Meet Onesimus, The Enslaved Man Who Saved Boston From Smallpox

Black and white illustration depicting a map of the city of Boston, Massachusetts, USA, in the year … [+]

When a smallpox epidemic ravaged Boston in 1721, a doctor named Zabdiel Boylston got the seemingly crazy idea to expose healthy people to small amounts of pus from smallpox patients. The healthy people would get sick, but not as sick as if they’d caught a full-fledged case of smallpox, and they would have lifelong protection against smallpox. Boylston called it variolation or inoculation, and he got the idea from Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who used his pulpit and his fame to advocate for the wildly unpopular new preventive measure. And Mather, in turn, got the idea from an enslaved man named Onesimus.

Onesimus was the central player in this story, but in most tellings, he steps onto the stage, helpfully gives the vital piece of information to his white enslaver, and then fades out of the story again. Who was the man, really?

Nearly everything concrete we know about Onesimus comes from Cotton Mather’s diary, with a few potential glimpses in later church and civic records. We can say for certain that he was an enslaved person in Massachusetts in 1706, but we don’t know whether he was a new arrival in North America or had been there for some time. It’s almost certain that he was born in western Africa, because he’d been inoculated against smallpox as a child in a traditional West African way.

PROMOTED

We know that he joined Mather’s household in December 1706, when the Puritan congregation of Boston’s North Church decided that a live human being would be the perfect gift for their fiery witch-trial-veteran minister, Cotton Mather. And we know, of course, that during the years of his enslavement, Onesimus told Mather about inoculation against smallpox.

Additionally, we know that he had a family, a livelihood, and ambitions of his own. Mather’s diary mentions that Onesimus was married, but doesn’t mention any further details about his wife, and that probably means that she didn’t live in the Mather household. We have no way to know if Onesimus’ wife was also enslaved in another household, or if she was a free woman. In either case, the couple had – and lost –at least two sons. One died in 1714, and another in 1716. Mather refers to one of the children as “Onesimulus,” but it’s likely that the minister was just trying out some clever wordplay rather than using the child’s actual name.

During Onesimus’ years of enslavement, he also worked on his own time, outside the Mather household, for pay. He did this with Mather’s permission, and the minister apparently thought he was being quite generous. We have no way to know what Onesimus’ paying job was, but by 1716 – a few months after losing his second son, and a few years before the smallpox epidemic of 1721 – he was able to free himself from Mather – sort of.

Life After The Mathers

First, Mather demanded that Onesimus buy another enslaved man to act as his replacement. Then he wrote up a contract requiring the allegedly free man to visit the Mather house every evening to bring in firewood, shovel snow if there was snow to shovel, fetch water, and carry corn to the mill when necessary – without pay, of course. Onesimus also had to pay Mather 5 pounds to compensate the minister for the time Onesimus had spent working to earn his own wages.

Along with all of those demands, the city of Boston’s selectmen also required more unpaid labor from Onesimus and every other free Black man in the city. On assigned days, every free Black man in Boston was required to help with road and highway repairs and other infrastructure maintenance; the records of those drafts are now one of the only clues we have about the lives and demographics of free Black people in Colonial Boston.

The city’s labor draft records tell us, for instance, that Onesimus survived the 1721 smallpox outbreak, because a September 1738 order lists an Onesimus Mather as one of the 6 men being drafted for 2 days of work.

Origin Story

If we read between the lines of written history, we can piece together a bit more about where Onesimus came from, what he believed about the world, how much he knew about smallpox inoculation, and perhaps even what he was like as a person.

Mather mentions that Onesimus came from “Guaramantee,” which is probably Mather’s attempt to spell the name of a town called Kormontse, in what is now Ghana. That doesn’t mean Onesimus once lived in Kormontse, though; English people often referred to anyone from the Akan cultural group, who lived in what’s now southern Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as “Coromantee,” or people from around Kormontse, because the town was a place where European slave-traders bought captive people. It does strongly suggest that Onesimus was a member of the Akan cultural group from modern-day Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Since the 1400s, the Ashanti Empire had been the dominant power in the region, growing dazzlingly wealthy on gold mines and, eventually, slave trading with European merchants. The people known to their enslavers as Coromantee were often taken prisoner during a series of wars between the Fante and Asante (or Ashanti) states. That meant that many of the so-called Coromantee were military captives with military training and experience, and several of them used their leadership and tactical skills to organize revolts against their enslavers.

So what does this tell us about Onesimus? There’s a better-than-average chance that he was a veteran of war, although he could also have been a civilian captive. In either scenario, this was a man who had already seen and survived horrific things. He may have been either Fante or Ashanti; both groups are part of the wider Akan culture, and the Europeans made no distinction.

A Matter Of Faith

The world Onesimus left behind was, in the early 1700s, embroiled in conflict and the supply side of the slave trade, but it was also a place of beauty, art, and wealth. The Akan culture is known for beautifully-worked jewelry, sculpture, and elaborate brass weights for measuring gold, as well as kente cloth hand-woven with colorful geometric patterns.

Throughout his years enslaved by Mather, Onesimus refused to convert to Christianity. Mather records nothing about what his captive audience actually believed, but it’s likely that he followed a version of a polytheistic religion called Akom. Practitioners of Akom believe in a distant creator god and a pantheon of lesser gods and spirits who actually interact with, and hopefully help, living people. Akan stories often feature the trickster god and folk hero Anansi.

Religion became a longstanding conflict between the two men, since Onesimus has no interest in giving up his own beliefs to follow Mather’s god. Mather took that personally, since the Puritan worldview put him in charge of religious indoctrination of everyone in his household. And according to Puritan doctrine, if everyone in the house, including Onesimus, wasn’t a proper Christian, it reflected badly on Mather and risked his god’s disfavor for the whole family. Salvation, according to the Puritans, was a group project with a group grade.

Mather had even written a book on how to convert slaves to Christianity – although it was mostly part of a larger argument that it was ethically okay for Christians to enslave other Christians. We know that Mather taught Onesimus to read and write in English, but even that was just part of the conversion effort. In Puritan New England, reading was seen as an important part of religious education, while writing was mostly for business matters.

Onesimus By Any Other Name

We also know that Onesimus wasn’t the name the once-enslaved man had been given at birth. Most of the time, Akan children are named for the day of the week on which they’re born, followed by another name related to birth order or circumstances of birth – or sometimes a name passed along from an ancestor – and then a family surname. We don’t know what Onesimus’ name was, or what story it might have told him about his birth and his family. All we know is that Mather took it away.

Mather renamed the newly-enslaved member of his household Onesimus, a Greek word that means something along the lines of “useful.” It’s a reference to a slave from a Christian religious text, whose moral seems to be that slaves should support their enslavers and accept their fate. Arguably, a person named Cotton, whose father and son were both named Increase, probably should never have been allowed to name other humans.

The 1738 labor draft suggests that Onesimus kept his Puritan name after leaving Mather’s household, and he apparently also used Mather’s surname, which is something formerly enslaved people sometimes, but not always, chose to do. Perhaps it seemed easier not to change at that point;; perhaps he saw some advantage in using the famous minister’s surname. Or perhaps he used his old name, or a completely different one, in his daily life, but the city government refused to let him change his name it legally. That’s one of the thing we don’t know.

History Is About Real People

The only glimpses we get of Onesimus’ personality come from Mather, who was definitely biased. Reading between the lines, it’s reasonable to see Onesimus as highly intelligent, proud and assertive but also deeply pragmatic, and carrying years of trauma.

Just months after sending a letter to a friend about Onesimus’ account of smallpox inoculation, Mather wrote in his diary that he was frustrated with Onesimus’ attitude and behavior. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that Onesimus was grieving the loss of a second child in two years and probably resented Mather using the loss as another reason to preach at him – but again, we’re reading between the lines, and this is largely speculative.

Mather describes Onesimus as “a pretty intelligent fellow,” and the fact that he learned to read and write in a second language definitely supports that. Onesimus was also ambitious enough, smart enough, and determined enough to secure his freedom and make a living after being ripped out of his old life and forced, as a slave, into a wildly different country and culture.

In other words, Onesimus’ cultural knowledge of inoculation is the thing we remember him for, but if may actually have been the least interesting thing about the man himself.

I am a freelance science journalist, bringing you interesting science tidbits, tales of discovery and critical looks at everything from deadly diseases to space

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