Fri | Oct 23, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Enslaved African saved America from smallpox

Published:Sunday | September 27, 2020 | 12:13 AM

In 1706, the congregation of a Puritan church in Boston bought an African as a present for their pastor, Cotton Mather. You might think that an upstanding man of the cloth would have rejected that inhumane gift. He did not. Christian piety is totally compatible with exploitation of presumably inferior creatures. Mather promptly branded the African with a Biblical name, Onesimus. Perhaps, he was benevolently predicting Onesimus’ destiny. The biblical character ran away from slavery. The real-life Onesimus eventually bought himself out of slavery.

True-true redemption!

The city of Boston had suffered from waves of smallpox infection in 1677, 1689-90 and 1702. Ships were quarantined and afflicted citizens were isolated in ‘pesthouses’ or held under guard. Perhaps we should have used these primitive methods on all of those potential spreaders of COVID-19 from abroad who irresponsibly violated quarantine orders. Cell-phone tracking was clearly inadequate. The honour system simply does not work with some of us.

Disaster struck Boston again in 1721. A ship coming from the West Indies brought smallpox. Deaths mounted, residents fled the city and the economy collapsed. There was widespread panic. Onesimus told Mather that he had been inoculated against smallpox in Africa and explained the process. Pus from an infected patient was rubbed into a cut on a healthy person’s arm. This deliberate infection, now known as variolation, resulted in immunity. Mather researched the therapy and discovered that it had also been used in Turkey and China. With the zeal of an evangelical Christian, he tried to get the medical establishment to test the cure.

The website of African American National Biography at Harvard University reports that, “Public and medical opinion in Boston was strongly against both Mather and Dr Zabdiel Boylston, the only doctor in town willing to perform inoculations; one opponent even threw a grenade into Mather’s home. A survey of the nearly six thousand people who contracted smallpox between 1721 and 1723 found, however, that Onesimus, Mather, and Boylston had been right. Only two per cent of the 600 Bostonians inoculated against smallpox died, while 14 per cent of those who caught the disease but were not inoculated succumbed to the illness.”


Last Monday, the President of Ghana Nana Akufo-Addo launched the Pan-African Heritage World Museum. He declared, “No one needs to tell us that we have a rich history made up of remarkable achievements in the arts, sciences and technology.” That rhetorical flourish is not entirely accurate. Many Africans on the continent and in the diaspora do not know enough about our collective history and the diverse achievements of our people. Such as Onesimus!

Last October, I gave a public lecture in the Turks and Caicos Islands as part of their National Heritage Month celebrations. I told Onesimus’ story. Edwin Astwood, minister of health, agriculture, sport & human services, was alarmed that he was just learning about Onesimus. Especially since epidemiology is one of his areas of expertise! He studied Health Sciences Management/Microbiology at our own University of Technology. I reminded the minister that it is not unusual for Africans to be written out of history.

The website of African American National Biography notes that, “It is unclear when or how Onesimus died, but his legacy is unambiguous. His knowledge of variolation gives the lie to one justification for enslaving Africans, namely, white Europeans’ alleged superiority in medicine, science, and technology. This bias made the smallpox epidemic of 1721 more deadly than it need have been. Bostonians and other Americans nonetheless adopted the African practice of inoculation in future smallpox outbreaks, and variolation remained the most effective means of treating the disease until the development of vaccination by Edward Jenner in 1796.”


The primary purpose of the Pan-African Heritage World Museum is to ensure that the silences about our history are loudly broken. The museum project was conceived by Mr Kojo Yankah, a former member of parliament in Ghana and the founding president of the African University College of Communications. At the virtual launch, Yankah shared his vision:

“Today, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors to dedicate the Pan-African Heritage World Museum to the youth of the world. Our own story must be told, curated, preserved, and used as teaching materials to lift up their spirits; to raise their level of self-confidence; inspire them to aim for social equality and justice and to make them what we desire for all humanity as equal citizens of the world and to live in peace.”

Unlike Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations, Ghana’s Pan-African Heritage World Museum will not be built by the Chinese. Our far-seeing poet Jean Binta Breeze warns us that, “Aid travels with a bomb”. The Pan-African museum will be funded by those of us on the continent and in the diaspora who must answer Marcus Garvey’s call for self-reliance. As he put it in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey:

“Action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom.” Visit the museum’s website to contribute to this grand enterprise: Three centuries ago, Onesimus claimed freedom. If only we knew his original name. It would be inscribed and sung in the Pan-African Heritage World Museum for generations to come.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and