From the Archive | Part three: Lizard talk

In this third of a four-part series, Peter Linebaugh considers the effect of disease on the working classes, from the uprising in Haiti to newly formed UK and US industrial cities.

Marxist historian Peter Linebaugh wrote Lizard Talk; Or, Ten Plagues and Another An Historical Reprise in Celebration of the Anniversary of Boston ACT UP February 26, 1989 to honour the Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). It was published by the Midnight Notes Collective and is republished here with permission.

7. Yellow fever and racism of the founding fathers

“Aedes mosquito study” in which “freshly grown, unfed mosquitoes in carefully prepared biting cages are applied to the forearms of volunteers for a period of 10 minutes.”
California Department of Corrections, Research and Review (c 1971).

That the 1790s was a decade of “revolution” is plain to all, for who can avoid the hoi-polloi of the bicentennials? We have the “miracle of Philadelphia” when the White Men of Means drew the shutters closed and shut themselves in to organise the 5/6’s Clause in the US Constitution. And we have plenty of the red-white-and-blue, the “Marseillaise”, Left-Right-and-Centre, Bastille storming, and all, over in France. But to the discerning mind what is remembered from that decade is the colossal warfare of the West Indies, slaves who defeated three European empires, abolished the plantation, and established an independent Haiti, on Christopher Columbus’s first port of call.

Indeed, the mixture of American, African and European peoples in the Caribbean in the 18th century can be compared to the formation of the intercontinental gene pool in the Mediterranean during antiquity. Only in the Caribbean what had taken several centuries, if not half a millennium, in the Mediterranean, was accomplished in a duration of a few years, reaching a demographic and revolutionary climax in the 1790s. And thus from an epidemiological standpoint, as well as a political one, Haiti came to occupy a position analogous to that of ancient Greece and Rome.

1805: The Mode of Exterminating the Black Army as Practised by the French – a print from An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti by Marcus Rainsford (1805) – depicts a scene from the Haitian Revolution, which saw Haiti gain its independence from France in 1804. (Photograph by Art Media/ Print Collector/ Getty Images)

Yet the differences were many. The main one now was the centrality of the African experience. The pandemics of the late 18th century put the slave experience at the forefront. Like the epidemics of antiquity they were thought by Europeans to have originated in Africa, but unlike them, this European interpretation was infected by racism root and branch. In opposition, pan-Africanism developed, the experience of liberation wars, and as we read in Aime Cesaire, the philosophy of negritude: “At the end of the wee hours burgeoning with frail coves, the hungry Antilles, the Antilles pitted with smallpox, the Antilles dynamited by alcohol, stranded in the mud of this bay, in the dust of this town sinisterly stranded.”

Another difference: the 1790s did not have its Thuc’. Instead, the parson, Thomas Malthus, wrote his pious lines, lines dripping with mathematical genocide, from the orderly perspective of his flower garden. Food production increases arithmetically, people reproduce geometrically, you see: this is the postulate of his “reason”, and therefore people have to be killed. QED. War, plague and famine were the “laws of nature”, and he calibrated them exactly to the needs of the plantocrats with their whip crackings and to the factory owners with their 18-hour days.

His perspective was a) worldwide and b) it substituted Nature for Jahweh. And it was all for our own good. Of course. Killing with kindness. It is a perspective that still reigns sovereign in the pages of the official press. Thus, Stephen Jay Gould taking the metaphysical distance of the biologist in discussing the Aids pandemic, refers to “nature” 13 times in a single column of newsprint! Thus it is at the very moment when nature becomes a realm subsumed under society that the social rulers proclaim its “laws” as determinants over society.

Mange kou bef [Eat like an ox],” said Dr Jean William Pape in Port-au-Prince. He said it over and over again as each wasting patient left the Aids clinic. It does not take the brilliance of modern science with its train of ambitious virologists, with its government bankrolls or its high-tech labs to understand the proposition, nor the political suggestion implied by such therapy.

Philadelphia was the new capital of the United States, and try as it might to disguise the slave basis of the “democracy”, chickens came home to roost. For it was not long after the ship Sans Culottes arrived in July 1793 bringing with it the white, black and mulatto refugees from the slave rebellions of the West Indies that the Founding Fathers of the “new nation” decided to skip town.

They were frightened, for the ship also brought with it a new mosquito, aedes aegypti, carrying the yellow fever virus. But they did not know this. “The fever of Bollam” or “the fever of Barbadoes”, as it was variously called, seemed to be the result of African or Caribbean revolution. Through the summer and fall of 1793 the population of Philadelphia was decimated. Watches and clocks stopped. Poverty and starvation were rampant. Children were abandoned. The Federal gentry fled.

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The official response to the epidemic, led by Dr Benjamin Rush, gave an atmospheric etiology to the disease. It was something in the air. Consequently, smoking tobacco and explosions of gunpowder were recommended as effective preventatives. Unofficially, the bourgeoisie of the town blamed the freed slaves of the Caribbean and they let loose race riots against the Philadelphia Afro-American population as the best way of ending the epidemic.

Yet, the working class of Philadelphia took the opportunity to settle some scores. Half the servants deserted their masters. Prisoners were freed from the jail. Nurses were accused of robbery. Others demanded a pay raise to $3 a day. Within the epidemic, as we have seen so often, the people who in fact suffered most from it, took it as an opportunity to deal with the macroparasites. It was a moment of potential. However, let us not accept the bourgeois fears of the working class during the epidemic, according to whom the working-class rage in a terrible, apocalyptic, thieving moment of rebellious redemption. At least not entirely. It is a one-sided, despairing view.

It was from the ranks of the suffering that leadership emerged. Richard Allen, born a slave, founded the Free African Society in Philadelphia in 1787 and later the first Methodist Church for Afro-Americans. Absalom Jones, also a slave, founded the first Episcopal Church for Afro-Americans in mainland America. Together they coped with the epidemic by organising treatment and comfort. They sat with the afflicted. They comforted the dying. They wiped the brow of the feverish. They acquired the hearses. They built the coffins. They dug the graves. Working without wages or reward they accomplished the duties of humanity while the well-to-do fled in dread and shame. The epidemic became an event for collective self-recognition and the construction of a collective historical identity.

8. Gothic disguises of industrialisation

“With cholera or with typhoid we will use a dose of organisms that will produce disease in 25 or 30% of the control [unvaccinated] population.” Dr Richard Hornick, University of Maryland Maryland House of Correction, Study of Cholera and Ty­phoid Fever (1971).

The literature of epidemics is a literature of escape because literary artists are paid by a ruling class whose response, whenever possible, is to flee danger. We take Edgar Allan Poe as an example. He wrote The Masque of the Red Death in 1842. The year is important and in a minute we’ll return to it.

The story goes like this. Prince Prospero believed he could seal himself off from the infections of a fatal pestilence (“the Red Death”) by gathering a thousand courtiers behind the lofty walls of a gothic abbey. “The external world would take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.” The story is full of atmospherics. All the appliances of voluptuous pleasure were arranged in seven differently coloured rooms for a long, hermetic life of bizarre, decadent Beauty. Only the hourly chimes of the ebony clock silenced the musicians and disturbed the evolutions of the dancers. It was an assembly of phantasms. The macabre, sensuous scene is interrupted by a mummer, the Red Death, who enters the apartments and murders Prospero. “He had come like a thief in the night,” writes Poe quoting of Revelation.

Is Poe writing about a pestilence? If so, why is it a red pestilence unless he is also writing about the working-class revolution of the time? And why does he associate the pestilence with the classic statement of European millenarianism?

Some real history may help us. “Cholera was the classic epidemic disease of the 19th century,” just as yellow fever and small pox had been of the previous two, writes Charles Rosenberg in The Cholera Years (1962). The pandemic that shook Poe’s generation was the cholera that spread from the east through Europe and then to American cities between 1831 and 1832.

The cholera originated in Bengal (1817) where its spread was assisted by the pattern of British commerce and military movement. Indeed, the lizard talk of the Indian villagers recognised that the cosmic imbalance suggested­ by the epidemic was the result of deities (Sitala, Mariyamma, Ola Bibi) angered by the disturbances of British imperialism. A ritual exchange of food (chickens, chapattis) between villages designed to propitiate the capricious displeasure of these female deities established a network of communication that was opaque to British eyes. The oppressed begin to define “health” in its own terms.

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Such lines of communication were an essential part to the First War of Indian Independence, or the Great Mutiny of 1857. So, if Indian “superstition” was largely ineffectual against the water-borne virus of the cholera, the same “folklore” helped to form the infrastructure against the British macroparasites who in any case carried the virus back to European and North American cities.

Poe in 1831 was dismissed from West Point (cutting classes, refusing to attend church, disobeying orders) and went to live in Baltimore where his circumstances of life were penurious, and he would have been alive to the rumours and fears of cholera which then, as at any time in modem history, were designed to repress sexuality, to encourage racism and to establish a pathology of the class relation (workers are sick, rulers are healthy).

The US press considered, as indeed did medical opinion, that cholera was the result of an intemperate and dissolute life. The newspapers reported that of 1 400 “lewd women in Paris” 1 300 had died of cholera. It was considered the “poor man’s plague”, by some with a note of pity, and by others with a note of satisfaction – the purpose of cholera was “to drain off the filth and scum which contaminate and defile human society.” In Baltimore, specifically it was reported that the majority of cholera victims were the “most worthless” sort. To suffer from cholera was “socially inexcusable”.

“The Irish and Negroes seemed its foreordained victims” and in many cities the case rate was double for Afro-Americans. Physicians experimented upon the slaves of the South and the slum-dwellers of the North. Racial medicine was created in the first half of this century. Those suffering from cholera and the communities to which they belonged were not merely passive victims. They had their active notions of justice and social therapeutics, becoming thieves in the night. New York suffered an epidemic of B and Es. Physicians and city officials were attacked and brutally beaten.

Circa 1827: The Five Points by an unknown artist depicts the working-class area of Manhattan in New York City, in the United States. (Photograph by Heritage Art/ Heritage Images/ Getty Images)

The NY Evening Post of 23 July 1832 published an interesting account of the infamous Five Points area of Manhattan: “The Five Points … are inhabited by a race of beings of all colours, ages, sexes and nations, though generally of but one condition, and that … almost of the violent brute. With such a crew, inhabiting the most populous and central portion of the city, when may we be considered secure from pestilence. Be the air pure from Heaven, their breath could contaminate it, and infect it with disease.” The very breath of the working class was deadly!

The working class was most dangerous precisely where it was least divided by gender, race or age. Furthermore the particular working class of Five Points was strategically vital to international trade since it provided the labour pool for the Hudson River docks, wharfs and quays. It was here that the international circulation of value reached one of its most sensitive and dense concentrations. Hence, selective genocide was contemplated and effected under the guise of “natural law”.

The purposes of this were not lost upon the working class. At the time of the 1831 cholera epidemic “the belief spread across Europe that the rich, under the influence of Malthusian ideas, were deliberately spreading the disease to reduce the population”, as Norman Longmate has written (King Cholera: The Biography of a Disease, 1966, p 4).

The 1830s were also characterised by the mechanisation of production in factories. In turn, these required a concentration of men, women and children. Huge numbers of people were removed to the crammed quarters, so squalid, so fetid, that is called “urbanisation” in Manchester, Liverpool, New York and Boston. These were “the Hungry Forties”. In addition to the trade unions and the mass political parties that were formed, another social dynamics was established: on the one hand the quarantine of urban communities and their planned isolation (called “slums”), and on the other hand the dangerous cultures of alcohol, thievery and desperation.

25 September 1852: A Court for King Cholera, a cartoon from Punch magazine, shows the crowded, unsanitary conditions in London slums. Cholera first appeared in Britain in 1831. John Snow proved its relationship with contaminated water during the 1854 epidemic, paving the way for improved public health. (Photograph by Ann Ronan Pictures/ Print Collector/ Getty Images)

Charles Marks, the young revolutionary, wrote in 1844 that “the cheat, thief, swindler, beggar, and unemployed; the starving, wretched and criminal working man,­ these are figures who do not exist for political economy but only for other eyes, those of the doctor, the judge, the grave digger, and bumbailiff, &c, such figures are specters outside its domain. For it, therefore, the worker’s needs are but the one need – to maintain him while he is working in so far as may be necessary to prevent the race of labourers from dying out.” It was necessary to produce a new kind of worker, “as a mentally and physically dehumanised being”.

The same year Poe published The Masque of the Red Death, in England, the Poor Law Commissioner, Edwin Chadwick, published the blueprint of the “public health” movement, The Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. It was designed to regulate and preserve the urban proletariat for it, like the plantation slaves, needed to be carefully reproduced. It suggested in its attention to the municipal water supply (underground sewage disposal, introduction of the water closet) a “hydraulics” of urban class relations, and it advanced the movement, begun by Bentham, for the incarceration of the ill, the sick and the diseased; what Michel Foucault would call the establishment of “the clinical gaze”.

As for the structure of the industrial cities, the developments of the 1830s and 1840s introduced what we may name after their most famous personifications, the “Holmes-Watson Style”. Sherlock Holmes, the ace detective with his deductive method, and Dr Watson, the complacent physician with his conventional pieties, summarise the twin organisation against the urban proletariat of the 19th century – police and sanitation – for those decades saw not only the hydraulic control of the working class via the “public health movement” but also the establishment of the armed-cop-on-the-beat in the new police forces arrayed against the industrial proletariat. Together they destroy homeopathic medicine (whose base had been the family farm), and they adopt urban “reform” to manage disease which thus ceases to be endemic and becomes what Evan Stark has called “endopolic”, or intrinsic to the city.

By the end of the century capital was beginning to plan the lifecycle of the urban masses by immigration, social, educational and urban policy, and in so doing this, even as it congratulated itself on its successes,it realised that its victories over diseases limited its macroparasitical powers. Hitler wrote, “To me the giant city seemed the embodiment of racial desecration.” Mark Twain expressed the result: ‘’It has been discovered that the majority of the most useful and fatal diseases are caused by microbes of various breeds; very well, they have learned how to render the efforts of these microbes innocuous. As a result, yellow fever, black plague, cholera, diphtheria, and nearly every valuable distemper we had are become but entertainments for the idle hour, and are of no more value to the state than is the stomach ache.”

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