Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Slave Medicine

From: nchealthandhealing.com

In antebellum North Carolina, ownership of slaves included the right to direct their treatment when they were sick. As they did with their own families, slaveholders usually tried to treat sick and injured slaves themselves before consulting a physician. In fact, doctors were called only for life-threatening cases. Then slaves were treated with the same medicines and therapies that whites relied on.

Health issues often brought slaves into conflict with their owners, since they held very different beliefs about the causes and treatment of illnesses. Enslaved African Americans drew upon their own healing traditions. Many distrusted the harsh therapies used by white physicians in the 1800s and concealed ailments from their owners. It was one way they could maintain a degree of control over their bodies.

When it came to health care, slave communities maintained a long tradition of self-reliance. They preferred to treat themselves or receive treatment from another slave, rather than accept the therapies of slaveholders and white physicians. So they cultivated herbs in their gardens, gathered plants in the wild and relied on the knowledge of friends and relatives. They had treatments for a wide variety of illnesses and injuries, including wounds inflicted by whippings.

With their years of experience in delivering and treating children, enslaved midwives and older women often had extensive knowledge about herbal and home remedies. Many became midwives to their mistresses and other white women as well—a valuable service for which the slave owner would be paid.

Healing traditions in slave communities were grounded in African thought. As in many cultures, sickness was attributed to spiritual and social as well as physical causes. Good health depended not only on balance within the body but also on harmonious relations with neighbors, ancestors and spirits.

Like their African ancestors, slaves generally believed that some illnesses were caused by conjure, evil spells placed by conjure doctors with special powers. Traditional wisdom held that only another conjure doctor could help. Although some slaveholders tried to suppress the superstition, conjure practices thrived among slave communities, often out of sight of whites.


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