Medical Discovery

In a small notebook from St. Martin, a medical discovery from the 1800s is recorded. The title of the entry is “A New Discovered Cure for Dysentery.” This remarkable cure is: “a tumbler of good white flour and water, as thick as cream, three or four times a day, or often as the patient may be thirsty, and perhaps there will be no occasion to use it the second day.”

It is a surprisingly simple cure. Seven pages earlier in the very same notebook, another cure for dysentery took up a page and a half. It required many ingredients prepared into powders and pills and given at intervals throughout the day and night.

The new cure was probably more effective. Dysentery is an intestinal infection that causes diarrhea. The new cure kept the patient hydrated while their body fought the infection. Starchy, low-fiber flour water could also help stop the diarrhea. By contrast, the old cure included ingredients that would make the patient vomit and have more diarrhea.

This flour water cure seems better than the many cures full of poisonous chemicals. It also seems a lot like drinking arrowroot pap, a thick, starchy drink made from arrowroot. Arrowroot was used as food and medicine by Amerindian people in prehistoric times. Drinking arrowroot pap for intestinal problems was already widespread long before this “new” recipe was written down.

This suggests the transfer of knowledge. On the same page, there is a “Tysan to break a fever.” The French word tisane means herbal tea, so it seems knowledge was shared between French and English speakers. More importantly, the tea included local herbs: “stinging weed roots” and “black dog roots.” Caribbean plant medicine came from African and Amerindian traditions. This notebook seems to show these traditions being absorbed by Europeans.

Were these “new” cures drawn from different traditions?

Many of the cures in this notebook are credited to someone. Often it is Dr. Allaway, who owned a plantation in Colombier. The dysentery cure and fever tea do not credit anyone. Perhaps this is because they were learned from an enslaved healer.

Though we won’t ever know the exact history of these cures, it is interesting to see the adoption of cures that may reflect non-European healing traditions. The mixing of cultures and traditions makes the Caribbean a rich and vibrant place. The colonial system was largely dismissive of the knowledge and heritage of the people it ruled, but in this case perhaps they were able to learn a few things.

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