or even killed an individual of European descent. Lastly, the level of infant and child mortality in West Africa was (and is) exceptionally high. To make it past the age of five was a rarity. Thus, when all of these factors are combined, West African adults were already the evolutionary cream of the crop. Kiple suggests that the individuals that were picked to be sent over as slaves were of the biological elite. They were naturally strong and sturdy.

Kiple concludes that these biological factors greatly influenced the development of the institution of slavery in the West Indies, and that it unfortunately led to rampant racism, as the Europeans noticed that the Africans were different from them. The slaves’ high level of endurance also allowed slave owners to be negligent and brutal in the caretaking of their slaves because they did not have to be greatly concerned with keeping them well-fed and comfortable in order to keep them alive. Kiple’s insights are very interesting and shed a completely different light onto the institution of slavery. One can understand why this kind of study is considered problematic by some scholars; the suggestion that different races may actually be biologically different is a message that can be easily used by individuals looking for justifications for racist social structures and systems. However, humans spend so much time studying evolutionary forces that they often do not include themselves in the process. There is a sense that human beings have already become the best they can be and therefore, we are immune to ecological pressures. Kiple brings attention to the fact that human beings are, no matter how much they try to deny it, still just products of a much more powerful force, nature.

Feature Photo: View from the Bell Tower at the Manaca-Iznaga Sugar Plantation and Mill by henskechristine 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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