Sullivan’s Island Pest House (Quarantine House), South Carolina, USA

The racialisation of the other, with the view to segregating them and giving them inferior treatment, has a long history in the administration of human quarantine in the New World, given its colonial origins through British conquest.

An important publication on the history of human quarantine in America is Joseph Jones’ Outline of the History, Theory and Practice of Quarantine: Relation of Quarantine to Constitutional and International Law and Commerce, published in New Orleans in 1883. Dr Jones was President of the Board of Health in the State of Louisiana. His description of an incident on 29 May 1744, which took place on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston Harbour in South Carolina, while America was still a British colony, reveals an early form of racialisation in human quarantine that later became commonplace in British settler nations such as Australia.

One thousand pounds appropriated for Sullivan’s Island Pesthouse. No ship with negroes from Africa shall pass to town without the negroes staying ten days at the pesthouse, or carried on shore five out of ten days for purification upon pain of confiscation. No one from shore shall go on board said ship; and no one leave said ship under penalty of whipping. The captain, in passing Fort Johnson, shall swear conformity.

Between 1700 and 1775, 40% of the African slaves imported into America came through South Carolina and were quarantined in the four pest houses on Sullivan’s Island under conditions that were as dismal as those on the ships that they travelled on (Johnson, 2008). The sick were administered to by white quarantine staff (Miles, 2014), and those who recovered – from either yellow fever or smallpox – joined the fit ones to be sold to plantation owners who ordered them. An estimated total of 200,000 African slaves went through quarantine on Sullivan’s Island (Miles, 2014). It can be imagined that the picture was one of brute reality of human survival, when the racialised other was a mere commodity with no rights and destined to work until the end of allotted time.



Johnson, Jessica. “Fort Moultrie Seeks Comment on Slave Exhibit”, The Post and Courier, 24 January 2008. Johnson mentions African slave importation “between 1700 and 1775”, however, according to Sullivan’s Island historian Suzanne Smith Smiles, the first pest house, built of bricks and measuring 30 feet by 16 feet, did not appear until 1707, the year a quarantine act was passed in respect of the island, to protect the nearby Charles Town which profited greatly from slave labour. For example, as mentioned in Miles’ 2014 article, a smallpox epidemic in Charles Town between 1759 and 1760 saw an estimated 6000 became sick, over 700 of whom died. Quarantine was put in place to assist the growth of a highly exploitative economy based on imported slavery and displacement of Native Americans.

Jones, Joseph. Outline of the History, Theory and Practice of Quarantine: Relation of Quarantine to Constitutional and International Law and Commerce. New Orleans: E A Brandao, 1883.

Miles, Suzanne Smith. “Fighting Illness at Sullivan’s Island Pest House”, Moultrie News, 21 October 2014.