John R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-521-459105. Paperback. 371 pages. $25.99.
In Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914, environmental historian and Georgetown University professor John R. McNeill advances the arguments offered by Alfred W. Crosby in The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972). Crosby argued that the story of Columbus could and should be understood in an ecological framework, as an exchange of diseases (particularly smallpox), plants, and animals from old world to “new”; McNeill continues this line of argumentation chronologically, tracing the connection between ecology, disease, and imperialism in the greater Caribbean through the age of high imperialism and up to the beginning of World War I. Using an abundance of case studies, McNeill moves through time and space with dexterity, crafting a clearly-presented argument that acknowledges the important mutual relationship through which humans manipulate their environment and this ecology, in turn, acts as an agent of historical change in human affairs. As McNeill says in his introduction, “humankind and nature make their own history together, but neither can make it as they please” (6).
Although laid out with elegant simplicity, McNeill’s argument is deceptively complex: in the Greater Caribbean, creole ecologies created by the invasive imperialism practiced by white Europeans during this period served as the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos (brought over on European ships) carrying yellow fever and malaria. Local indigenous populations and early colonizers built up some immunity to these diseases, but those from higher latitudes possessed no such immunity, and new waves of military troops and civilians bent on further colonization provided the mosquitos with fresh supplies of humans to infect. This imbalance (McNeill calls it differential immunity) allowed native and local populations to remain relatively healthy while new arrivals perished in crippling numbers, essentially a reverse of the pattern set during the Columbian exchanges. The eventual result was, McNeill contends, that disease played a powerful role in complicating imperial efforts and often tipped the scales in favor of revolting and rebelling indigenous populations. European imperialists laid the ecological groundwork for their own destruction by importing, unwittingly breeding, and feeding the mosquitos which carried diseases primed to kill them.
It is to McNeill’s credit that he makes this complicated argument, spread over centuries and a reasonably large geographical area, accessible even to non-scholars. When necessary he uses scientific terminology like differential immunity (acquired when exposure to a disease makes individuals more resistant to re-infection) and herd immunity (conferred upon a whole population when a certain number of individuals possess immunity, cutting off the disease’s ability to circulate effectively) clearly, always careful to define how his use of the terminology is applicable to his argument. McNeill is similarly unafraid to adapt or create words of his own, allowing him to be both specific and concise. In the first chapter he defines the geographical spread of the work by establishing the term “Greater Caribbean” in reference to the “Atlantic coastal regions of South, Central, and North America, as well as the Caribbean islands themselves, that in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became plantation zones” (2). This allows him to move freely between Cuba and the Southern United States, between Haiti and Surinam, in service of his argument without particular concern for modern geopolitical boundaries. Perhaps the best example of this technique in action is the phrase “creole ecology,” a concept that beautifully encapsulates the process by which European imperialists, through trade and agriculture, unwittingly shaped the land they conquered into the ideal breeding ground for imported mosquitos and created a “motley assemblage of indigenous and invading species, jostling one another in unstable ecosystems” (23).
McNeill carefully cultivates a light, almost conversational writing style that makes reading this substantial book a real pleasure. Robust footnotes allow the text itself to flow like a cohesive narrative, undoubtedly appealing to non-scholarly readers, while scholars need only look to these footnotes for a wealth of primary evidence and historiographical connections. He doesn’t shy away from humor or the occasional colorful rhetorical flourish (as when he calls “the mutual and reciprocal impacts of geopolitics and ecology” a “cotillion of co-evolution”), even when it might threaten to damage his credibility to some readers (7). McNeill acknowledges that he is privileging a readable and entertaining narrative over the “standards of the historical profession” by describing 17th century medical practices in less-than-neutral terms (63). He’s equally up-front in anticipating accusations of environmental determinism (or “mosquito determinism”), admitting in the introduction that the elevation of one factor of historical change in an argument (in this case, disease) sometimes necessarily requires downplaying other contributing factors (6). Getting this out of the way early and clearly prevents endless hedging and caveats throughout the book. It’s refreshing to find an author willing to pull back the curtain and let the reader see how the sausage is made; I’d argue that in a book this complex, that straightforwardness is necessary.
If I have a concern about McNeill’s occasional tendency to sacrifice subtlety for readability, it’s that he often finds himself in the position of using historical accounts to diagnose diseases, primarily yellow fever and malaria but also dengue, smallpox, and others. As a caveat of my own, I’ll acknowledge that I don’t have much experience with this technique as a form of historical evidence, and I’m not nearly as familiar with the symptoms of these diseases as McNeill is. However, this seems like a risky endeavor; modern scientists, doctors, and historians understand these diseases completely differently than they did two or three hundred years ago, and there’s considerable crossover of symptoms. Misdiagnosis from historical accounts would be easy to do, but McNeill sometimes has to stand on this shaky ground or he’d have nothing to work with. In other cases, McNeill makes deductive leaps from data that I don’t think quite proves his case; for example, when discussing malaria in the Southern U.S. during the American Revolution, he points to the fact that 77% of deaths of people under twenty in a parish in Charleston occurred during the malaria season (209). This correlation is certainly suggestive of a malarial epidemic, but I don’t think it’s sufficient to prove causation or eliminate other possible causes of death. Some things historians can never know for certain, and that can’t and shouldn’t prevent them from trying to tackle important topics anyway, but every once in a while a minor crack like this appears in the armor of McNeill’s argument.
Mosquito Empires is a valuable addition to the fields of environmental history and the history of the age of imperialism. It’s not a complete historical account of the myriad complex factors and historical agents that impacted European imperialism in the Greater Caribbean, but then it doesn’t claim to be. What it is, however, is clear, well-reasoned, honest about its contributions and limitations, and fun to read. In a way it’s also powerfully provocative; the fundamental argument of the book encourages the reader to think critically about the changes humans have wrought on their ecology, and the consequences these ecological changes can in turn have for shaping human events. We might do well to note the parallels as the chickens of our own heavily-industrialized society—species extinction and climate change—come home to roost.