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The Collation

On racial suffocation and the early modern humanities

wide angle photograph of a populated suburban area. there are mountains in the background and there is a gray-brown haze hovering in the air above the buildings.

Toxic road dust swirls up from thousands of long-haul shipping trucks rumbling westward along Interstate 10 into San Bernardino County every day. Freight trucks bound from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beachtwo of the largest seaports on the planet that link American consumers to markets across the Pacific Rimarrive in cities like Fontana, Chino, and Ontario. Intermodal freight, containerization, and just-in-time supply chains enable the one-click same-day shipping economy we enjoy, and these trucks deliver tons of products to the hundreds of warehouses that dot the county. Some of these warehouses are only one or two blocks away from public schools. Children and young adults playing in basketball courts, walking on sidewalks, or jogging after class breathe in clouds of fine particulate matter, known among epidemiologists as PM2.5, referring to particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. Life in a “logistics city” like Fontana, whose majority population are Hispanic and Latino, exposes impoverished communities to atmospheric racism and inequality.

In the fall of 2021 I learned about diesel death zones, a concept developed by environmental justice activists, clinicians, and public health researchers, which refers to the pollution burden communities bear in California’s Inland Empire region due to air pollution. Breathing emissions from trucks on the move and idling on streets, and inhaling aerosolized dust vapor that drayage trucks disperse from roadways, leads to the accumulation of particulates in the lungs. Over time these accretions cause diseases like asthma, heart attacks, and lung cancer. Clusters of respiratory illnesses in the IE are not unlike well-known regions of ecological injustice such as Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Exposure to diesel fumes from trucks and the totality of the logistics sector forces communities of color to live with the permanent risk for illness and, ultimately, premature death.1

Why should early modern humanities scholars care? And how can we bring our expertise to bear on these issues? Teaching in the Inland Empire and writing about an eighteenth-century disease, ship fever, while conducting research as a virtual fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library led me to think about race, space, and place in the past and present. In an article I published based on my research as a Folger Institute fellow, I traced the origins of “Ship Fever” as an epistemic thing—a term Hans-Jörg Rheinberger uses to denote unstable categories of scientific knowledge that can be historicized as the antecedents of matters of factto a pivotal moment in British imperial history: the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756.2

Title page of John Zephaniah Holwell's 1758 publication about the Black Hole of Calcutta
John Zephaniah Holwell, A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen, and Others, who Were Suffocated in the Black-Hole in Fort-William, at Calcutta, in the Kingdom of Bengal, in the Night Succeeding the 20th Day of June, 1756, in a Letter to a Friend, (London: A. Millar, 1758). Image from ECCO.

Partha Chatterjee and others understand the Black Hole as a “founding myth” of the British Empire.3 As the story goes, on the night of 20 June, several British East India Company employees and soldiers, Armenian merchants, and multiethnic Indian Portuguese prisoners died after being imprisoned in the dungeons of Fort William, Calcutta (modern day Kolkata, India) during the Third Carnatic War.4 According to survivors, their deaths were the result of overcrowding, stagnant air, and confinement. In the aftermath, Britons blamed the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, for the “unequaled sufferings” of the prisoners.

John Zephaniah Holwell, a company surgeon and survivor of this episode, published the first account of the Black Hole in 1757. Holwell emphasized his claustrophobia from being tightly packed amongst the prisoners, the spread of “urinous volatile effluvia”, and the cries and panic brought about by “no circulation of fresh air sufficient to continue life, nor yet enough divested of its vivifying particles to put a speedy period to it.” Holwell’s story depicted Siraj-ud-daulah as an “oriental” tyrant and the British nation as morally and racially superior to South Asians. The Black Hole narrative became emblematic of the horrifying suspension of an Anglophone social order premised on civil humanity and replaced by “inhuman” Indian savagery.

Depiction of a monument
Depiction of a monument "In Memory of the Sufferers in the Black Hole Prison". From John Zephaniah Holwell’s India Tracts (London: Printed for T. Becket, 1774). Image from ECCO.

What caught my attention in this research is that in 1758 a naval reformer, John Blake—the first person to use the term “Ship Feverin print—connected what caused the deaths in Fort William to the disease caused by overcrowding and unventilated air on ships.

Very few physicians discussed “ship fever” aboard slavers before the Black Hole; the only ones I have identified were Richard Mead in 1749 and Stephen Hales in 1755.5 After 1756 there was, as far as I can tell, virtually no discussions of “ship fever” aboard slavers in printed materials such as books or journals. Yet, a significant number of medical writers did discuss ship fever as the disease appeared on naval vessels, prison transports, and ships carrying migrants from Europe to America in the second half of the eighteenth century. So, in my research I was essentially asking: why did medical authorities care about this disease as it pertained to White sufferers but not Black captives?

Erica Charters argues that during the Seven Years’ War, Britain became a caring fiscal-military state that directed major resources towards the health and welfare of its soldiers abroad.6 Ultimately, what I aimed to underline in my research is the virtue of considering care as a political and racialized emotion that can be detected in healthcare work and public health science. Eighteenth-century naval, prison, and hospital administrators clamored for the care of White sailors, soldiers, and prisoners who they believed suffered from being “crowded together”, yet did not raise alarms over the effects of confinement on Black captives in the slave trade.

Concern for breathing room, air quality, and healthy spaces is still racialized in the present day.

In 2022, James Sweet, the then President of the American Historical Association, asked “Is History History?” in a Perspectives on History column. There he lamented that historians now feel the pressure to study the past through the “prism of contemporary social justice issues” like racism. Ultimately, Sweet concludes that this drive to link the past to the present risks undermining the credibility of history as a discipline.

I disagree. Put simply, I think history reveals a great deal about who has been cared for as a deserving subject, and who has been left exposed to risk, danger, and death. Looking at the efforts to mitigate “Ship Fever” among White patients on overcrowded ships while Black captives died below the decks of slavers in the eighteenth century tells us something valuable: ideas about race, racism, and racist policies play a role in determining healthcare outcomes. And that’s the case today in the IE as Black and Brown communities try to make it to work, school, and through their everyday lives under clouds of smoke and exhaust.

wide angle photograph of a populated suburban area. there are mountains in the background and there is a gray-brown haze hovering in the air above the buildings.
“Fontana, California, Overview”, User JWut89LA, From Wikimedia Commons.
  1. Juan De Lara, ““This port is killing people”: Sustainability without justice in the neo-Keynesian green city.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108, no. 2 (2018): 538-548; Lara Shane Hughes, Jonathan O. Allen, P. Bhave, Micheal J. Kleeman, Glen R. Cass, D-Y. Liu, David P. Fergenson, Bradley D. Morrical, and Kimberly A. Prather. “Evolution of atmospheric particles along trajectories crossing the Los Angeles basin,” Environmental science & technology 34, no. 15 (2000): 3058-3068; Randall A. Bluffstone, and Brad Ouderkirk. “Warehouses, trucks, and PM2. 5: Human health and logistics industry growth in the eastern Inland Empire.” Contemporary Economic Policy 25, no. 1 (2007): 79-91.
  2. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube, (Stanford University Press, 1997).
  3. Partha Chatterjee, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Princeton University Press, 2012).
  4. Between 1744 and 1763 Britain, France, and the Mughal Empire fought for territorial control over the Carnatic region of peninsular South India. The conflict can be understood as what Vincent Brown terms a war within another war, as the fighting was one theater of the global Seven Years’ War. See Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard University Press, 2020)
  5. Samuel Sutton, An Historical Account of a New Method for Extracting the Foul Air Out of Ships, &c, with the Description and Draught of the Machines, by which it is Performed: in Two Letters to a Friend by Samuel Sutton, the Inventor (J. Brindley, 1749); Stephen Hales, “An account of the great benefit of ventilators in many instances, in preserving the health and lives of people, in slave and other transport ships,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 49 (1755): 332-339.
  6. Erica Charters, “The caring fiscal-military state during the Seven Years’ War, 1756–1763,” The Historical Journal 52, no. 4 (2009): 921-941.