Herbal Treatments in Africa for Malaria in the 19th Century – A Hit-and-Miss Affair

Sir Richard Burton (181821-1890), The National Portrait Gallery

Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), The National Portrait Gallery

Malaria was a major scourge for colonial explorers in tropical Africa – as, indeed, it is today.  Since the malady was unknown in northern Europe and the UK, treatments during the colonial era were hit-and-miss.  Some of the concoctions were probably more dangerous than the disease, as the following passage from one of the works of Sir Richard Burton makes clear (reference at bottom – highlighting mine).

Under such media the disease, par excellence, of the Gaboon is the paroxysm which is variously called Coast, African, Guinea, and Bullom fever.

Dr. Ford, who has written a useful treatise upon the subject,7 finds hebdomadal periodicity in the attacks, and lays great stress upon this point of chronothermalism.

He recognizes the normal stages, preparatory, invasional, reactionary, and resolutionary. Like Drs. Livingstone and Hutchinson, he holds fever and quinine “incompatibles,” and he highly approves of the prophylactic adhibition of chinchona used by the unfortunate Douville in 1828.

Experience in his own person and in numerous patients “proves all theoretical objections to the use of six grains an hour, or fifty and sixty grains of quinine in one day or remission to be absolutely imaginary.” He is “convinced that it is not a stimulant,” and with many apologies he cautiously sanctions alcohol, which should often be the physician’s mainstay.

As he advocated ten-grain doses of calomel by way of preliminary cathartic, the American missionaries stationed on the River have adopted a treatment still more “severe”—quinine till deafness ensues, and half a handful of mercury, often continued till a passage opens through the palate, placing mouth and nose in directer communication.

Dr. Ford also recommends during the invasion or period of chills external friction of mustard or of fresh red pepper either in tincture or in powder, a good alleviator always procurable; and the internal use of pepper-tea, to bring on the stages of reaction and resolution.

Few will agree with him that gruels and farinaceous articles are advisable during intermissions, when the patient craves for port, essence of beef, and consomme; nor can we readily admit the dictum that in the tropics “the most wholesome diet, without doubt, is chiefly vegetable.”

Despite Jacquemont and all the rice-eaters, I cry beef and beer for ever and everywhere! Many can testify personally to the value of the unofficial prescription which he offers in cases of severe lichen (prickly heat), leading to impetigo. It is as follows, and it is valuable:—

Cold cream. . . . . . . . . . 3j.
Glycerine . . . . . . . . . . 3j.
Chloroform . . . . . . . . .3ij.
Oil of bitter almonds . . gtt. x.

7 “Observations on the Fevers of the West African Coast.” New York: Jenkins, 1856. A more valuable work is the “Medical Topography, &c. of West Africa,” by the late W.F. Daniell, M.D., 1849. Finally, Mr. Consul Hutchinson offered valuable suggestions in his work on the Niger Expedition of 1854–5 (Longmans, 1855, and republished in the “Traveller’s Library”).

Source:  Richard Burton:  Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, vol. I, 1876

For unknown reasons – probably genetic – in all of my years in malaria-ridden areas of Africa (including here in Burundi) I have never had malaria.  That has been a great blessing.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Colonialism, Health, History-Recent, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Herbal Treatments in Africa for Malaria in the 19th Century – A Hit-and-Miss Affair

  1. Pingback: Colonial Musings on Mount Cameroon: Out with the Plantains! In with the Coffee & Sugar! « Dianabuja's Blog

  2. Karen says:

    Not a pleasant treatment, that palate-opening one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s