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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean 1620-1914

The Mosquito: Wrecker of armies in the Caribbean, 1620-1914

Book Review
Mosquito Empires:
Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean 1620-1914
by J.R. McNeill
Cambridge University Press
published 2010

   A recent trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico and an upcoming trip to the area of Merida in the Mexican south has had me thinking about the Spanish Colonial experience in the Caribbean.   If you go to old town San Juan, you will see an enormous fort, which is essentially guarding the sea, and you might well ask yourself, "Well what the fuck?"   Turns out these massive fortifications, and others in the area, were part of a conscious strategy by the Spanish forts in the new world that would hold out long enough for fever to kill the entire invading army.  The period marked off by the title: 1620-1914, represents the time prior to humans figuring out that mosquitos caused disease, so the Spanish strategy was based more on their simple observation that fever killed almost every European newcomer, whereas local residents (and local armies) had acquired resistance .

   Although it is no doubt horrible to laugh at the enormous human suffering caused by yellow fever and malaria in the Caribbean, it's hard not to chuckle at the ineptitude of various militaries and the medical establishment in their attempts to help people survive.  Quite the opposite, as it turned out.  European medical theories about "Miasmas" and "filth" causing disease somehow led them to treat yellow fever and malaria by draining the blood of their victims, I mean patients.  So risible was the behavior of European trained physicians through this period that McNeil actually apologizes for that being more polite.

    McNeil makes a careful, scholarly case to support this thesis:  That the over-susceptibility of newly arrived European soldiers led directly to the Spanish being able to maintain their colonial Empire for several centuries despite a lack of soldiers and defenses.  This happened time and time again, a fine example of history repeating itself.  McNeil is not exactly setting out to demolish the "Generals and strategy" history of colonial wars, but he is arguing that a) disease played a larger role and b) that the winners (and some of the losers) understood this, even though they didn't understand how mosquito born illness worked.

   This dynamic played an important role in the American Revolution, specifically in the decision of General Cornwallis deciding to surrender in York, essentially ending the War, after a year of chasing Nathanael Green around the rural south- which is part of McNeil's "Greater Caribbean" because of the frequency of mosquito born illness.

  The idea of incorporating the environment into ancient and recent history is several decades old at this point, but a title like Mosquito Empires is a good example of how profitable it can be to revisit historical subjects deemed largely "settled" or uncontroversial, and inserting environmental and ecological arguments into the mix.

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