RECAP: “Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom,” Colloquium w/ Prof. Kathryn Olivarius

New Orleans was, by a decent margin, antebellum America’s deadliest city, the nation’s ‘necropolis’ as Stanford historian Kathryn Olivarius dubbed it in the title to her 2022 Harvard University Press monograph. Every three years, 8% of the city’s population died, a vastly disproportionate (and, as we would see, excessively disproportionate) number of them because of yellow fever. The 1853 yellow fever epidemic there was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Average life expectancy was 20 years less in New Orleans than elsewhere in the United States. Why was yellow fever such a problem in New Orleans? And since it was such a problem, why did people flock to the city in droves—and stay there—despite the abundant risk of doing so? As Prof. Olivarius unpacked in her October 21 talk at the Kinder Institute, attending to the intersecting histories of immunology, capitalism, slavery, and ecology might help us answer these questions.

A brief crash course in Deep Southern history, with a medical and global twist, can set the stage for working through these inquiries. Almost immediately after France ceded control of Louisiana to the United States in 1803, the population of New Orleans doubled, and the city became the young nation’s most important strategic site (and second most popular immigrant destination), as the cotton and sugar bounty grown in New Orleans and around the region filled the market gap left by the Haitian Revolution. With equal immediacy, people realized how inhospitable the waterlogged city was. As cotton boomed and the rich got richer, New Orleans got filthier with each passing day. Streets and sewers were synonymous; garbage piles emitted visible green steam; bodies floated out of cemeteries. And the city was notorious—even before people realized they were yellow fever carriers—for its voracious mosquitoes. In other words, New Orleans, with its hot, humid climate and constantly growing population of non-immune people from around the world, became a petri dish. If you contracted yellow fever there in the 19th century, survival was essentially a coinflip.

All that said, this focus on ecology and epidemiology in some ways belies the real, or at least the whole, story. As Prof. Olivarius explained, New Orleans could have very easily taken the disease-mitigating steps that other cities did—creating sewer infrastructure, for example, or implementing quarantines—but business elites and government officials, designations that would grow more and more indistinguishable and co-dependent throughout the antebellum era, opted instead to exploit the chaos of repeated epidemics to consolidate power. In the process, an immuno-capitalist regime was forged in which disease and immunity were baked into the city’s class structure and an acclimation-vulnerability binary co-mingled with and buttressed its intractable racial hierarchy.

As a biological reality without physical signifiers, proving immunity became a performative, socially-stratified form of capital in New Orleans. Vulnerability was assumed of poor, immigrant residents of the city, but for many young white men, medically establishing (or in some cases successfully feigning) acclimation was a form of economic rebirth, opening the door to new jobs in wholesaling, counting houses, and cotton warehouses; more rapid promotion; previously inaccessible lines of credit and insurance; and the possibility of marrying into elite circles. In fact, the value of immunity was so pronounced that it led men toward the disease. They would roll around in the bed sheets of yellow fever victims or chase them through the streets for exposure because the boon of acclimation was worth the risk of death. A moral narrative would emerge out of this phenomenon. Survival came to be indicative of patriotic character, an act of will that revealed a strong, godly, masculine constitution. Within this fabricated immuno-capitalist morality play, death was thus deserved, evidence of cowardice, drunkenness, effeminacy, or sexual deviance.

The reverberations of the immuno-capitalist regime extended into all facets of economic, political, and social life in New Orleans. The huge numbers of Irishmen who died during the construction of the New Basin Canal, for example, were written off as fungible budget line items (to say nothing of the fact that high death rates conveniently quashed labor organization). Within the domestic sphere, acclimation signaled an ability to fulfill gendered responsibilities and thus reinforced patriarchal superstructures. And, as alluded to previously, the government allowed itself to be molded to fit immuno-capitalist designs. With labor in abundant supply even after epidemics took their toll, massive death mattered little to profit margins, meaning that politicians and elite planters and businessmen—who would often truant away from the city together during peak yellow fever season—could benefit handsomely from ignoring public health (New Orleans spent four cents per person per annum on public health to Boston’s 69 cents). Moreover, purposefully severe property and naturalization restrictions on voting, along with gerrymandering and other apparatuses, effectively negated the prospect of government accountability and ensured that acclimation as a “baptism of citizenship” would remain the status quo.

Returning to the intersection of slavery and immunity—of King Cotton and Yellow Jack—Prof. Olivarius closed by noting how manipulating the politics of acclimation created an even more violently inverted capitalistic relationship between enslaver and enslaved. The economic opportunities immuno-capitalism afforded certain citizens transformed them into slave owners and traders. Conversely, the myth of Blackness as signaling a “perfect non-conductor of yellow fever” reduced suffering of myriad forms into a quantifiably marketable asset. Enslaved people presumed or proven to be acclimated sold at a 25-50% premium and were often conscripted to epidemiologically fraught spaces, protecting white enslavers by being coerced into assuming risk.

That New Orleans could have—should have—been otherwise was born out in the wake of the Civil War, when actual attention to public health shifted the architecture of society. But the antebellum story remains unchanged. Immuno-capitalism destroyed economic competition, monetized health, and mobilized disease risk, all as a transaction cost of doing business that yielded wealth for the few and misery for the many.