A Seventeenth Century Description of Albinism and Vitiligo

In the late 17th century Irish-born British physician, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), traveled to Jamaica. At the time, that Caribbean island was a British colony. The aboriginal people of Jamaica had been the Taino, but they disappeared after the island was colonized by Spain in the early 16th century. In 1655 the English captured the island from Spain, and the island became a base for pirates, and, later, an agricultural plantation colony.

Sloane wrote a well-known account of his observations in Jamaica, including descriptions of the island’s geography, people, animals, and plants. In this excerpt, Sloane describes a 12 year old girl with a black mother who had white skin and white hair. Based on Sloane’s description, this girl seems to have been an albino.

Albinism is a recessive genetic condition characterized by the absence of pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. Albinism is found in many populations around the world, including among people of European, East Asian, Native American, and Melanesian descent. But the condition is particularly common among people of Sub-Saharan Africa descent.

Well-known people with albinism include Oxford professor William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), American musicians Edgar and Johnny Winter, comedian Victor Varnado, Malian musician Salif Keita, Jamaican reggae artist Yellowman, rapper Brother Ali, and Hong Kong-born fashion model Connie Chiu.

In some cultures albinos have been demonized or persecuted. In western culture, people with albino traits have often been depicted as villains in popular culture. In some African cultures they are believed to have magical properties. In Tanzania, Burundi, and other countries, albinos have been killed for their body parts in recent decades. Witchdoctors use these body parts to make potions. High prices for albino body parts has made albinos targets for attackers who kill them or cut off their body parts.

In some communities albinos are revered, and this may have contributed to an unusually high prevalence of albinism in some indigenous groups in the Americas, like the Kuna of Panama, the Zuni of New Mexico, and the Hopi of Arizona.

Sloane also describes a black man in England whose body was speckled with white spots. That condition was most likely vitiligo. Vitiligo involves the loss of pigmentation on specific parts of the body, so that light-colored blotches appear on various parts of the skin.

The most famous vitiligo sufferer was probably singer Michael Jackson. Others with the condition include Canadian model Winnie Harlow (aka. Chantelle Winnie or Chantelle Brown-Young), and Palanisamy Sathasivam, the governor of Kerala state in southern India.

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