Thank You Onesimus of Boston (by Way of Africa)

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

“The irony and glory of being a person of African descent is that when you study your people’s history, along with their many contradictions and foibles that they possessed like all other human beings, you also learn how much your people contributed to the well-being of the people who abused and mistreated them.” – Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2012 

The year was 1721.  The city of Boston experienced one of the most serious outbreaks of smallpox in its history.  One Puritan minister, the Reverend Cotton Mather—best known for his participation in Salem’s witchcraft trials—watched his male slave Onesimus with continued curiosity.  Onesimus, who was born in Africa, had been in the company of people suffering from smallpox, but he never contracted the disease and became sick.

Cotton Mather had, years earlier, asked Onesimus why he did not get sick. Had he ever had smallpox?  Onesimus replied, “Yes and No.”  He told Mather that he had endured a procedure when still in Africa that forever cured him of smallpox.  He explained that you took a thorn and punctured the pustules of a person who had smallpox; the smallpox fluid that came out of the pustules saturated the thorn.  You then took the thorn and rubbed the smallpox juice into the skin of a healthy person.  Occasionally the person who had this procedure done would become mildly ill for a short time, but once they recovered, they would never have smallpox again.

Onesimus noted that this procedure had been done for centuries amongst his people—the Garamantes—in Africa.  The Garamantes appear in the written records of the Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century.  Herodotus considered them a great nation.  We know about Onesimus and his African ethnic identity, along with his people’s knowledge of inoculation and immunization from Cotton Mather’s letters to government officials and physicians.  Initially, when White Bostonians learned that Reverend Mather had gotten this information from his African slave Onesimus, they said that what Mather was suggesting to them was nothing more than “African Witchcraft.”  Eventually the desire to stay alive outweighed White Bostonians’ racism, and people there began to receive inoculations against smallpox. Go figure.

Take the time to consider that the only thing that has changed about immunization and inoculation procedures is the instrument medical professionals use to perform them.  Some scholars argue that an early form of smallpox inoculation had been developed centuries earlier in India.  Indeed, the Chinese developed a method of blowing the scabs from smallpox sores up healthy people’s noses, which was successful.  Yet this method was not as effective as the introduction of smallpox “juice” into the skin of healthy people.  Suffice it to say that there obviously was a continued exchange of ideas between Africans and Asians.  Needles have replaced thorns used by early Africans, but this nearly ancient science was accurate and well on its way to perfection long before any European or Euro-American doctor ever set foot on the North American continent.  If you and your children are healthy and have never suffered smallpox or any number of preventable diseases, then thank an African slave named Onesimus.  Thank the Garamantes of Africa.


Instead of a video game or $200.00 sneakers, give a kid (and yourself) a book!  The story of Onesimus and Cotton Mather is located in numerous books.  Mather’s own medical book, diaries, and letters all give credit to Onesimus.  However, there are several other books worth reading.

Invisible Enemies, Revised Edition: Stories of Infectious Disease by Jeanette Farrell (for children age 12 and up), (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005)

1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History by Jeffrey C. Stewart, (Three Rivers Press, 1998).

The African Background in Medical Science: Essays on African History, Science and Civilizations by Charles S. Finch, (Karnak House, 1990).

Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern (Journal of African Civilizations; Vol. 5, No. 1-2) edited by Ivan Van Sertima, (Transaction Publishers, 1990).

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Leslye Joy Allen is proud to support the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

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