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  • For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, medicine and power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848
  • Justin Roberts
For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, medicine and power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848 Niklas Thode Jensen . Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2012.

The vast majority of the scholarship on West Indian sugar slavery has focused on British and, to a lesser extent, French West Indian sugar plantations. Few scholars have the necessary language skills to explore sugar slavery in the Danish and Dutch West Indies. In For the Health of the Enslaved: Slaves, medicine and power in the Danish West Indies, 1803-1848, Niklas Thode Jensen offers us a rare opportunity to learn about aspects of sugar planting and its impact on the enslaved in St. Croix, the primary sugar island in the Danish West Indies. Yet, what Jensen's study ultimately proves is that there was little substantial difference between the Danish, British and French West Indies when it came to how sugar was grown, how labor was managed and the impact of sugar on enslaved bodies.

Jensen explores the specific causes of death and disease among sugar slaves after the Danish abolition of the slave trade. He relies on recent scientific studies and a "modern biomedical conceptual frame" (8) to try to determine exactly why sugar production was so deadly for enslaved workers. In doing so, he privileges a conventional Western medical viewpoint as a framework for explanation. This approach is both Eurocentric and whiggish, implying that more advanced European-derived medical traditions can better explain early modern death and disease. In essence, he continues to examine enslaved bodies through the colonizing gaze. To understand the health of the enslaved, Jensen is often forced to speculate to arrive at estimates of particulars such as the caloric expenditures of sugar workers or the amount of provisions that a field would yield. He draws on evidence from modern sugar workers or from what he calls "developing countries" to arrive at his estimates (168). One has to wonder about the applicability of such evidence to an enslaved sugar society nearly two hundred years ago. Sugar workers in the modern world may be working at a different pace and with different tools and varieties of cane. Developmental models rely on a stage-based and progressive theory of history that has long since been discarded by most historians. Jensen concludes his study of the health of enslaved sugar workers by arguing that "workload," as other scholars have suggested for British West Indian sugar plantations, was not the determinative factor in the high levels of mortality and morbidity on sugar plantations (259). Instead, Jensen says, it "was a larger complex of synergistic factors behind the living conditions of the enslaved on the sugar plantations that caused the morbidity and mortality" (250). For Jensen, such factors include housing, nutrition, food storage, parasites and water supply. He does acknowledge, however, that the work in early modern cane production was brutal and that "the energy forced from the enslaved during the working day was rising during this period" (135, punctuation altered).

Jensen systematically compares his findings about health care and slave mortality and morbidity in St. Croix to the British and French West Indies and he finds, for the most part, almost no difference. Jensen's most significant comparative observation is that "what made St. Croix different was the degree of government control of the health of the enslaved" (259). He also notes that with regard to government policies, Danish colonial administrators were less concerned with reducing the workload of the enslaved than advocates of the amelioration of slavery were in the British West Indies. Jensen closely examines how the Danish colonial administration tried to improve three key areas in plantation health care: the nutrition of the enslaved, the use of smallpox vaccinations among the enslaved and the training of midwives on plantations. He argues, not surprisingly, that the colonial administration's policies in these areas drew on Danish models and he suggests that "the reason for the stronger central control of the health services in the Danish West Indies was the health services in the mother country were under strong, centralized control...

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