Onesimus (Boston slave)

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Onesimus (late 1600s–1700s[1]) was an African-born man held as a slave by Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who helped mitigate the impact of a smallpox outbreak in Boston by introducing Mather to the principle of inoculation.[2] In a 2016 Boston Magazine survey, he was declared one of the "Best Bostonians of All Time".[1]


Onesimus' place of birth is not known with certainty. Mather referred to his ethnicity as "Guaramantee", which may refer to the central Sudan, or the Coromantee Akan of Ghana.[original research?][3] He was brought to North America as a slave, and given into Mather's custody by the preacher's congregation in December 1706. Mather named him after a first-century AD slave mentioned in the Bible.[4]

In 1716 or shortly before,[5] Onesimus described to Mather the process of inoculation that had been performed on him and others in his society in Africa (as Mather reported in a letter): "People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop."[4] When Boston experienced a smallpox outbreak in 1721, Mather promoted inoculation as protection against it. However, he cited Onesimus and his people as the source of the procedure, which led to resistance from those suspicious of African medicine.[4] Nonetheless, a physician carried out the method Onesimus had described on 242 patients, a population which experienced only 6 deaths (less than 2.5%), compared to 844 deaths among the 5,889 non-inoculated smallpox patients (more than 14.3%).[4]

In 1721, Onesimus attempted to buy his freedom from Mather, raising funds to "purchase" another enslaved man to take his place. Mather had grown unhappy with Onesimus (who had resisted conversion to Christianity), and suspected him of theft, and thus placed conditions on his release.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b "The 100 Best Bostonians of All Time". Boston Magazine. January 2016.
  2. ^ Niven, Steven J. (2013). "Onesimus (fl. 1706–1717), slave and medical pioneer, was born in the..." Hutchins Center. Harvard College. Retrieved September 21, 2015.
  3. ^ Hayden, Christopher Ellis (2008). Of Medicine and Statecraft: Smallpox and Early Colonial Vaccination in French West Africa (Senegal-Guinea). p. 229.
  4. ^ a b c d "How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox - The Boston Globe". Retrieved 2016-08-31.
  5. ^ "Onesimus (?-?)". Retrieved 2016-08-31.