Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom

Join us for a conversation with Kathryn Olivarius, author of the newly-released Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard UP, 2022).

Antebellum New Orleans sat at the heart of America’s slave and cotton kingdoms. It was also America’s deadliest major, with epidemic yellow fever killing as much as ten percent of city residents each summer. With little understanding of mosquito-borne viruses – and meagre public health infrastructure – a person’s only protection against the scourge was to “get acclimated” and survive the disease. About half of those who contracted yellow fever died.

Repeated epidemics bolstered New Orleans’s strict racial hierarchy by introducing another hierarchy – what Kathryn Olivarius has termed “immunocapital.” White survivors could leverage their immunity as evidence that they had paid their biological dues and could then pursue economic and political advancement. For enslaved Black people, the story was different. Immunity protected them from yellow fever, but as embodied capital, they saw the social and monetary value of their acclimation accrue to their white owners. Whereas immunity conferred opportunity and privilege on whites, it relegated enslaved people to the most gruelling labour. 

The question of good health―who has it, who doesn’t, and why―is always in part political. But powerful white New Orleanians―all allegedly immune―pushed this politics to the extreme. They constructed a society that capitalized mortal risk and equated perceived immunity with creditworthiness and reliability. Instead of trying to curb yellow fever through sanitation or quarantines, immune white New Orleanians took advantage of the chaos disease caused. Immunological discrimination therefore became one more form of bias in a society premised on inequality, one more channel by which capital disciplined and divided the population.

Dr Olivarius is an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, where she has taught since 2017. Her research and teaching focus on slavery’s rise and fall in the American South and the wider Atlantic World, the history of medicine and disease, the history of race and ethnicity, and the social upheaval of the Age of Revolutions.