Of all the forms of pica that Humboldt cited in the first edition of his Aspects, the saddest, most unsettling story was that of the African Guinean eaters of caouac, who, brought as slaves to the West Indies, tried desperately to obtain a similar, familiar clay. Medical journals and travelers alike wrote of the earth-eating habits of the slaves: from the reddish-yellow earth sold secretly in the market in Martinique to the smooth and greasy clay preferred in Jamaica, “cohesive in its nature; but dissolv[ing] easily in the mouth.” But while Humboldt claimed the Otomacs ate clay without damage to their health, the pica described on the plantations was very much a disease: ravenous, epidemic, and usually fatal.
The chlorosis of lovesick European girls was cachexia Africana (cachexia from the Greek for “bad habit”) among the slaves, or, in the Francophone West Indies, mal d’estomac. “This consists usually of charcoal, chalk, dried mortar, mud, clay, sand, shells, rotten wood, shreds of cloth or paper, hair ” wrote the American doctor F. W. Cragin in a somewhat typical report from Surinam in 1834. “Some pick and eat shreds from the garments they wear, till it can no longer be kept upon them; others swallow with avidity their hair which they pick from their own heads, until they are nearly bald before they are detected ” As with chlorosis, cachexia Africana was part of a syndrome consisting of lethargy, swelling, pallor. Rumors abounded of entire plantations laid waste from earth eating. By then, medicine no longer blamed chlorosis or pica on “rotting seed”; the debate then was whether the problem lay with the stomach, the “nerves” of the stomach, or the diseases of “mind and spirit” which might influence those nerves. The debate over pica among slaves ran along similar lines. In the 1803 Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves in the Sugar Colonies, an anonymous “Professional Planter” attributed it to the “power of the passions.” The passion in this case was not unrequited love, but a “great depression of mind,” due in no small part to unkind masters.
In Southern publications like The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, The Southern Medical Reports, The Virginia Stethoscope, theories abounded. Some reasonably suspected “an irregular and inadequate supply” of bad food. So thought David Mason, Esq., in Jamaica, who began his report from the 1830s in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, by citing Humboldt’s travels among the Otomacs. For others, it was an illness particular to blacks, akin to other racist, pseudoscientific concepts like drapetomania (the desire to run away) or dysaethesia Aethiopica (literally “Ethiopian poor sensation,” also known as “pathological rascality.”) Still others, while avoiding conclusions about the “Negro constitution” blamed “Negro superstitions,” like beliefs in sorcery or attempts, through suicide, to return to their ancestral land.
In the face of such epidemic pica, plantation owners—who sometimes acted as the resident physicians—offered a range of cures. Fortunately, as with Sydenham’s iron elixirs, the treatments were often far more reasonable than the diagnoses. The Practical Rules may have blamed the passions, but it prescribed nourishment: not only fortifying iron filings but meat from the master’s own table as well as a glass of wine or porter every day. Such treatment was far from merciful. “Good food,” “clothing,” and “shelter” were usually given with a dose of “discipline” and “exercise” as well.
Other cures were more horrific. Knowing well of West African beliefs in resurrection, some planters decapitated those who had died eating earth so as to render their bodies worthless in the afterlife. Some engaged in similarly brutal treatment of the living. As Cragin noted in Surinam—but widely practiced elsewhere too—“a metallic mask or mouthpiece, secured by lock, is the principal means of security for providing against their indulging in dirt eating, if left for a moment to themselves.”
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