Scott Graber

The galleries don’t often tell the whole story 


This Friday morning, I’m walking through the darkened galleries of Charleston’s Museum on Meeting Street. 

Susan and I have driven up Highway 17, rented a room at the Mills House, in order to look and learn about rice cultivation. In particular the “empire” involving 227 plantations that once produced 11 million pounds of rice each and every year. 

The story presented by the museum does not sidestep the slaves who worked in the heat and the knee-deep mud and muck. It makes it clear that this was hard work that came with casualties. It also doesn’t hide the silver, porcelain or the huge, high-ceilinged houses that were made possible by this coast-hugging enterprise that would eventually account for 90 percent of the rice grown in the United States. 

But as I walked through the galleries it seemed to me that something was missing — something that arrived in 1699 and stuck around for 200 years. It seemed to me that there was another character in this story that wasn’t being mentioned to those of us wandering in the semi-darkness. Actually there were two missing actors—yellow fever and malaria. 

The initial outbreak of yellow fever (in the New World) happened in Barbados in 1647. Yellow Jack was the unknown, uninvited guest aboard the ships bringing slaves from Africa to the sugar plantations on Barbados. Richard Ligon, who arrived just as the epidemic was hitting it’s full, death-dealing stride wrote, “the living were hardly able to bury the dead.” 

From Barbados the fever went to the Yucatan Peninsula killing the Mayan Indians as well as their Spanish conquistadors. Then to Cuba, Jamaica and, finally in 1699, the virus made landfall in Charleston, S.C. The enabler — or “vector” — was a mosquito called Aedes Aegypti. 

For the next 200 years, yellow fever would be a reliable, ever present killing machine striking anywhere there was a warm, humid climate. The last recorded epidemic in South Carolina — in 1878 — was here in Beaufort. 

Yellow fever had a companion, malaria, that came along with the optimistic colonists who arrived to Jamestown, Va., in 1607. The Anopheles mosquito was unable to make the long ocean journey like the Aegypti (yellow fever) mosquito, but the more virulent falciparum strain came inside the slaves themselves. 

Soon enough there was a saying, “They who want to die quickly, go to Carolina” 

“The colony was increasingly populated by servants and enslaved persons who had no choice. The large scale importation of slaves from the 1680s ensured the introduction of falciparum malaria. 

Charleston itself was a notorious focus of the disease, “the great charnel house of the country. In the swamps turned over to the cultivation of rice, which quickly became the staple export of the Carolina economy, malaria was now a menace unparalleled anywhere in North America.” 

So writes Kyle Harper in his book, “Plagues Upon the Earth.” 

Although malaria was less deadly than yellow fever, it made people sick for long periods of time and ultimately led to an early death. In1850, Yale College did a survey of its graduates and found those from Connecticut lived to be 64; and those from South Carolina to 49. 

In spite of the fact that a large percentage of European immigrants died within three years of arrival in Charleston, colonists continued to come to Charleston’s “charnel house.” They came, and many died, but those who somehow survived made fortunes growing rice (and later cotton) that were made flesh in the elegant, double-porched houses built throughout the hot, humid, pastel-painted City. 

In 1870, Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor, theorized that the mosquito was the “vector” for the spread of yellow fever. His theory was endorsed by young Army surgeon named Walter Reed. 

It was, however, the arrival of a yellow fever vaccine in 1937; and then the discovery DDT in1939; that put the kibosh on yellow fever in the American south. Malaria, persists, but it is no longer a significant disease in South Carolina. 

It is interesting to ponder the impact of yellow fever, and malaria, and the fact that these viruses were native to Africa and came with the slaves — a kind of instant, biblical punishment for those merchants, captains and slave-owners. 

The slavers and the rice growers didn’t know about viruses or mosquitoes at the time — they thought the air itself was bad. But this microbiology and these misconceptions are not explained in these galleries. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com. 

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