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Immunity, Capital, and Power in Antebellum New Orleans

Date and Time: 
Thursday, April 26, 2018. 04:30 PM - 06:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Boardroom
Approaches to Capitalism
Meeting Description: 

Historians of Atlantic empires and slavery have long considered New Orleans an outlier among American cities, characterized by its Caribbean-esque tripartite social system of whites, gens de couleur libre, and slaves. But there was another, invisible tripartite hierarchy at work: Orleanians were either yellow fever survivors, in a probationary period awaiting acclimation, or dead. In antebellum New Orleans, alleged imperviousness or vulnerability to epidemic disease evolved into an explanatory tool for success or failure in commodity capitalism, and a justification for a race- and ethnicity-based social hierarchy where certain people were decidedly less equal than others. Disease justified highly asymmetrical social and labor relations, produced politicians apathetic about the welfare of their poor or recently-immigrated constituents, and accentuated the population’s xenophobic, racist, and individualist proclivities. Alongside skin color, acclimation-status, I argue, played a major role in determining a person’s position, success, and sense of belonging in this American “Necropolis.” By fusing health with capitalism, I will present a new model—beyond the toxic fusion of white supremacy with the flows of global capitalism—for how power operated in Atlantic society. It was through successfully performing acclimation that Orleanians could reap the benefits of immunocapital: entry into civic society’s upper echelons and newfound access to credit, specie, and slaves. A white person did not have to be wealthy to be acclimated. But, to a man, the richest and most powerful Orleanians presented themselves to the world as immune.

Kathyrn Olivarius is a historian of nineteenth-century America, interested primarily in the antebellum South, Greater Caribbean, slavery, and disease. Much of her research tries to understand how epidemic yellow fever disrupted society—killing sometimes up to ten percent of the urban population—but also generated culture and social norms in its fatal wake. Beyond the rigid structures of race and unfreedom in Deep Southern society, she investigates if there was an alternate, if invisible, hierarchy at work, with “acclimated” (immune) people at the top and a great mass of “unacclimated” (non-immune) people awaiting their brush with yellow fever languishing in social and professional purgatory. She is also interested in historical notions of consent (sexual or otherwise), slave revolts in the United States and the Caribbean, life insurance, the Haitian Revolution, and boosterism in the American West.