J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 25, 2020

“First instructed in it, by a Guramantee-Servant”

As described yesterday, the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather tried to convert Onesimus, an enslaved young man he received in 1706, to his form of Christianity. But the man was more interested in marrying, having children, and earning his own money.

On 31 July 1716, the minister was reaching the end of his patience. He wrote in his diary:
My Servant Onesimus, proves wicked, and grows useless, Froward, Immorigerous. My Disposing of him, and my Supplying of my Family with a better Servant in his Room, requires much Caution, much Prayer, much Humiliation before the Lord. Repenting of what may have offended Him, in, the Case of my Servants, I would wait on Him, for his Mercy.
“Froward” meant “contrary.” “Immorigerous” meant “rude.” As for “Disposing of him,” the minister hadn’t yet made up his mind about what to do.

Remarkably, that same month Mather wrote to a correspondent in the Royal Society of London, describing Onesimus’s intelligence and knowledge of the seemingly radical practice of smallpox inoculation. That 12 July 1716 letter said:
Enquiring of my Negro-man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow, Whether he ever had ye Small-Pox; he answered, both, Yes, and No; and then told me, that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever praeserve him from it; adding, That it was often used among ye Guramantese, & whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of ye Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and shew’d me in his Arm ye Scar, which it had left upon him…
In 1713 and 1716 the Royal Society published two accounts of smallpox inoculation from European physicians who had traveled and worked in Turkey. Soon afterward, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her diplomat husband returned from Constantinople, and in London she also talked up this way of obtaining immunity from the virus.

In 1721, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston. Mather allied with a local physician named Zabdiel Boylston to try using inoculation locally. Since that treatment meant giving people the disease, though hopefully a mild case, it prompted a lot of opposition from people who thought the point of medicine was to produce fewer sick people, not more. Opponents included the European-educated Dr. William Douglass and the printer of the newspaper Douglass helped to fund, James Franklin.

Boylston published a pamphlet drawing on the Royal Society publications and adding more arguments, some from Mather. The minister cited what he had learned from Africans. Of course, opponents of inoculation used that source to ridicule the idea.

The argument became so heated that someone threw an incendiary bomb at Mather’s house. But eventually Boylston was able to inoculate enough people to make a scientific case that the new treatment saved lives. It became a standard regimen for the rest of the century, though communities still worried about careless doctors not keeping their infectious patients isolated from the public.

Mather wrote about the controversy in his 1724 manuscript “The Angel of Bethesda,” which echoed that earlier pamphlet in how he described learning about inoculation:
There has been a Wonderful Practice lately used in Several Parts of the World, which indeed is not yett become common in o’r Nation.

I was first instructed in it, by a Guramantee-Servant of my own, long before I knew, that any Europaeans or Asiaticks had the least Acquaintance with it; and some years before I was enriched with the Communications of the learned Foreigners, whose Accounts I found agreeing with what I received of my Servant, when he shewed me the Scar of the Wound made for the Operation; and said, That no Person ever died of the Small-pox in their Countrey that had the Courage to use it.

I have since mett with a considerable Number of these Africans, who all agree in One Story; That in their Countrey grandy-many dy of the Small-Pox: But now they learn This Way: People take Juice of Small-Pox, and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop; then by’nd by a little Sicky, Sicky: then very few little things like Small-Pox, and no body dy of it; and no body have Small-Pox any more. Thus in Africa, where the Poor Creatures dy of the Small-Pox like Rotten Sheep, a Merciful GOD has taught them an Infallible Praeservative. Tis a common Practice, and is attended with a Constant Success.
This passage has been analyzed for Mather’s presentation of an African dialect and for the way he portrayed Africans as backward while also drawing on their medical knowledge.

Indeed, the whole 1720s argument over smallpox inoculation in Boston has attracted a lot of scholarship, and I haven’t tried to recount it all here. Among the most recent studies are Stephen Coss’s The Fever of 1721, Amalie M. Kass’s “Boston's Historic Smallpox Epidemic” in the Massachusetts Historical Review, and Margot Minardi’s “The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-1722” in the William and Mary Quarterly.

By the time that controversy raged, the Rev. Cotton Mather had already disposed of his frustrating servant, and source of medical knowledge, Onesimus.

TOMORROW: What happened to Onesimus?

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