Wordcatcher Tales: Haint Blue

In Savannah, Georgia, last month the Far Outliers toured the Telfair Museum of Art‘s Owens-Thomas House, where we saw haint blue paint on the walls and rafters of the former slave quarters that now serves as a gift shop, waiting room, and exhibit (upstairs). Such blue paint is common in areas influenced by slaves from Africa.

The blue paint is said to ward off evil spirits and, by some accounts, insects. I lean toward the more practical explanation, for reasons elaborated below, but first I want to note an odd set of sound correspondences, where one member of each pair is not just nonstandard, but highly stigmatized.

  • haint ~ haunt
  • aint ~ aunt
  • ain’t ~ aren’t (in r-less dialects)
  • cain’t ~ can’t

I don’t know anyone who pronounces every member of the set with the ai vowel. Nor do I know anyone who has the same vowel in each member of the set. Nowadays, I pronounce each with a different vowel: (roughly) hawnt, ahnt, arnt, kænt. As a kid, I used to say cain’t (as my father still does), but I made a conscious effort to expel such (self-)stigmatized regionalisms from my speech during my youth. Worse yet, I used to tease my Southern Baptist missionary kid cohorts who returned from their furlough years with their regional accents in full flower. Some of my southern Virginia relatives also pronounce aunt the way Andy Griffith did in the name of Aunt Bee on Mayberry RFD (said to be based on Mt. Airy, NC), but I don’t know anyone who pronounces haunt the same way, except in jest.

Has anyone else noticed this odd correspondence set? Are there other possible members of the set?

Enough linguistics; now back to insects. Last year in Japan, I heard that indigo dye had mosquito-repellent properties, among other magical qualities. Historian and librarian Jennifer Payne has compiled some interesting evidence for the beneficial effects of indigo plantations, not just its blue dye. Here are a few excerpts (omitting footnotes).

Agriculture, disease, and slavery were three basic and interconnected aspects of life in Colonial South Carolina. Where one existed, the other two were sure to follow within a very short time. By the mid eighteenth century, rice culture, slavery, malaria and yellow fever were well established as a self-perpetuating cycle which had an adverse effect upon the life spans of the colonists. This study examines the establishment of the “rice-slavery-disease” cycle, speculates on how this cycle was broken by the introduction of indigo, and postulates how indigo effected the yellow fever/malaria mortality rates of Colonial South Carolina….

During the very same fifty years in which indigo took hold in South Carolina, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Persons in Berkeley County near Charleston began to live longer; the number of persons dying during the malarial months [August through November] began to drop. Furthermore, the frequent outbreaks of yellow fever in Charleston began to slow down and eventually, for a time, discontinue entirely….

The most dramatic change occurred between 1760 and 1800 during the years in which indigo gained its height. Only 20% of the males died before forty and some 45% lived to be sixty or more. Moreover, only 18% of adult women died before fifty and some 70% survived beyond seventy. Those statistics involving women are especially revealing for women tended to become victims to malaria during their childbearing years. The fact that a greater percentage of the female population survived past fifty is significant. Thus, according to this evidence, something was enabling the people of Christchurch and St. Johns parishes in Berkeley county to survive malaria and malarial complications during the last forty years of the eighteenth century….

Why was there a decline in malarial mortality and a cessation of yellow fever epidemics? One medical historian jokingly suggested that perhaps the Mosquitoes simply went away for forty years. This might be true. Interestingly, the yellow fever epidemics ended just as indigo gained ground as a staple cash crop. Even more fascinating is the fact that the yellow fever epidemics resumed as indigo culture was rapidly phased out after the Revolution. Although in 1788, 833,500 pounds of indigo were being exported, in 1790, only 1694 casks of the stuff were exported. By 1796, indigo had been virtually eliminated from the agricultural economy. Conversely, the epidemics raged within three years of this decline. Thus, it is quite possible that the introduction, rise, and subsequent fall of indigo production had an effect upon mortality rates in colonial South Carolina….

Was it simply coincidence that yellow fever and malaria experienced a decline during indigo’s rise, or are the two related in some manner[?] Whatever the connection between indigo and the mosquito is, the is little doubt that during the years of indigo’s sudden and swift rise in cultivation, the number of people dying from malaria related complications and those dying from yellow fever dropped markedly. Eliza Lucas Pinckney introduced a new cash crop which helped to make South Carolina one of England’s wealthiest colonies. However, her actions might have also helped the population of South Carolina reduce the fever mortality rates. The introduction of indigo broke the vicious cycle of rice cultivation, slavery, and fever by introducing a method of agriculture which did not rely on large amounts of standing water. Furthermore, the return of yellow fever epidemics in the mid 1790’s coincided with the rapid decline of indigo production due to the loss of the incentive of the bounty. Although the exact nature of indigo’s influence on the mosquito can only be speculated, research conducted to date indicates the probability of a connection between the two.

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Filed under Africa, language, slavery, travel, U.S.

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