The Military Hospital of Fort-de-France #3/3 Enslaveds to Serve the Sick (b)

Tanlista, photographie en noir et blanc représentant sur 3 rangées des infirmiers et infirmières noires posant contre un mur, premier rang assis au sol, le second sur un banc, le dernier debout. Ils portent un uniformes blancs, robes pour les femmes, parfois surmonté d'un tablier sombre

 Reading time: Around 10 minutes.
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A few months ago, I worked for the setting up of an online database with information contained in notarial deeds from the 18th century in Martinique. Among the acts, the one on the annotation of the goods of the Fort-Royal hospital (now Fort-de-France) of 1793 surprised me, as there were 82 slaves working in the structure; as many as on a small sugar plantation! I was intrigued and curious to know what enslaved men and women were doing in such an establishment. In the first episode, I mentioned the project and construction of the military hospital of Fort-de-France; in the second, I was interested in the daily life of the men and women, enslaved, serving the sick at the end of the 18th century on this site. Today, in this last episode, I speak to you in particular about the apothecaries, surgeons’ assistants and nurses who contributed to the care of the sick at the Fort-Royal hospital.

Enslaved Apothecaries, Surgeon Assistants and Nurses

In the act of annotation of the goods of the hospital of the town of Fort de La République of March 25, 1793, what surprised me the most were the people directly involved in the care of the hospital’s patients despite their status as slaves. If this surprised me, it was first of all because access to these activities, where care was administered and remedies distributed, was theoretically inaccessible to enslaved and free people of color. Indeed, in 1764, a king’s ordinance forbade:

« negroes and all people of colour, free or slaves, to practice medicine or surgery, or to treat the sick, under any pretext whatsoever, subject to a fine of 500 pounds for each contravention of this article, and to corporal punishment as required in each case.
aux nègres et à tous gens de couleur, libres ou esclaves, d’exercer la médecine ou la chirurgie, ni de faire aucun traitement de malades, sous quelque prétexte que ce soit, à peine de 500 liv. d’amende pour chaque contravention au présent article, et de punition corporelle suivant l’exigence des cas.]

In 1769, a decision of the Sovereign Council once again prohibited the use of slaves or free people of colour for the practice of these professions and required that:

« when they [surgeons, apothecaries and druggists] use slaves or other people of colour to bring drugs to the sick, they must stick labels on the vials or packets, failing which, in the event of a contravention, they will be declared deprived of the right to practise their profession. »
[lorsqu’ils [chirurgiens, apothicaires et droguistes] se serviront d’esclaves ou autres gens de couleur pour porter les drogues aux malades, d’en coller les étiquettes sur les fioles ou paquets, sous peine, en cas de contravention, d’être déclarés déchus du droit d’exercer leur profession]

In 1783, an order of the governor general and the intendant reiterated the prohibition.

« No Negro, nor any other free people of colour, nor slaves, may practise medicine or surgery, nor make any preparation of remedies, nor treat the sick in the city or in the country, from one house or plantation to another, under any pretext whatsoever.
[Aucun nègre, ni tous autres gens de couleur libres, ni esclaves, ne pourront exercer la médecine ou la chirurgie, ni faire aucune préparation de remèdes, ni traitement de malades à la ville ou à la campagne, d’une maison ou d’une habitation à l’autre, sous quelque prétexte que ce soit]

These measures were motivated by the deep-seated fear enslaved ou free people of color might poison white people. As a result, there was usually little more than a enslaved midwife or hospice worker on the larger plantation. Enslaved people such as Balthazar, who « treated negroes for snake bites » [traite les nègres de piqûre de serpent« ], were sometimes reported, but officially their knowledge was used to help and care for other enslaved people.

However, although theoretically forbidden, the 1772 contract shows that the hospital enslaved people could be brought to do treatment. In point 18, it is written that:

« religious surgeons may be assisted in operations and bandages by trained negroes, but these negroes may not bleed the sick, nor make any bandages without the presence of a religious or surgeon ».
[les religieux-chirurgiens pourront se faire aider dans les opérations & pansements, par des nègres instruits ; mais ces nègres ne pourront saigner les malades, ni faire aucuns pansements sans la présence d’un religieux ou chirurgien« .]

Of course the enslaved people participated under supervision; nevertheless, not only did they give care, but they had to have some semblance of training to do it properly! Without having the unusual destiny of a James Derham, the slaves providing paramedical services at the Fort-Royal hospital still occupied an unusual position in the colonial and slave-owning society of the 18th century.

There are obviously no photographs for the 18th century and the iconography concerning the tasks of enslaved people focuses on more customary situations in the colonial world, so I have selected for this post pictures from the end of the 19th century, taken from the French colonial world, which I believe can also illustrate the subject.

Nurses at Arivonimamo Hospital, 1894-1911, Arivonimamo (Madagascar)

Nursing staff at the Fort-Royal Hospital

The 1772 contract details the minimum religious staff that was to compose the hospital:

« There shall be a Religious Nurse General well experienced in the treatment & government of the sick, two Religious Surgeons & an Apothecary; they shall have under them other Religious or Surgeons, Apothecaries, & other employees able to assist them in their duties with the sick; but the number of Religious or Surgical Assistants shall not be required to exceed one for every fifty ordinary sick, & one for every twenty wounded. »
[Il y aura un religieux-infirmier général bien expérimenté au traitement & gouvernement des malades, deux Religieux – chirurgiens & un Apothicaire ; ils auront sous eu d’autres religieux ou chirurgiens, apothicaires, & autres employés capables de les aider dans leurs fonctions auprès des malades ; mais le nombre des religieux ou aides-chirurgiens ne pourra être exigé au-delà d’un pour cinquante malades ordinaires, & un pour vingt blessés.]

The contract adds that « one or more nursing servants will be on duty in each ward both night and day, and a clergyman or clerical assistant assigned by them will see to it that the servants do their duty to the sick. »
[sera tenu dans chaque salle un ou plusieurs domestiques infirmiers de garde tant de nuit que de jour et un religieux ou employé commis par eux, veillera à ce que les domestiques soient à leur devoir auprès des malades.]

The market of 1772 also recommended that people attacked by venereal disease should be « treated in a single place (…) separated from the other sick people, the place which will be chosen will be healthy, in good air; & if it is not enclosed by walls there will be a guard sufficient to prevent them from going out & to contain them: they will moreover be treated by Keyser’s Pills« .
[traité dans un seul lieu (…) séparés des autres malades, le lieu qui sera choisi, sera sain, en bon air ; & s’il n’est clos de murailles il y aura une garde suffisante pour les empêcher de sortir & les contenir : ils seront au surplus traités par les dragées de Keyser.]

Perhaps the slave nurses of Fort-Royal also ministered to his patients? In any case, it was in this context of under-employment that intervened the 3 enslaved apothecaries, the 3 assistant surgeons, the 7 nurses as well as the servant-nurse woman, the nurse’s domestic man and the pharmacy domestic man.

Patient care at the Fort-Royal Hospital

What were the tasks of the slaves? The Ancien Régime dictionary explains that « minor surgery consisted of incising abscesses, placing cauteries and suction cups, reducing fractures, bandaging, extracting teeth and, of course, bleeding » but it also sometimes involved amputations or trepanations, and other more technical operations for the more experienced surgeons. Vital, Silvestre and Joseph, the three assistant surgeons, had to assist the religious surgeons and surely perform some of the surgical procedures themselves.

Apart from these surgical acts, medicine consisted of diets, purgations, vomiting, the making of bandages and the administration of herbal teas and potions. Jean-François, Petit Laurent, Augustin, Veuf, Mausiste, Gaspart, Maximain, all seven nurses, therefore provided daily care, as did Douadu, the only woman presented as a servant-nurse. Guymy, the nurse’s domestic man, may have helped them all or looked after the sick, as recommended by the 1772 contract. For his part, Jean François was specially assigned to the officers and therefore worked alongside Tonton, the officers’ official servant.

Tanlistwa, Théotime Bray, surveillant du bagne de Nouvelle-Calédonie (1887-1903), Presqu'île Ducos. Hôpital. Vue intérieure d'une salle de malades, [1886-1904], Office colonial
Théotime Bray, prison warden of Nouvelle-Calédonie (1887-1903), Presqu’île Ducos. Hôpital. Interior view of a sick room, [1886-1904], Office colonial

Twice a day, at seven o’clock, at the time of the first meal, and in the evening at four o’clock, before dinner, the general nurse, the religious surgeons in chief and the apothecary, as well as a doctor, were required to visit the « febritic patients » [malades fébricitans »], i.e., those suffering from fever, to assess their condition and give the prescribed remedies. Then, it was necessary to make « bandages for the wounded ». The state of administration of the Fort Royal Hospital in 1773 shows that one out of every 25 patients taken in would die; therefore, the dead had to be buried in the hospital cemetery as well. In addition to injuries (caused by everyday accidents or during war campaigns), there were recurring diseases and epidemics were not uncommon: yellow fever (Siam disease  in old French), syphilis (or great pox, « grande vérole » in old French), smallpox (variola, « petite vérole » in old French), chicken pox (varicella or « vérette » in old French), dysentery… Scurvy (or sailor’s disease) also took its toll on crews during long voyages.

The apothecary or « master in the art of pharmacy » was an indispensable assistant to surgeons and nurses, for the preparation of remedies. Zephir, Baptiste, and Joseph, all three apothecaries, and Beaudy, the servant employed at the pharmacy, were not too much for the daily preparation of all the herbal teas, potions and other remedies to be administered to the hospital patients. The exploitation of slaves by apothecaries was neither new nor unknown in Europe, an account of an article mentions the phenomenon in the 14th-15th centuries in Genoa, Catalonia, Sicily, Malta (but not in Provence), although it only concerned a minority. Nevertheless, the setting is totally different.

The state of the quantities of drugs … consumed before the inventory … and the minutes of 1763 which I mentioned in the first episode show the diversity of the substances handled by the slaves in the hospital.  Among them, cinchona was used against malarial fevers, myrrh was used, for example, to disinfect wounds. I do not have the skills to study the list of products used, but it might be interesting to compare these products with those used in other hospitals in the kingdom to see if there were any notable differences, to see if some of the plants used were grown locally; I also wonder if we can detect traces of our current uses of simple, medicinal plants, otherwise known as rimèd razié. In any case, I imagine that by dint of preparing remedies every day, Zephir, Baptist, and Joseph had acquired, alongside the chief apothecary, a solid knowledge of the different medicines they made.

When I think of the enslaved people of the Lesser Antilles, I spontaneously think of the organization of the plantation in which one could distinguish between slaves in the fields, slaves for domestic service and  » talented  » slaves; this is the best known situation, because it concerned the majority of the people who were exploited in the so-called  » sugar  » islands. I am also thinking of enslaved people living in urban areas, house servants, craftsmen in the workshops of a master (blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, etc.) or day workers who were indispensable for transporting, charging and discharging goods. But I can less easily imagine rarer situations such as that of these people enslaved in a hospital. And you, had you ever thought that enslaved people could be trained to work in the care of the sick? Learning how to prepare medicines, how to make bandages or how to perform a bloodletting operation. How did they live from being constantly exposed to disease because they were in daily contact with the sick? How did they perceive their task of caring for and saving the lives of those who possessed them? To conclude, I list below all the enslaved persons listed in the act of 1793.

List of enslaved people at the Fort-Royal Hospital in 1793

Here is the list of women and men reduced to the status of slaves in the order in which they appear in the base with the information we have on them

  1. Elisabeth, Blanchisseuse / laundress
  2. Vital, Aide chirurgien / assistant surgeons
  3. Silvestre, Aide chirurgien/ assistant surgeons
  4. Joseph, Nègre, Aide chirurgien/ assistant surgeons
  5. Olive, Négresse, De jardin / of garden
  6. Clément, Nègre, Domestique d’office / domestic for table service
  7. Alexis, Nègre, Domestique d’office / domestic for table service
  8. Alexandre, Nègre, Gardien des bêtes à cornes / Guardian of the horned beasts
  9. Marie Ursule, Négresse , Blanchisseuse / laundress
  10. Charlotte, Négresse, Servante d’office / servant for table service
  11. Marie Rose, Négresse, Blanchisseuse / laundress
  12. Jean François, Nègre, Infirmier des officiers / officer’s Nurse
  13. Geneviève, Négresse, Servante couturière/ seamstress servant
  14. Tonton, Nègre, Domestique des officiers / officer’s domestic
  15. Beaudy, Nègre, Domestique employé à la pharmacie / domestic in the pharmacy
  16. Bonaventure, Nègre , Commandeur (Mari de Véronique) / commander
  17. Veronique, Négresse, (Femme du commandeur Bonaventure)
  18. Berthe, Négresse, Servante couturière (Mère de Maxime) / seamstress servant
  19. Maxime, (Fils de Berthe)
  20. Louisanne, Négresse, Servante couturière (Mère de Laurencine et Marie Claire) /seamstress servant
  21. Laurencine, Négresse, (Fille de Louisanne)
  22. Marie Claire, (Fille de Louisanne)
  23. Douadu, Négresse, Servante infirmière / nurse servant
  24. Agathe, Négresse, Servante blanchisseuse / laundress servant
  25. Elisabeth, Servante couturière / seamstress servant
  26. Dedenne, Servante couturière / seamstress servant
  27. Marie Françoise, Servante couturière/ laundress servant
  28. Marceline, Servante blanchisseuse/ laundress servant
  29. Marie Joseph, Estropiée
  30. Rosette, Servante blanchisseuse/ laundress servant
  31. Modeste, Domestique / domestic
  32. Caroline, Servante d’office / servant for table service
  33. Magdelonaite (sic), Servante d’office / servant for table service
  34. Jeanne Claire surnommée Petite négresse, Couturière / seamstress
  35. Marie , Négresse, Servante blanchisseuse/ laundress servant
  36. Thomas, Nègre, Employé au jardin /garden employee
  37. Edouard, Nègre, Cuisinier / cook
  38. Joseph, Nègre, Cuisinier /cook
  39. Lindor, Nègre, Cuisinier / cook
  40. Leopard, Nègre, Marmiton /kitchen boy
  41. Fortuné, Nègre , Cuisinier des malades / cook for the sick
  42. Gros Pital, Nègre, Cuisinier des malades / cook for the sick
  43. Antoine, Nègre de terre Mine, Occupé au jardin /garden employee
  44. Boissille , Nègre, Occupé au jardin /garden employee
  45. Montauban, Nègre, Commandeur / commander
  46. Joseph, Nègre, Domestique cambusier /domestic of the caboose
  47. Joseph, Nègre, Charretier / carter
  48. Celestin, Nègre, Estropié
  49. Toussaint, Nègre, Cuisinier / cook
  50. Louis, Nègre, Boulanger / baker
  51. Petit Laurent, Nègre, Infirmier / nurse
  52. Augustin, Nègre, Infirmier / nurse
  53. Zephir, Nègre, Apothicaire / apothecary
  54. Baptiste, Nègre, Apothicaire / apothecary
  55. Joseph, Apothicaire / apothecary
  56. Adélaïde, Négresse, Employée au jardin /garden employee
  57. Laurent, Nègre, Menuisier / carpenter
  58. Baptiste, Nègre, Menuisier / carpenter
  59. Joachim, Nègre, Menuisier / carpenter
  60. Balthazar, Nègre, Menuisier / carpenters
  61. Veuf, Nègre, Infirmier / nurse
  62. André, Nègre, Employé au jardin /garden employee
  63. Mausiste, Nègre, Infirmier /nurse
  64. Celutu , Nègre, Bouteillier / bottler
  65. Angélique, Négresse, Employée au jardin /garden employee
  66. Claire, Négresse, Employée au jardin /garden employee
  67. Jerome, Nègre, Employé au jardin /garden employee
  68. Gaspart, Nègre, Infirmier / nurse
  69. Didine, Négresse, Employée au jardin /garden employee
  70. Catherine, Négresse, Employée au jardin /garden employee
  71. Charles, Nègre, Employé au jardin /garden employee
  72. Maximain, Nègre, Infirmier / nurse
  73. Lisette, Négresse, Servante couturière / seamstress servant
  74. Jean Laurent, Nègre, Domestique d’office / domestic for table service
  75. Petit Baptiste, Nègre, Domestique d’office/ domestic for table service
  76. Guymy, Nègre, Domestique d’infirmerie / domestic of nurse
  77. Joseph, Nègre, Employé au jardin /garden employee
  78. Elie, Nègre,
  79. Alexis, Nègre, Domestique chasseur / domestic hunter
  80. Marie Magdelaine, Négresse, Employée au jardin /garden employee
  81. Cupidon, Nègre, Marin / sailor
  82. Moïse, Nègre, Matelassier de son métier / mattress maker

Read previous episodes:

French Bibliography

Bibliothèque nationale de France

  • Durand-Molard, Code de la Martinique, textes :
    n°293, 30 avril 1764, ordonnance du roi, portant Règlement pour l’exercice de la Chirurgie dans les différentes Colonies françaises de l’Amérique,
    n°426, 5 septembre 1769, arrêt du conseil souverain, Concernant les Chirurgiens, Apothicaires, droguistes et autres Distributeurs de Drogues,
    n°627, 25 décembre 1783, ordonnance général et intendant, concernant la Police générale des Nègres et Gens de couleur libres.

Archives nationales outre-mer

Data base « Esclavage en Martinique » of Manioc


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