Mosquitos and Memory: A Review of J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires

J.R. McNeill

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

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

371pp. $25.99

ISBN 9780521459105

J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 is an excellent reassessment of imperial machinations in the Caribbean. In Mosquito Empires, McNeill argues that the mosquitos Aedes aegypti and Anopheles quadrimaculatus, the vectors of yellow fever and malaria, respectively, were major agents of historical change. For McNeill, yellow fever epidemics (and to a lesser extent, malaria) shaped the course of Caribbean history. McNeill illustrates his point with several case studies ranging from failed colonization attempts such as the Scots at Darien and the French at Kourou to military campaigns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yellow fever epidemics kept rival imperial powers at bay (in the case of the British invasion of Cuba) and later kept European metropolitan powers from suppressing Caribbean revolutions such as those in Haiti and Cuba. European armies could always defeat local Caribbean armies on the battlefield, but they never had the levels of immunity to yellow fever that local populations made up of European colonists, African slaves, and Native Americans had.

McNeill’s argument is clearly influenced and in the tradition of Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, an oft-cited and groundbreaking work that assesses the impact imperial expansion had on ecologies both on the imperial periphery and in the metropole. Crosby illustrates the impact livestock and other invasive species had on the New World, and McNeill definitely follows this methodology when discussing the role that plantation economies had in unintentionally creating landscapes perfect for mosquito reproduction. European colonists cleared massive tracts of forests to make room for both livestock and plantation agriculture. This created space for stagnant water and also provided many hosts for the mosquitos in the form of livestock. Additionally, the constantly damp environments of Caribbean port cities like Havana, New Orleans, and St. Domingue provided mosquitos with better breeding habitats and a large population of human hosts, making these cities ripe for yellow fever epidemics. Most notably, McNeill notes that the transatlantic slave trade directly brought yellow fever and malaria-carrying humans and mosquitos to the New World. He points out the irony of diseases originally brought to the Americas via the slave trade eventually helping end it in places like Haiti, where revolting slaves simply had to wait for invading British and French armies to whither and die from epidemics. 

McNeill’s discussion of the landscapes of plantation economies (from plantation fields to the ports that exported their goods) as incubators of deadly epidemics was one of the most impactful parts of the book. For me, it showed that even the very landscape produced by the slave trade produced mass death. This exploration of a further dark side of the often idyllically portrayed plantation system further underscored my own support and desire for a revamped historical interpretation at plantation sites throughout the American South, which outside of a few on the Eastern Seaboard still mainly interpret the plantation as a charming historical home with little to no discussion of the institution that they represented. This is in keeping with new developments in the field. In a session titled “Living Landscapes” that I attended at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting, Anne Lindsay of the University of Central Florida argued for a change in the way plantation homes are interpreted. She advocated a new form of interpretation that brings the landscape to the forefront instead of the home itself. This book, with its discussion of how land clearing, livestock, and the slave trade made large disease-carrying mosquito populations explode, could make this prospect even more feasible and connect it to the issue of human impact on the environment. McNeill’s book also briefly mentions huge yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans, which aren’t discussed much in New Orleans historical sites. This also really made me think about historical events that communities choose to remember versus those that they choose to forget.

Another aspect of Mosquito Empires that provides a much-needed corrective to traditional narratives is McNeill’s discussion of military campaigns throughout the Caribbean. One thing I’ve noticed with the majority of military history books is that they will briefly mention the greater amount of casualties caused by disease during pre-twentieth century wars, but quickly return to a focus on generals and battles. McNeill (and a book that he cites, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War) is part of a growing historiography that shifts military history to focus on disease, medicine, and science. When one considers that the overwhelming majority of deaths in pre-twentieth century wars were due to disease, it becomes obvious that our knowledge of what these diseases were, how rampant they were, and the impact that they had on the outcomes of war have been underrepresented in historiography. McNeill explores Cornwallis’ campaigns in the American South during the American Revolution and comes to the conclusion that mosquito-borne illness, not American and French battlefield superiority, ultimately drove him to surrender at Yorktown. He sarcastically ponders the absence of monuments to the mosquito at the Yorktown battlefield, and frankly, this is a very good point. In popular American memory of WWII, the rampant amount of diseases such as malaria in the Pacific Theater is almost unknown outside of recent productions like HBO’s The Pacific. In most of human history, armies in the tropics have literally been composed of very sick men, yet this image is practically unheard of in popular ideas about the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and WWII.

Mosquito Empires is an excellent work of ecological and environmental history. McNeill is also excellent at telling the story of a region, the Caribbean, rather than one limited to a particular nation. There are a couple of gripes I have with the book, but those are limited to his reliance on shaky evidence for retroactive diagnosis and his chapter on the United States in Cuba and Panama, which I found engaging but much too short when compared with the other chapters. This is a very readable work that synthesizes historiography and scientific literature into a fascinating discussion of how the annoying mosquito shaped the Caribbean. It is a pity that this method of combining natural and environmental history with political and military history is not more widely used in historic sites such as plantations. That’s up to the next generation of historians.

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