The Problem of Survival

  • Philip D. Curtin


During the whole of the nineteenth century, the most important problem for Europeans in West Africa was simply that of keeping alive. Until the 1840’s the essential facts about the “climate” remained what they had been in the eighteenth century. Any European activity exacted an appalling price. Every assignment of missionaries or officials, every journey of exploration, every trading voyage or anti-slavery patrol took its toll. Unlike the situation of the later eighteenth century, when men could plan in optimistic ignorance, the facts were now more broadly publicized. Lind and some others had spoken out earlier, but the coastal experiments of the 1790’s brought the image of West Africa as “the white man’s grave” into new focus. The initial death rate for Europeans sent to the Province of Freedom had been 46 per cent. The Sierra Leone Company lost 49 per cent of its European staff, and the Bulama Island Association lost 61 per cent in the first year.1 These figures were not far out of line with the eighteenth-century expectation of a 20 per cent loss from the crew on a slaving voyage to the Coast, but they were something to ponder.


Eighteenth Century Cerebral Malaria Yellow Fever Initial Death Rate Guinea Worm 


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  • Philip D. Curtin

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