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How the 18th Century (Actually) Responded to Illness

The roofline of the Old State House.

This post is written in response to “How the 18th Century Responded to Illness Before Netflix and Zoom,” published on April 6, 2020.

Last week, we published a blog post describing how six prominent 18th-century Bostonians lived and dealt with illness in their lives. This piece drew on previous research for the “character cards” we use at the Old State House museum — a tool designed to help visitors move past the mythic dimensions of Revolutionary history and think about the human dimensions of the story.  In selecting six individuals from our set of more than 100 characters, we focused on the same people generations of Bostonians have focused on – the white, the wealthy, the privileged. Clearly, we did not tell the whole story.

After publishing our blog post and sending it out in our e-newsletter, we were greeted with the opportunity to think more deeply after an email from our partners at the Upstander Project—a remarkable Boston-based organization that uses documentary film and teacher guides to help educators and students challenge indifference to injustice and raise awareness of the need for upstanders. Revolutionary Spaces has been fortunate to collaborate in their Upstander Academy professional development program and sought input from their team in developing our Reflecting Attucks exhibit. Upstander’s email reminded us to check our own privilege and reflect on why we often rely on a white, colonial perspective when examining the past.

In writing the original post, our thinking was shaped by the way we were taught history, according to what Upstander and others call “The View from the Boat” of colonial settlers at the exclusion of “The View from the Shore” of the Indigenous peoples upon whose land we live. Plus, we were clouded by our own implicit biases and the selective nature of the documents that survive from the Revolutionary era. And while, yes, John Adams, Joseph Warren, and Paul Revere did deal with illness in their lives, they overcame it in part because they had the resources to do so. A different story might have emerged if we had chosen to focus on the experiences of the Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc people at the time.

While white communities were able to survive illness in the 18th century, much damage was already done to indigenous populations during the 17th century because, as Jeffrey Ostler notes in his book Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolutionary to Bleeding Kansas, “European colonialism disrupted Native communities and damaged their resources, making them more vulnerable to pathogens.”

Later in his book, Ostler writes about the impact of diseases on Native peoples in the 18th century, noting specific epidemics of smallpox in 1730 and 1738 ravaging the Wampanoags of Monomoyick on the outer Cape and the Yarmouth Wampanoags, respectively. More death came with yellow fever in 1763-64, killing more than 200 Wampanoags on Nantucket, 39 Vineyard Wampanoags, mostly at Chappaquiddick, and an unknown number at Mashpee. The final instance mentioned comes during the American Revolution, when 25 of the 26 Mashpee men who served in a Barnstable regiment died before returning home. The lone survivor brought back disease that killed 70 in a population of less than 300. As Ostler states, “This was a demographic crisis by any measure, made infinitely worse, let it be remembered, by white society taking advantage of its overwhelming strength to degrade Native people in ways great and small.”

So with the help of partner organizations like the Upstander Project and Akomawt Educational Initiative, Revolutionary Spaces stands committed to unpacking history in new ways and shining a light on under-told (or never told) stories. Over the next several weeks, we’ll discuss more on our blog and in video how to confront past disparities and how to move forward together.

Once we confront our own biases and acknowledge that what we were taught was a one-sided view of history and what we have curated often reflects that perspective, we can begin to learn from Indigenous peoples and the historical traumas of disease that impacted their homes and communities. Only then can we reimagine our exhibits and programs through a lens of respect.

Whether it’s calling ourselves out for discussing only white people from the 18th century, or highlighting media coverage on disparities in communities of color affected by COVID-19, the work of justice begins with seeing and acknowledging injustice — and then taking action to confront the structures that hold us all back. 

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