Health and Slavery in Puerto Rico Illuminated by NT Jensen’s For the Health of the Enslaved

José G. Rigau-Pérez


African slavery supplied the manpower for Caribbean plantation economies, and medicine provided the means to palliate the effects of overwork, deprivation, and neglect. Niklas Jensen’s outstanding analysis of conditions relating to the health of slaves in the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands) from 1803 to 1848 addresses the health service in St. Croix, structured around the enslaved workers; the colonial administration’s policies to promote the health of slaves; and the power relationships between the administration, the planters, and the enslaved. Jensen proposes that the primary cause of excess mortality of slaves in St. Croix may have been insufficient nutrition rather than epidemics or poor hygiene. The historiography of health and medicine in Puerto Rico is almost silent on matters relating to slavery, but the sparse information available reveals similarities with St. Croix. The slaves’ need for medical attention may have attracted foreign practitioners, and the diet was deficient in calories and essential nutrients. Jensen’s analysis expands our knowledge of the determinants of the health of the enslaved. A deep archival examination of the subject in Puerto Rico might show how the universal fundamentals of slavery, adapted to the specific determinants of the island’s economy, shaped the health of captive and free residents.


Slavery; history of medicine; St. Croix; Puerto Rico; Niklas T. Jensen

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