In the 19th century cholera was described as a disease of Free Trade. In our own times, not so many years after the UN declared the coming truce between humans and infectious diseases, The World Health Organization in 2000 declared- in the language of war so dominant in public health discourses – that microbes had been preparing an underground counter-resistance, just when we thought we were safe. The gatekeepers of the capitalist world  like the World Bank had, as Melinda Cooper describes, been opening gates in the name of Free Trade, and in the interests of biotech and cheap food industries. As a result, new pathogens were crossing borders that had been supposed to be impenetrable, like other species to human, CJD and avian flu most notably, and contagions were hitching a ride on the vectors of free trade. Back in the 19th century and ever since 1493, they followed the vectors of transcontinental land and people grabbing. In the context of modern day human migrant politics both aggressively anti-humanist, and colonial style in its categorizing of the neo-colonial poor, is keen to portray a world of migrants without money as the transmitters of old and new diseases into a healthy Western world and where skin and blood remain crude markers of who can join the party. Both transmissions and this modern day discourse are rooted in European colonialism from its very earliest years.

. Our starting point is the skin and the marks left on it from inside out, and from outside in, and the still existent marks of colonialism on bodies, peoples and environments. It is now uncontested that there was a precipitous fall in the populations of the Americas in the early years of the European invasions, leaving approximately just 10% of the indigenous population as had existed before. Although many died as a result of direct invader violence, a new world of work-till-you-drop, and environmental and social depredation from the introduction of the sheep for example, most died as a result of imported diseases and especially smallpox and measles, though such depredations themselves made Indigenous peoples more vulnerable. Smallpox had no proven cure; after three days raised bumps would appear on the skin where they formed pustules that would become scabs which was when it was at its most infectious. Unlike the invaders, indigenous people were smallpox virgins and had no immunity. If one was lucky enough to survive, the scabs would leave a heavily pitted skin such as made some North American Indians repulsive to themselves. In what became a pattern, even though the Invaders  did not knowingly infect those they invaded, as happened later in North America, they were quick to blame someone else for the illness. As early as 1513 it was the first batch of African slaves or Cuban Indigenous people who must be responsible for the sickness they claimed. And for over 300 years smallpox continued: in Jamaica in the 1780s plantation capitalism ensured that advertisments for slaves made reference to them being clear of the disease; and, as before,  to destroy peoples and resistance to the invaders as in the 1790 epidemic that had a devastating effect on the Mapuche on the Chilean frontier which broke their fierce resistance though in our times it has been resurrected in their fight against the land grabbing of Benetton.

Measles did not leave marks for those who survived, the reddish brown rash it produced after 4 days and which spread down the body to the feet, faded after several days. But it was a highly contagious killer. In the very early years of the invasion, the Arawak and Taino populations of Hispaniola –modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic- was reduced from around 400,000 to 60,000. And so it continued, epidemics travelling up the Pacific Coast in the 1530s; Cuba, Honduras, Mexico and the Andes in the 1590s; then Lima and Quito.

Syphilis was a killer on a smaller scale and the evidence is that it travelled in reverse direction back across the Atlantic.  The Serpent of Hispaniola, as they called it in those early days after Colombus’s homecoming and liable to be fatal for those first generations and anyway leaving  its marks, chancres, rashes, and large swellings called gummas. The conventional Eurocentric view articulated by Lopez de Gomara  in Mexico City was not that it was an impersonal revenge  for smallpox, but that smallpox was the reward “for that which they gave our men.”


Like the smallpox, syphilis, left its mark on the skin when it hadn’t killed you. The Protestant Jean de Lery described how it appeared in Brazil, “pustules as wide as a thumb which spread over the entire body, even to the face so that those who are spotted with it carry the marks of their turpitude and baseness through all their lives.” Perhaps too enjoying a sectarian dig when Popes and Cardinals had  carried the tell-tale signs back in Europe where “for the very first time Appeared Syphilis, horrible for its foul abscesses and the indecencies engendered”. It was a time too when “money reigned supreme, when “Vagabonds were voracious insects that infect the countryside and devastate it, and who daily devour the sustenance of farmers.” That was the storyline of the masters of the European universe, your land is taken from you and hey ho, you’re a parasite.  And so very many of them: “of an ashen colour/faces wasted away, who have no refuge/There is no one who sprouts and germinates more than they/who grow fat even in their own filth/as if they were beetles or vermin./And even though terrible hunger exterminates them/these heads of the Hydra, in rebirth they pass through all boundaries and limits”  The skin’s boundary too.

These were times when Suspicion was the psychic default of the literate European as in the advice of Sir William Wentworth to his son in 1607: “Ever fear the worst…Whosoever comes to speak with you comes premediate for his advantage be suspicious of any that seems more saintlike than the others and smooth like oil.” With this in mindset Florentine advice of the time was that hearing of cases of the plague however far away “one must force out of the city as from the State , within a few days, the beggars, vagabonds, gypsies, mendicants, lepers, invalids and those without the will to earn their bread.”

Disgust and disparagement, so compact and adorably solid were psychic protections as was the  suspicion of others and gave psychic strength to the power to exclude the with their boils, the rash, scabs, acne, growths, moles, the hairs that flower the wart, tumours, cysts, pustules.  These psychic protectors were then carried to the New World.  Father Gijil a Jesuit exile from Orenoco whose people had ‘betrayed’ their conversion to Christianity, compared Amerindians to the filthy peasants of Europe “who grow fat in their own filth.”

And so it continued. Gottfried Lessing Enlightenment cutting edge 1766 “One knows how dirty the Hottentots are; and how much they regard as beautiful … which arouses our loathing and disgust … With a nose like a squeezed gristle, the ringlets oozing with grease.”

His disgust like those of so many travellers to Africa and the Americas was especially directed at older women; ‘sagging breasts’ are both an obsession and a cliché in their writings. But this too was embedded in a misogynistic disgust  prevalent in the newly powerful of Europe for whom  older women especially could be easily denounced as witches. This from the intellectual, Erasmus:

“…  it is even more fun to see the old women who can scarcely carry their weight of years and look like corpses that seem to have risen from the dead … still in heat, looking for a mate … they are forever smearing their faces with make-up and taking tweezers to their pubic hair, exposing their sagging withered breasts and trying to rouse failing desire..”

Disgust however was not soley reserved for women and it is little changed in recent times.

Napoleon Chagnon, North American anthropologist. On a mission.  Amazonia 1980s

“I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows. Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous and strands of dark green slime dripped or hung from their noses.




Leprosy is a disease that produces lesions on the skin, the most severe making disfiguring nodules or lumps, prime material for aggressively protective disgust. Back in Europe there‘d been a time when lepers had been officially condemned  along with heretics and Jews in enforceable declarations from the Pope but by the time Columbus had become  a statue and the invasion now a highly profitable land and mine grab, resistance to leprosy had been accumulated over European generations and was no longer a mass disease. So it was that in 1581 when the Vagabond had been conjured up and condemned and the witch tortured, the Pope could now lead a procession of beggars and the deformed. “Poverty became a mass theatre, a shuddering allurement to the senses and a perverse spell of the pitiful and repulsive, while diminished leprosy was  exported from Europe along the global routes of slavery, trade and conquest to the New World, West and South Africa. In Mexico City 1582 the San Lazaro hospital becomes one especially for lepers. A hundred years later the disease was highly prevalent in the Dutch West Indies, especially Suriname among African slaves.


At the time it was convenient to describe it as sexually transmitted, giving weight to the notion that it was a curse, that in a continuous medical narrative of diseases and contagion that it was your fault. As sexually transmitted, The Viceroy in Mexico City ordered that there be gender segregation in the San Lazaro hospital, just as there was to be on the South African prison Robben Island when perversely labelled a leper “colony”. Setting a precedent the Viceroy also instituted racial segregation for male sufferers, Whites and mestizos have to occupy one room, blacks and mulattoes another, Indians another. The females however, are to be all together in one room whatever their colour. During the 18th century a series of measures rewrote history to make it an illness of the colonised, and tightened up the mobility of lepers in the interests of investments made in slaves. It was first forbidden for slaves with leprosy to appear on public roads on pain of a fine to be paid by the master. Then the captain of a slave ship bringing into a colony a slave who appeared to be suffering from leprosy was obliged to take him or her back on pain of a fine. This strategy was resurrected by the European Union to keep out “illegal migrants” trying to enter the continent, when the Schengen Convention of 1993 included sanctions on carriers. For the discovered slave leper they were likely to be thrown overboard offshore so as to save expenses just as persons labelled as ‘people traffickers are alleged to do in circumstances inconvenient to themselves in the present day..


By the early 19th century with a shameless sleight-of-hand, leprosy, a European export,  was considered by Europeans to be “an affliction of inferior considered coloured people living in the colonies.”  Missionaries of the time and with a complete lack of any sense of irony, were proclaiming the need for leper colonies and all too keen to have it as a sexually transmitted disease. When, a real one, AIDS developed in the late 20th century, not to be outdone by other contagions and their swamps, it was quickly ascribed as emanating from that part of Hispaniola that was called Saint Domingue and then Haiti,  still unforgiven for the most radical revolution in history. The ‘Madison Avenue’ second coup against President Aristide with free use of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ in 2004 was made soon after he had applied to France for repayment of the reparations it had demanded for the 1790s revolution and went on receiving well into the 20th  century. The alacrity with which all the black pigs in the country, of which all the farmers of the country owned one, were eradicated as a measure against swine fever is another of many indicators of this lack of forgiveness. Even the healthy were slaughtered and just $10 compensation offered. Pink pigs From the United States, 20th century invaders of the country, were then imported at a cost of $50 but were unsuitable to the climate, and died.  That in the present day, there are 3000 leprosy sufferers in the country when it is a curable condition, is another such indicator of how unforgiven the country is.

With the coming of AIDS Dr Michael Worobey became a USA magazine cover star as he asserted Haiti as its source this as a truth over two decades, later elaborated to involve a historically mysterious 10,000 Haitians working for the nascent bureaucracy of Mobutu’s Zaire. Doctors Leonidas and Hippolyte  went a step further and blamed the bloody practices of Voudou.

Voudou, a sure-fire vicarious thrill of the 1980s and good for publicity, and blood itself like an arrow into the psyche’s of race. Skin the visible sign of its gradations, eighteen if them in early 19th century Lima, but blood is the mystical marker that’s yet had manifold and very  real consequences. For a 19th century North American Octoroon gentleman “a specific one eighth of a specified kind of blood shall outweigh seven-eighth if another kind.”  During World War II the American military fighting a racist enemy who had just passed the Nuremberg Blood Protection Laws of 1935, themselves maintained separate blood stocks for transfusions from black and white skinned donors even though it was known, they knew, the scientist administrators knew,  that all blood was the same and that blood types had nothing to do with race.


So it was that shortages of blood in the USA in the early 1970s just when the disconnect between the dollar and gold gave a kickstart to today’s version  of globalisation, shortages in the USA  saw a brisk trade in blood from the poor of Latin America. It came from Somoza- era Nicaragua and during the Baby Doc Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti where plasma was collected by the Hemo Caribbean company set up with the aid of the dictator’s Internal Security chief Luckner Cambronne and flown out with Air Haiti to the USA, German and Sweden:  exemplary Free Trade business. Despite the low caloric intake of Haitian donors only 1-2% of the blood was rejected. The business was closed only because Baby Doc thought it made for bad publicity. No cases of HIV/AIDS have been linked to this blood. Nevertheless the accusation continued.  Since the Earthquake of 2010, conditions are worse and is said to account for the continued prevalence of leprosy there now, the disease that had come from Europe originally with slavery.

So too, both to Haiti and several islands of the Caribbean, came yellow fever in the 17th century which  has its name because in many cases the skin is jaundiced though its most common characteristic is the vomiting of dried blood.  The evidence to date is that it originated in Africa, carried from monkeys to humans, and then human to human by mosquito-borne bites rather than contagious. The slave ship with humans packed in tight airless spaces were ripe for infection and the mosquitos that the ships carried thrived on their water barrels.  In one of the ‘ironies’ of this trade in humans, there were outbreaks of the disease in European seaports, which most likely arrived from the Americas rather than Africa.

Epidemics of the disease were at their most common in the Caribbean in the 1690-1770 period when the proportion of non-immunes was greatest. Two decades later an outbreak occurred in Port-au-Prince and in another ‘irony’, one with geo-political consequences yellow fever  proved to play a role in preserving its independence from two colonial forces. As with leprosy, a degree of immunity had developed over time for all sections of the indigenous population whereas first the British occupying force of this time was decimated over four years of its presence in Haiti and then when Napoleon sent a force to ‘their’ colony under General Leclerc to recapture the post revolution independent Haiti in 1802 the story was repeated. The General himself died of yellow fever and the French capitulated at the end of  1803. The estimate is that up to 50,000 French soldiers and sailors may have died from the disease and the not-forgiven Haitian revolution was not defeated.



Voudou, the not-vicariously thrilling,  as well as creating solidarities between Africans who might have been at war with each other on their own continent, carried connotations too of an alternative Afro-American cosmology and culture with some Amerindian input that included a conception and knowledge of health, illness and healing as did Candomble in Brazil. Amerindian knowledge was evident in the case of syphilis The former priest and syphilis sufferer Ulrich von Hutten was an enthusiast for  the domestic American sassafras acting as a purgative and ‘blood cleanser’ to be  carefully administered with a deciction to be boiled and the patient to be kept under blankets. Other invaders described where fine specimens of the plant could be found and the 16th century physician Monardes was impressed that Indigenous Americans being so prone to the disease had their remedies. He, though he never travelled to the Americas  wrote enthusiastically of trees, Plantes,  Herbes, rootes .that much exceed in value and price all the gold and silver form the new lands.”

But it was always difficult for the invader to accept this as it was in Europe itself, that they might not have a monopoly on medical knowledge. Leonardo Fioravanti in 1577 ripping into the professional doctors of the time wrote  of how the peasants and the people ‘have so much experience in natural things and know the virtues of so many herbs that they know how to treat many kinds of illness” and the women especially have so much practice with medications that they know a world of health giving remedies.” The suspicious mindset so keen to denigrate what it did not control was more common however and articulated by Paolo Zacchia a 17th century physician to the Pope;  talking of the knowledge of European  being that of witches and Indians deceived by false priests.

With the knowledge of African slaves, the attitude was yet more ambivalent  and liable to change. In early colonial Guadeloupe French colonialists took advantage of their slaves’ knowledge of the medicinal qualities of both indigenous and African plants and encouraged this work until in the late 1700s as if a premonition of the revolution to come in Haiti, they were more fearful. “Almost all negroes leave their countries are sorcerers or at least they are able to use magic, witchcraft and poison with success,” wrote Pere Labat in the 1760s. This added to the existing paranoia exemplified by Jean Damien Chevalier writing on the pathological nature of the Haitian environment and its effects on a mechanical conception of skin, its pores and blood. “With the heat of the climate, through considerable increasing perspiration and exciting even continual sweating, leaves nothing more in the vessels than thickened liquers, while it simultaneously diminishes the ability of the solid parts. The thickened liquers offer more resistance to the moving parts and the equilibrium so necessary for life itself is shattered. The economy of the human body becomes a source of deadly illness, and principally malignant fevers.”By 1767, many laws were passed that  outlawed the use of plants for medicine by African slaves. In colonial Brazil the ambivalence continued. While Portuguese privately consulted Candomble healers, the universal master slave paranoia was in evidence. Robert Walsh observed in 1830s Rio that “The people labour under various symptoms of undefined illnesses which are frequently attributed to the effects of poison administered by their slaves.”

One constant in European attitudes is the link between poverty and contamination, dirt and hygiene; their existence as seen from the USA had not stopped Haitian blood business but  when refugees fleeing from the first old-fashioned and violent coup against Haiti’s President Aristide 1991 tried to make it to the USA, they were characterized as being necessarily germ carriers and in May 1992 an Executive Order from George H. Bush declared that all Haitians intercepted on the High Seas should be returned to Haiti even though executions were still being carried out there. Any of those shown to carry the HIV virus were imprisoned in the now notorious  Guantanamo militate camp where despite evidence of bad sanitation and drinking water, and beatings from the guards, The New York Times could declare US BASE AN OASIS TO HAITIANS.

Such imprisonment had a colonial history. “Lock” hospitals –the English word for the rags that covered the lesions of lepers- had been the incarcerating type of ‘colony’ for them in England and elsewhere in Europe in the past. In England they were converted into such places for syphilis sufferers with a focus on keeping prostitutes off the streets. The model was repeated in colonial India where the specifically racial nature of British colonialism meant that for its troops and officials’ relationship s with Indian women was discouraged and prostitution the reverse. However at moments of syphilis panic, they and infected soldiers could be taken out of circulation. It was repeated in the Anglo-American world at the time of the First World War using “barbed-wire quarantine.”

The narratives of dirt and cleanliness are especially prominent in British and German colonial accounts. An obsessive fear of contamination as an unholy slime involving dirt, sex and hybridity is in contrast to the more realistic Spanish account of early colonialism where an original shortage of European women created a mestizo world. There was instead a constant campaign for the use of carbolic soaps and a conception of sanitation as a basis for urban apartheid. Before his malarial experiments on concentration camp prisoners at Dachau, Klaus Schilling as a doctor in German South West Africa recommended an  absolute minimum distance of 500 metres between the housing of white and black-skinned peoples. In apartheid South Africa shared ablution facilities and a consequent mixing of bodily fluids was an absolute taboo. Other soaps were more openly behaviourist, at the cheap end of the global skin whitening business they are made with mercury. These soaps are still made in Ireland and Italy and escape a European Union ban by being exported mostly to African women for who whiteness is ‘symbolic capital’.

One consequence of the often self-interested suspicion of indigenous medicine was the dominance of mercury as the cure for syphilis so decried by van Hutten whose enthusiasm for sassafras resulted from the ill effects he had suffered from mercury treatment. Both acted as purgatives but mercury really is toxic and in the early days the treatment killed as many as it may have helped. Any colonialist who had been anywhere near the Andes would know this, seen its effect on men, mules and the environment around the silver business. There, “Bad dreams, nightmares about abysses or vultures or monsters, may portend the worst. And the worst, here, is being forced to go to the Huancavélica mercury mines or the Postosi silver mountain”  where mercury was used to refine the precious metal. It left a wasteland around the mine; killed workers; contributed to the constant need to push the mita system of forced labour to the limit, having reversed the ban on coca in the name of labour efficiency; and created the need for the continuous importing of men from Africa and mules from Argentina.


Both men and mules were branded, the skin this time as public space for categorisation. The tactic had been used in Europe, significantly for that figure of elite hatred, the vagabond, branded with a V under an English statute of 1547. In the world of African slavery it was as an assertion of property rights; sometimes for a multitude of such rights. Early on slaves exported from Luanda were often branded not once but twice: the mark of the Luso Brazilian merchants who owned them as well as the stamp of the royal arms and the tax that might signify for the Crown; baptism, enforced or strategic would see the adding of a cross to the royal design. A doctor Oettinger with the Brandenberg Company’s slave ship up the West African coast in Whydah in 1693 described how “The slaves who had been brought then had to kneel down , twenty or thirty at a time; their right shoulder was smeared with palm oil and branded with an iron which bore the initials CABC {Churfurstich Afrikanisch Brandenburg Company}…Some of these poor people obeyed their leaders without a will of their own or any resistance … Others on the other hand howled and danced. There were many women who filled the air with heartrending cries which could hardly be drowned by the drums.”


The delicate skin, full of nerve endings and slow to heal. Later more stamps might be added. Vasco de Quiroga in a letter to the Council of the Indies described how slaves “are branded with iron on their face and the initials of their successive owners are oriented on their skin; they are passed from one owner to another, and some bear three of four names, so that the face of these human beings who were created with God’s image has, through our own sins, been transformed into writing paper.”


You can be sure that when any people are referred to as ‘human beings’ they are truly in deep deep trouble.  The desperate appeal to decency continued to fall on deaf ears. In 1603 the same treatment was being carried out on Indigenous people. In that year Santiago de Chile’s  Town Council purchased a new branding iron – of silver – to brand Indian slaves on the face. As if the acquisition of the implement itself spurred on the grisly business,  one expedition for victims followed  another. Once branded, they were sold to Peru.


The mark of ownership was obviously significant in claims made on runaway slaves. Cuban slave records from 1805 and 1806, when close-by Haiti was an example of how slavery might be overthrown, write of how a captured runaway slave was described as “38 years old, tall and thin, deep black coloured, scanty beard, friendly eyes, filed teeth, with a ‘D’ on his right breast, confessing he belonged to Don Pedro Diago”. In the matter of recaptured slaves there was also, needless to say, the matter of punishment. And once again it is the skin that is to be the site of punishment and its visible record to discourage others. The master’s sadism in the lash from the whip.


Like branding this punishment was also used on the Indigenous people of the invaded Americas to enforce the mita system of forced labour: “The symbol of authority, plaited rawhide tipped with cord, whistles through the air and bites. It tears off the skin in strips and splits the flesh.”


But punishment and ownership might come into conflict:  twelve years later in Lima, “Three African slaves have paraded the streets of Lima with bound hands and a rope around their neck … At every few steps of the lash, up to a total of one hundred; and when they fell down, extra lashes as a dividend. The mayor gave the order, the slaves had brought playing cards into the cathedral cemetery. The mayor well knew that the lesson would not be lost on the blacks in general who have become so insolent and so numerous, so addicted to making trouble.

Now the three lie on the patio of their masters house, their backs are raw flesh. The master curses the mayor, vows vengeance. One just doesn’t play such games with other people’s property.”


Two hundred years later however in the North of the Americas, the marks of the lash and the brand were used to identify a runaway slave. Advertisment in the Mississippi Gazette  23rd July 1836. Josiah is five feet eight inches high, heavily built copper colour; his back very much scarred with the whip, and branded on the thigh and hips in three or four places thus “J.M”


These markings of possession, the Amerinidian or African as commodity is in sharp contrast to the collective skin tattoos of Indigenous people. With the Shipibo of the Amazon, the markings reflect the mobile-pattern imagery that is their sophisticated cosmology. For them, all designs are visual music, representations of the creator of the universe called Ronin KeneÌ, whose skin has a radiating, electrifying vibration of light, colour, sound, movement and is the embodiment of all possible patterns and designs past, present, and future.


By the time of the Mississippi runaway slave advert in 1836, skin colour had become and been a determinant marker for nearly 200 years. Back then, in 1649, “a multinational rabble that shared techniques of lewdness and indiscipline and might have wiped out the proprietors of Barbados overnight in 1649 had an informer not betrayed them at the last moment. The plantation owners’ panic peaked in Virginia with ‘Bacon’s Second Rebellion’ (1676), when a self-elected army of black slaves and white ‘servants’ burned Jamestown, proclaimed indenture and slavery abolished and looted the opulent estates. The owners’ response to such outbreaks, after truly savage reprisal, a total economic overhaul and the ‘top-down’ invention of colour-coded racism.”


Until then the invader become settler colonialist’s obsession with the skin, and the popular imagery and narratives they promoted was focused on Nakedness. The copperplate revolution in the production of images as in the long running sequence made by the de Bry family – which dominated the visual representation of the ‘ New World’ from the late 16th century,  did not allow for colour and this may have contributed for the lack of skin colour’s significance in the presentation of its people. Nakedness however is the marker of a lack of civilization and allows the initial sense of entitlement of the invaders. Columbus’s first reaction is that “They were all as naked as their mothers had born them, including the women.” They and the continent was there for the taking, its skin ready for penetration. Ready because so undeveloped. In the de Bry sequence there is not a single image of the work processes that went into what they wore or ate, despite say, the advanced textile culture of the Andes. Instead the invaders jumped on the words of the imperialist Inca ideologue  Garcilao de la Vega that the Indians of the first age “dressed like animals, because the only clothes they had was what nature had given them, their own skin.”


Such disrespect is hardly surprising when these invaders arrived with some gruesome psychic baggage from their own continent of plots, suspicion, warfare and a starving populace.

For them the skin, scabby or healthy, did not suffice as boundary, but was all too  permeable,  letting in diseases and devils. Nakedness was weakness to patriarchal order. In the The Biblical story it is unforgivable that Ham, when catching his father  Noah naked, laughs. He laughs and as a consequence Ham and his descendants are cursed as Canaanites a name still used by Israelis to describe Palestinians and a constant racist narrative until ‘scientific’ racism took over in the 19th century, using a spurious set of ‘measurements’ to prove that there was a hierarchy of races and gender with white men at the top.

Besides nakedness was common. literally common. Common to all. Telling the crowd not to be intimidated by the politicians when they called on their ‘antiquity of blood’, Machiavelli writes a speech for them: “Strip  all naked and you will see we are alike.” The story of the  Fall of Adam and Eve came in handy to the ‘antiquity of ‘blood’ and new money as it showed people were no longer entitled to be naked because they were not innocent enough. In a moment of self-dramatisation and self pity the fictional deposed King Lear, of the period of the invasions abroad and vagabond and witch creation at home, rips of his clothing shouting, “unaccomodated  man is no more than such a poor, bare, forked animal.” At a practical level of gatekeeping sumptuary laws determined who could wear what, nothing above one’s station, and also served to mark out people declared from on high up to be undesirable elements, lepers and all.

And on top of all this, a Christian sense of the sins of the flesh, the temptations. The iconography emphasizes the weakness of the skin, devils as parasites entering the body to possess it. As early as the mid 16th century an oil painting attributed to Jorge Afonso portrayed  the Indian as the devil. This metaphorical possession, comforting to the sense of virtue so necessary to entitlement as against the real possession of people  marked by the branding iron made as in Santiago de Chile one made out of the silver extracted by the very indigenous people they were so keen to brand.


But the Indigenous people of the Americas themselves, what did they see? For one thing in the journal  of Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in 1542 he describes his shipwreck in the Caribbean and how the Amerindians “seeing we were naked and it was cold and the cold was great…those of us who had escaped were naked as the day we were born, began to weep loudly with pity for us. “In the  Quechua language of the Andes inq’ara the word for the white skinned invader was the same as that for peeled, a perjorative term implying a non human nakedness of those not wearing community dress. Images of nakedness are especially mendacious when for the peoples of the Andes woven cloth was of such power, both symbolic and tactile. For the Yanoman, a subgroup of the Yanomani, the white men  were at first people on the edge of the disk, bald and pale spectres which come from ‘the back of heaven’, the land of the dead. They noted other features, their hairiness. Their lack of toes, the feet being covered with shoes, and their ability to strip off their skin, their clothes. Writing in 1697 the Jesuit Stanislav Arlet described Peruvian Indians sight of him as a monster, the man, his hat, his clothing and his horse all as one being.


The hairiness points to one of the many necessary contradictions in the invaders’ account. On the one hand the lack of body hair on the bodies of Indigenous men rendered them effeminate, and the continent with it, ripe for penetration. Forty such native Panamanians seen as effeminate and therefore homosexual were notoriously thrown to the attack killer dogs brought by the Spanish to the Americas by the psychopath Balaboa. On the other hand, hairiness was useful in portraying the monsters of the continent that emananted from the primitive symbolic world of the invaders. An ironic product being the story of the shipwrecked Pedro el Serrano marooned on a desert island for three years his clothes rotted away and skin covered with hair, encounters another Spaniard in a similar state and they fled from each other, each thinking the other was the devil.

It is the clothing of the naked that has such a dark history for those who were clothed. Davi Kopenawa shaman and spokesman for the Yanomani recalls as a genetic memory: “At the time, the white people also gave out large amount of pieces of red fabric. Men used them to make themselves loincloths. But this red cloth was also dangerous. Shortly after they acquired them, the elders would start coughing and their eyes would get infected. This is why they called them the koko , the cough things. These are evil trade goods woven far away, in the white people ancestors´ land, with the cotton of epidemic trees, the xawara hi. The shamans who fought their disease see their image appear in the form of strips of scarlet fabric. Today, we often wear shorts and sometimes other clothing. Yet, we are still wary of these pieces of red cotton. Their illness struck our elders too often. When the white people tore this dangerous cloth, a disgusting smoke rose from it and made everyone sick. Our fathers´ chests were too weak to resist it and they quickly died of its cough. This smoke came from the storehouses where the white people piled these pieces of fabric; it was the smell of the fumes from the machines that had woven them.” At the same time as the elders were being stricken, in Europe the notion of miasma invoked the bad air of the industrial cities making the same cloth that made them cough.

In the North Americas it is known that an addition was made to the chemicals of the cotton itself with an intent to kill. The notorious correspondence between Colonel Bouquet and General Amherst which talks in 1763 of distributing smallpox infected blankets to leaders of the coalition of Indian tribes they were fighting against is only suggestive, but the journal of Captain Simon Ecuyler is clear. “We gave them – two Indian chiefs – two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” In good bourgeois style the firm of Levy, Trent and Company’s invoice, charged to the crown “for sundries got to replace those which were taken from the people in the hospital to Convey smallpox to the Indians viz two blankets at 10 shillings; silk handkerchief at one shilling and Linens at 3 and six.”

In 1946 Dr Klaus Schilling formerly the colonial doctor in South West Africa advising on racially segregated housing, experimented on prisoners at Dachau, infecting them with malaria. He was executed for War Crimes. In 1934 a well-intentioned study was started in Macon County, Alabama where there was a high level of syphilis among Afro-American men. It was then taken over by an arm of the US government using the Tuskegee Institute to study a group of men with the inducement of free medical care and the payment of funeral expenses. It involved some 400 men with syphilis and 200 without. None were told about their condition. The leader of the program wrote, “these negroes are very ignorant and easily influenced by things that would be significant to a more intelligent group.” No treatment was offered to those suffering the disease over the 40 years of the program though by 1945 penicillin had been accepted treatment for the disease. The whole point had become to watch how the disease developed. In 1946 one of its researchers, Dr John Cutler  took it a step furthering a government backed program in Guatemala whereby syphilis infected prostitutes were induced to transmit it to unsuspecting Guatemalan soldiers. One consequence of this and other more recent allegations have made it easy for unscrupulous groups like ISIS/Daesh to persuade people not to be vaccinated against Polio.

Such contamination does not have to be deliberate, it can equally be the outcome of a the carelessness of the colonial psyche.  Our starting point was cholera being described as the Free Trade disease. Now it is a disease of humanitarian colonialism. The Unite Nations that had proclaimed the defeat of translatable diseases later provided cover for the USA and French coup on behalf of the Haitian elite against Preisident Aristide in 2004 Its troops were still there when an earthquake devastated Port au-Prince. In 2010  when there was also an outbreak of cholera in a  country which had been clean of the disease for 100 years. An estimated 10, 000 Haitians have died from the disease in subsequent years, 800,000 infected and still now, 7000. In 2016 The United Nations finally admitted responsibility for the outbreak . A soldier from Nepal where the disease is known to be prevalent has been fingered, but it has been established that it was the the careless sanitation of their own camp was responsible for one individual being able to create such contamination.


Some Africans believed that Europeans were seeking their blood to cure white diseases. The fear of being killed for the fat in the body inside the skin starts in Peru with the Spanish invasion. Fat was used by Spanish invaders for healing wounds and as a cure for arthritis. A priest in 1571 described Indigenous people near Cuzco as being afraid to deliver firewood to a Spanish house for fear of being killed for their fat to be than used as a cure for a foreign sickness. In the 1950s the story was that Christian monks themselves stole it for fuel for altar lamps or to grease church bells. In the 1970s it was a case of the fat being used by the European cosmetic industries. Then in the early 1990s more sophisticated fat-thieves, pishtacos, were believed to kill “to provide food for special restaurants frequented by members of the armed forces”. disguised themselves as “white doctors sometimes with black assistants, carrying special identity papers given to them by the then President.  At a crisis moment of economic austerity in the same city of Lima shanty town women demonstrated with the demand that their children be protected from sacaojos, eye snatchers. Given the history of the country such fears may be displaced but they are hardly unreasonable. Neither were African-Americans in the southern United States with their fear of the Night Doctor and the Black Bottle Men at a period of white doctor experiments on their bodies, dead or alive in the mid-19th century. In Lima, the demonstration came soon after  a wave of cholera in Peru. First the government in colonial style attacked the poor, their official propaganda labelling them as pigs and accusing them of spreading the disease by filthy ‘pig-like’ habits. The poor retaliated with demonstrations against state officials.

In different  histories from a class based anti-colonialist view of the world, a “victim-agency” axis has developed. We stake no place on such an axis, given that there are so many people in the world who are victims of a capitalism rooted in colonialism, and who also express both opposition and alternatives to its dynmics.If there are many victims in this account, when it comes to contagious diseases there is also a story of agency in what did not happen. In numerous outbreaks of epidemics over the last 650 years, what stands out is how few instances of violent scapegoating there are. With a few exceptions the post World War I influenza epidemic saw repeated city-wide acts of solidarity. Where there were violent attacks on minorities,  it was consistently led from on high, by rulers. Between 1319-21 there were brutal murders of lepers in southern France and a mass pogrom across Europe against Jews during the Black Death of 1347-51. This followed a continuous series of attacks on Jews, lepers and heretics from the Church hierarchy, starting with the  Lateran Council early in the 13th century. Lepers and heretics were more or less interchangeable and all officially oversexed. In the 16th century it is the rulers of Florence who expel the poor. In the 20th century  Ottoman and German rulers seized on typhus, a disease that also affects the skin, to make homicidal political capital. During the Armenian genocide, Turkish physicians backed by the state planned and executed the mass murder of supposed human carriers. In Germany, where a Museum of Hygiene was created in 1907, the same disease, lice-carried, prompted governments from the late 19th century to the Nazis to isolate, quarantine and attack the poor, especially Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia. The Nazis simply went a step further by creating the very conditions in ghettoes likely to prompt typhus outbreaks.

In a voice all too familiar to present day ears Himmler declared it was ‘not a question of ideology’ but ‘of cleanliness.’ W e now have a Polish politician of the ruling party using scientific mumbo-jumbo to talk of the  “Parasites and protozoa,” that migrants are bringing from their countries full of dead bodies. The Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai justifying migrant deportations talked of migrants bringing a “profusion of diseases like hepatitis, measles, TB and AIDS.” Fascistic USA think-tanks are inciting such attitudes in Germany, citing one Doctor Jan-Thorsten Gräsner, director of the Institute for Rescue and Emergency Medicine talking of 5% of asylum seekers carrying resistant germs which is extrapolated by the gatehouseinstitute to mean 75,000 slimily labelled ‘newcomers’ with highly infectious diseases. Other quotes talk of a shortage of vaccines for native Germans in that voice of selective zero-sum scarcity so characteristic of post 2008 capitalism. A cosmopolitan resistance to such filth might ask why in the case of vaccines Mr Supply fails to meet Miss Demand as is now the case with Yellow Fever, the disease that hammered British and French forces over 200 years ago and which is now threatening African cities. It also requires a sense of how much such attitudes  originated in colonial tropes even before the advent of ‘scientific’ racism; its careless arrogance, aggressive paranoias, and the treatment of people as commodities, only acceptable when demographically useful, frightened to ask for a proper wage, and given a clean bill of health like the slaves of 18th century Jamaica.






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