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Medical Encounters

Medical Encounters: Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Medical Encounters
    Book Description:

    The conquest and colonization of the Americas resulted in all kinds of exchanges, including the transmission of diseases and the sharing of medicines to treat them. In this book, Kelly Wisecup examines how European settlers, Native Americans, and New World Africans communicated medical knowledge in early America, and how the colonists represented what they learned in their literatures. Against the prevailing view that colonial texts provide insight only into their writers’ perspectives, Wisecup demonstrates that Europeans, Natives, and Africans held certain medical ideas in common, including a conception of disease as both a spiritual and a physical entity, and a belief in the power of special rituals or prayers to restore health. As a consequence, medical knowledge and practices operated as a shared form of communication on which everyone drew in order to adapt to a world of devastating new maladies and unfamiliar cures. By signaling one’s relation to supernatural forces, to the natural world, and to other people, medicine became an effective means of communicating a variety of messages about power and identity as well as bodies and minds. Native Americans in Virginia and New England, for example, responded to the nearly simultaneous arrival of mysterious epidemics and peoples by incorporating colonists into explanations of disease, while British American colonists emphasized to their audiences back home the value of medical knowledge drawn from crosscultural encounters in the New World.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-288-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-36)

    In 1761, Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian and a Presbyterian minister, wrote an “Account of the Montauk Indians, on Long Island” in which he described several aspects of Montaukett culture. Occom had lived at Montauk since 1749, during which time he founded a school for Montaukett students, married and established a family with Mary Fowler (Montaukett), and studied herbal medicine with a Montaukett man named Ocus. Occom adopted the form of an ethnographic account: a report, usually written by European travelers, that included information regarding political, domestic, religious, and medical practices belonging to exotic cultures. He employed this perspective, however,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Epidemic, Encounter, and Colonial Promotion in Virginia
    (pp. 37-65)

    In 1585, sir Walter Ralegh sent an expedition to the “new found land of Virginia” with Queen Elizabeth’s nominal support and the use of her pinnace.¹ The colony of several hundred men was England’s first attempt to establish a permanent settlement in the Americas, although Ralegh also directed the men to search for gold and a northwest passage that would provide a western route to East Indian ports. After a stop in the West Indies, where some of the men picked up sugar cane and plantains they hoped to cultivate in Virginia, the colonists landed in present-day North Carolina, or,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Healing, Medical Authority, and Moral Degeneration in New England
    (pp. 66-96)

    Illnesses such as the one Harriot described in hisBriefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginiacontinued to devastate Native peoples throughout the Americas. In the seventeenth century, some tribes lost up to 95 percent of their members as a result of epidemics that swept the coast of New England. Southern New England was especially hard hit by unfamiliar illnesses between 1616 and 1619, and English explorers reported that New England Algonquians said that the “mortality” was “the greatest that had ever hapned in the memory of man, or been taken notice of by tradition.”¹ Thomas...

  7. CHAPTER 3 African Testimony, Dangerous Communications, and Colonial Medical Knowledge in the 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy
    (pp. 97-126)

    In 1721, reverend Ebenezer Parkman, of Westborough, Massachusetts, received “two instance [letters] from friends who had just been innoculated [sic] for smallpox, [and] immediately burnt them both for fear of catching the disease from them.”¹ The letters arrived during a smallpox epidemic that struck Boston after several enslaved Africans on board a ship from the West Indies contracted the disease in June 1721. Although city officials quarantined the Africans who first exhibited symptoms, smallpox spread throughout Boston, becoming an epidemic that would kill over eight hundred citizens before ending a year later. Parkman’s decision to burn the letters indicated not...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Obeah, Slave Revolt, and Plantation Medicine in the British West Indies
    (pp. 127-160)

    Just as africans throughout North America continued to use knowledge of inoculation to maintain the health of their communities, so enslaved Africans in the British West Indies also employed their medical knowledge to strengthen communal bonds. In several locations, they drew on obeah—a “medicinal complex” of interconnected herbal and spiritual practices—to maintain the health of slaves on plantations as well as to signal their relationship to other New World Africans and to colonists throughout the Americas.¹ Africans in the Caribbean often employed these medical practices in secret, to accomplish purposes that were perceived as beneficial by the participants....

  9. CHAPTER 5 Drunkenness, Syphilis, and History in Samson Occom’s Medical Writing
    (pp. 161-196)

    Late in 1765, Mohegan Samson Occom boarded a ship in Boston and traveled to London with Nathaniel Whitaker, who, like Occom, was a Presbyterian minister. For the next two and a half years, Occom toured Great Britain, raising funds for his mentor Eleazar Wheelock’s mission school for Native children. In the course of his transatlantic travels, Occom met minister George Whitfield and King George II, was inoculated against smallpox, and preached throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. As he embarked on his return voyage to America in the spring of 1768, a second expedition was preparing to set sail, albeit in...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 197-206)

    Texture—the narrative fragmentation and formal inconsistencies that signal colonists’ transcriptions of Native and African knowledge and the influence of that knowledge on colonial writing—is a key feature of colonial American literatures. Furthermore, a focus on texture and the cross-cultural communications it signals presents an opportunity to reconceptualize early American literary study: its definition, its materials, and its methods. Following William Spengemann, scholars have pointed out that the colonial Americas lacked any uniquely national literature because colonists’ language and nationality were defined by their Old World origins. Early American literatures were thus traditionally viewed as an inferior version of...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 207-254)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 255-258)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-262)