Colby on Olivarius, 'Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom'

Kathryn Meyer McAllister Olivarius. Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2022. 336 pp. $27.87 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-24105-3

Reviewed by Robert Colby (University of Mississippi)
Published on H-Early-America (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)

Printable Version:

In 1853, an exceptionally virulent outbreak of yellow fever enveloped New Orleans. Appearing in May and lingering into October, at least thirty thousand people contracted the disease and twelve thousand perished—roughly one New Orleanian in every ten. The 1853 epidemic was the latest and deadliest of the many the city had suffered across the first half of the nineteenth century. Each appearance of the fever carried off hundreds, thousands, or (as in 1853) tens of thousands of New Orleans’s residents. In doing so, yellow fever exercised dramatic, if surprising, effects on the city’s life. Rather than confronting the causes of their perpetual public health crisis (including but not limited to the poor drainage and subpar sanitation that allowed virus-bearing Aedes aegypti mosquitos to proliferate) or taking prophylactic measures like quarantines, the city’s leaders downplayed yellow fever’s prevalence and mortality. They cast its victims as deserving of their fates, undercut the perceived effectiveness of preventative measures, attributed criticism to political and sectional malice, and, above all, touted the value of “acclimation”—the natural immunity conferred upon those who survived their bouts with yellow fever. The city’s reliance on acclimation (whether this status was real or imagined) imbued established white residents with political and economic status, encouraged the exploitation of recent immigrants to the city, and reinforced the antebellum South’s racial hierarchies. Yellow fever thus not only constantly menaced the lives of residents of the antebellum Crescent City but, as Kathryn Olivarius argues in Necropolis: Disease, Power and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom, reshaped their world through the influence of immunocapitalism.

Historians have, in recent months, rejoined long-running battles over the degree to which pressing contemporary concerns should dictate the subjects and emphases of their research and writing.[1] Ironically, despite having initiated work on this book well in advance of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olivarius has produced a work that speaks remarkably aptly to the present. From the municipal archives, medical records, diaries, correspondence, travelers’ accounts, business reports, and nineteenth-century periodicals that underpin Necropolis emerge themes laden with a dark serendipity: an epidemic disease, the causes and response to which become freighted with political overtones; widely disparate economic impacts; social and economic dislocation; and racialized responses to disease and medical care. Added to these can be Olivarius’s primary focus: the degree to which contagion in New Orleans and its hinterlands (what Olivarius terms the “yellow fever South”) exaggerated and reinforced social, racial, and economic inequality. In other contexts, epidemics might have “flattened social and economic asymmetries, increased the bargaining power of surviving workers, renewed people’s sense of a common humanity [or] reaffirmed their subservience to an omnipotent God.” But, in the yellow fever South, “disease did not attack and destroy existing class and racial structures; it was part of their very foundation” (p. 8). Olivarius thus demonstrates how a sharply focused work of history can also speak directly to the moment in which it emerges.

Necropolis’s beginning roughly corresponds with New Orleans’s acquisition by the United States, which occurred only seven years after the city’s first confirmable outbreak of yellow fever (though the disease had likely been present long before then). The fever’s ripple effects were immediate and apparent. Not only did it play a major role in driving Louisiana into American hands by decimating Napoleon’s Haitian expeditions, but it shaped the ways in which the US approached its new territory. As American officials and settlers succumbed to the disease at an alarming rate, the United States feared for its ability to control the Lower Mississippi River Valley and particularly worried about ceding authority to the preexisting creole leadership. As American arrivals and creoles contended for supremacy, the latter’s acquired immunity gave them an edge. However, whatever their differences, the two groups united around a shared belief that New Orleans’s disease regime made slavery an absolute necessity. They predicated this assumption on the belief that people of African descent possessed a natural resistance to yellow fever, a conclusion that, despite overwhelming and deadly evidence to the contrary, persisted in various forms for much of the succeeding century.

Though immediately and apparently a danger (yellow fever killed at least forty-one thousand New Orleanians by the city’s own count and likely killed two to three times that figure), urban authorities did little to arrest its spread. Indeed, the inaccuracies in accounting for mortality was indicative of New Orleans’s leadership’s haphazard handling of the virus. Instead, civic and economic leaders left residents, for the most part, to fend for themselves. For those with the means to do so, the simplest and safest answer was to abandon the city for healthier environs until the danger passed. But the thousands of men and women who lacked either the capital or the autonomy to move had little choice but to ride out the fever’s regular visits and hope to survive until it inevitably ebbed in the late fall. The thousands who inevitably contracted it relied on an array of doctors who touted an expertise and effectiveness that was often inversely related to the fees they charged. As a result, thousands of newly arrived and aspiring New Orleanians died with veins and purses drained by physicians who (after weathering the fever themselves) vaulted into the city’s elite circles on the backs of the deceased.

Those white residents who survived, however, became “acclimated” to yellow fever, thereby acquiring what Olivarius calls “immunocapital”—a privileged status that gave their peers confidence in their permanence in the community. In an age before antibody testing, whether or not one actually possessed immunity to yellow fever was as much a socially answered question as a medically confirmable one. In other words, until the disease struck, it mattered less whether one was immune than whether one’s peers believed this to be the case. The social nature of immunity provoked heated battles first between creoles and more recent arrivals and, later, among resident New Orleanians, with numerous social privileges at stake. Immunity translated into opportunity; those considered safe from yellow fever were more likely to secure jobs, attain social standing, find a spouse, and otherwise rise in the Crescent City. The unseasoned were disposable, a churning proletariat perpetually thinned by the disease and replaced by fresh arrivals. In survivors’ minds, those who fell prey to yellow fever only proved they were never cut out for life in New Orleans. Those who lived, in a self-fulfilling Darwinian prophecy, had demonstrated their worthiness for social ascent. None of this applied, of course, to those enslaved in the yellow fever South. For these unfortunates, acclimation may have provided some personal peace of mind. Its most immediate effect, however, was to increase the price enslavers put on them, as it made them a safer investment in slave markets like New Orleans’s. Their “acclimation” put on display the nebulous and social nature of this status; slave buyers found it a worthwhile investment—so long as they could trust the would-be seller’s veracity.

Having attained the social, economic, and political privilege immunocapital provided, survivors used these tools to pull any potential ladders up behind themselves. Rather than taking proactive measures to reduce yellow fever as did their peers in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even planter-dominated Charleston, New Orleans’s leadership class regularly refused to do so. Their apathy stemmed in part from their personal insulation from the consequences of their actions. These men and women had the resources to flee the city at the first sign of danger. Politically, voting restrictions prevented the impoverished recent arrivals who were most vulnerable to the disease from casting ballots; by the time they were eligible to do so, most were either immune or deceased. On one hand, the planter and mercantile elite could simply afford to be inert, benefiting as they did from the perpetual replenishing of the city’s underclasses through immigration and the slave trade. On the other hand, they considered plausible recourses intolerably demanding, whether in the form of quarantines that could debilitate business or the higher taxes required to improve the city’s drainage or sanitation. Private measures, meanwhile, proved inadequate to the task at hand.

As a result, New Orleans developed significant ideological responses to yellow fever. It turned out to be much easier to deflect blame onto individuals for contracting the disease (and, in doing so, to bolster the value of one’s own immunocapital), to deny entirely that anything could be done, or to reject the idea that New Orleans was inherently any sicklier than other cities (despite abundant evidence to the contrary) than to proactively confront the fever. That occupying Union forces effectively suppressed yellow fever during the Civil War years through an aggressive campaign of quarantines and improved sanitation should have shamed New Orleanians into acquiescence; instead, they lapsed back into old habits (a choice that, ultimately and intriguingly, contributed to what would become the Slaughterhouse cases). They retooled old arguments regarding the supposed natural immunity of the enslaved into a form of plantation nostalgia aimed at recreating the old order in the postwar world and maintained them until economic shifts and improved medical care rendered the question all but moot in the late nineteenth century.

A close cousin of J. R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires and Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden, Necropolis makes a compelling argument for the near-determinative nature of disease in antebellum New Orleans. While all three works emphasize the importance of mortality in shaping the choices and cultures of the greater Caribbean, they diverge in their preferred points of emphasis. McNeill examines the double-edged nature of tropical diseases in both maintaining colonial empires from outside interference and enabling revolutions within them, while Brown’s study of death’s omnipresence in Jamaica offers a powerful cultural approach to the subject—and delves far more extensively into the ways in which the people enslaved on that overwhelmingly Black island viewed the leveling effects of mortality.[2]

Olivarius, meanwhile, maintains a consistent focus on the cultural and political economy of yellow fever, especially the ways in which yellow fever shaped the praxis of New Orleans’s capitalist class. Indeed, in many ways it is as much a study of how death did not change life in the city as one of the ways in which it did. Under this umbrella, Olivarius’s arguments and interventions are wide-ranging and powerful. The one thing that would strengthen them would be an increased comparison, particularly with New Orleans’s Southern counterparts—cities like Baltimore or Charleston. Several references to Charleston make the absence of such a comparison tantalizing. Olivarius notes, for example, that years—sometimes even a decade—passed without Charleston seeing a victim of yellow fever, and that even that hub of antebellum Southern conservatism spent more per capita on poor relief than did New Orleans. A closer examination of what political, economic, and social choices produced these differences would bolster claims about what made the Crescent City a uniquely Southern necropolis.

Given Necropolis’s emphasis on willing ignorance and intentional futility in response to an epidemic disease, it is hard to imagine a more depressing book to read amid a global pandemic (I can only imagine what it was like to write). It is also hard to imagine one more thought-provoking or more appropriate as a mirror to our current moment. Thus, Necropolis will stimulate all readers—as much the general public as students of medical history, American slavery, capitalism, or the South writ large.


[1]. James H. Sweet, “Is History History? Identity Politics and the Teleologies of the Present,” Perspectives on History, August 17, 2022,

[2]. J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Citation: Robert Colby. Review of Olivarius, Kathryn Meyer McAllister, Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.