When Yellow Was Not A Cheerful Color: A Review of J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires

Book Review: J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 371 pages. $95.00 (cloth); $24.99 (paper); $20.00 (e-book). ISBN: 978-0-521-459105.

J.R. McNeil’s compelling tale of nature’s part in human history begins with an account of doomed British soldiers and sailors dispatched to take Cartagena, Columbia, from the Spaniards. The retelling of the deaths of 22,000 men out of 29,000 in 1741, mostly from disease, sets the tone of this highly readable book.  McNeill outlines a familiar political history of the Caribbean.  First the Spaniards arrived, followed by Portuguese, French, British, and Dutch who all desired the rich resources of the Caribbean.  He then documents the most powerful of invaders—mosquito-borne diseases—and their lethal, cyclic rule.

McNeill, an environmental historian on the faculty of Georgetown University, clearly proposes that Europeans in search of wealth in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries changed the ecology of the greater Caribbean.  In turn, the changes in the environment unleashed a deadly force in the form of diseases that proved as much a driving force in the area’s history as the human desire for Empire.  That thesis rests on the wings of the female Aedes aegypti and Anopheles quadrimaculus mosquitos.  Their fragile appearance misleads because, as this book reveals, the agents of yellow fever and malaria traveling within their bodies managed to take anthropocentric history down a notch or two.

By dividing the work into three parts, McNeill keeps tabs on the effect of mosquito-borne diseases on economics, military imperial encroachment, and revolutionaries as they fought to shake off rule from across the Atlantic.  Part One sets the stage and names the players that will participate in three hundred years of struggle.  In Part Two, he relates how later arriving Europeans not only fought the established Spaniards with their creole troops already “seasoned” with immunities, but also very powerful diseases.  The author’s three-part strategy does more than provide convenient break points.  It builds on familiar history and then demonstrates how the political power of the region could not be budged by newcomers because of the yellow fever and ecological changes.  In Part Three, when the readers are primed for the importance of disease in the maintenance or gaining of military power, McNeill, brings in some very surprising ideas about the shift of dominance to young nations, including the new United States.  

Because his thesis advances environmental theories, his methods rely upon thoroughly instructing the reader in the biology, behavior, and barrios of mosquitoes.  He examines the establishment of Spanish sugar plantations on the islands.  These labor-intensive operations encouraged the slave trade opened the door for diseases from West Africa.  These were diseases that the Africans either successfully achieved a beneficial biological adaptation or individually acquired immunity.  Once the diseases and their vectors reached the New World, they needed only to wait for new non-immune visitors to continue their life cycles.  Certain agricultural practices and urban water management provided the physical environment necessary for the mosquitoes thrive.

The forty-seven page bibliography consists of fourteen archives and ten pages of material that originated before 1850, including rich primary sources such as memoirs, travel diaries, and military records.  Another list (thirty six pages) of books, dissertations, and other documents generated after 1850 help speak for the author.  Unfortunately, his references are not broken down into primary and secondary sources.  Several citations that give the impression that they are directly taken from primary sources were actually quoted in secondary sources.  For example, words of Major General Robert Sedgwick were actually quoted by S.A.G. Taylor in his work The Western Design: An Account of Cromwell’s Expedition to the Caribbean, written in 1969.  Another lengthy block quote from a colonist is quoted from Hart’s work in 1929.[1]

Because his thesis advances environmental theories, McNeill’s methods rely upon thoroughly instructing the reader in the biology, behavior, and barrios of mosquitoes.  He examines the establishment of Spanish sugar plantations on the islands.  As these labor-intensive operations encouraged the slave trade, a door was opened for diseases from West Africa that the Africans either successfully achieved a biological adaptation or individually acquired immunity.  Once the diseases and their vectors reached the New World, they only had to wait for new non-immune visitors to continue their life cycles.  Certain agricultural practices and urban water management provided the physical environment necessary for the mosquitoes thrive.

In this work, the footnotes cannot be ignored by historians.  McNeill rolls a great deal of information and interpretive rationale into the endnote citations and many, I believe, should have been in the body of the book.  In them, one finds comments such as “the biologists I consulted on this point uniformly accepted the idea of heritable immunity.” These biologists might in the long list of individuals recognized in the Acknowledgments section, but the names and the ideas are not otherwise connected.  On the other hand, a non-historian—or anyone not inclined to navigate through a Sargasso Sea of footnotes—can easily read and enjoy the book.  

Taking these three developed parts together, it is easy to see how this work expands the historiography of multiple topics.  It not only increases the documented political and military history of the Caribbean, but also pulls the United States into the story of the other Americas in a way not associated with US imperialism.  Most epidemic histories emphasize the effect of disease as “swords… scything down…populations.”[2]  This book demonstrates how military powers used disease to their advantage.  Mosquito Empires takes an important place in the burgeoning historiography of the nexus of disease and human endeavors, a field in part engendered by McNeill’s father, William H McNeill, who wrote Plagues and People in 1976.  According to the University of Chicago’s website, the elder “forged that path with a sweeping book that took a new approach to disease history.”  The Oxford University Press rejected the Plagues and People manuscript, saying it was “too speculative.”  The non-academic Anchor Press ultimately published his book.[3]  In the same way, today a medical professional reading Mosquito Empires (published by the Cambridge Press) might squirm over the younger McNeill’s retrospective diagnosis of disease, but the massive amount of research, clearly presented evidence, and the growing acceptance of environmental theories ensure that the sins of the father are not visited upon the son.

 

[1]The work referred to is Francis Russell Hart 1929. The Disaster of Darien: The Story of The Scots Settlement And The Causes Of Its Failure. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin).

[2] J.R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. p.10

[3] The University of Chicago Magazine Website. http://magazine.uchicago.edu/1008/features/a-germ-of-an-idea.shtml. Accessed 3/31/2014.

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