Discover more from Harlem Diary
August 10th, 2002
When someone asks me what I am researching, I say I am making a social history of cholera. It is a short answer and, therefore, imprecise.
Historians do not address issues. We answer questions. The first thing I teach my students is to ask: How did something happen? Who made them? What was their intention? Who suffered the consequences?
There are other relevant things in the historian workshop, which I will discuss later. For now, I want to focus on the questions I want to answer.
Why did cholera come to Europe and America in the early 1830s? The bacteria's and viruses' means of transmission are explained by biological research, but history also offers answers. As R. J. Morris (one of the authors I am reading at the New York Public Library) points out, some changes in India's economic and social conditions --including the overseas trade and the rapid movement of troops-- enabled the spread of cholera with incredible speed and savagery.
Epidemics are not (only) a natural phenomenon but a social one. Therefore, it is essential to answer the epidemic's impact on Atlantic societies. How were these societies changed? Were these societies simply affected by the epidemic, or did they also transform it?
In this sense, the book of Morris, Cholera 1832. The Social Response to an Epidemic, looks pretty relevant. Morris shows that the impact of cholera in England depended, to a large extent, on the socioeconomic conditions of the population. Most of the people who died were poor. He also pays attention to religious elements but does not delve into cultural issues.
I am also interested in knowing the impact on deeply racist societies such as those of the American continent. Because of that, I wonder about gender roles and racial discrimination.
In France and Spain, cholera arrived when there were critical sociopolitical movements. As in England, there were riots. Cholera fueled many indigenous communities in Latin America to rebel against liberal governments. In the United States, there were episodes of violence against foreigners.
I have many questions. I hope to offer even a few answers.