Mosquito Empires

Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

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J. R. McNeill, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 371 pp.

Reviewed by Kilian Harrer

Mosquito Empires by John McNeill is an attempt to rewrite Caribbean history as driven not just by grand human designs, from imperialism to struggles for independence, but also by the infinitely less conspicuous activities of disease-transmitting insects. This book stimulates broader reflections on human and non-human agency as well as foreseen and unforeseen consequences of human action, but above all the author succeeds in interweaving 300 years of environmental and military history in the Atlantic World. He argues that epidemiological patterns of diseases transmitted by several mosquito species heavily influenced imperial and revolutionary fortunes until late nineteenth-century breakthroughs in medicine and sanitation greatly reduced the dangers of yellow fever and malaria. Advantageous immunity rates first helped the Spanish hold on to most of their Caribbean colonial possessions against armies that rival powers repeatedly sent from Europe. Then, in the Age of Revolutions, colonists and slaves seeking independence were aided by the same mechanism of ‘differential immunity’ in their struggles against European imperial troops in Virginia, Haiti, New Granada, and elsewhere. This stunning entangled history of people and mosquitoes can serve as an entry point to a larger question that teachers and students may want to ask in many global-scale classes: how have non-human forces caused the global effects of human action to diverge spectacularly from the actors’ intentions?

While the complexity of McNeill’s multi-site narrative and the biological details with which he confronts the reader may deter some from delving into the story, I think the author has done a remarkable job of making his book as accessible as he could. Following a short but instructive introduction, Chapter 2, “Atlantic Empires and Caribbean Ecology,” could be an especially useful read for virtually any class in which the political and/or environmental history of the early modern Caribbean takes center stage. This chapter provides an overview of the imperial ambitions and power cultivated at that time by the states of Western Europe, which will be of great use to students with little previous knowledge of the Atlantic World. But it also covers a host of other pivotal topics such as the Caribbean sugar revolutions, the economic and ecological significance of the slave trade, and the conditions under which yellow fever and malaria became rampant. The subsequent chapters could be assigned more selectively, as they consist essentially in a series of case studies—ranging from Dutch Brazil to Cuba around 1900—that enrich the chronology of Mosquito Empires but do not teach radically different historical lessons. Undergraduates should get a good sense of McNeill’s main thread of argument even if they read only a third of the book. On the other hand, the somewhat unusual temporal frame 1620-1914 also might prove very useful in surveys of Caribbean history (or global environmental history, for that matter) that face the challenge of bridging the colonial and post-colonial, or pre-modern and modern, periods.

At first glance, however, and notwithstanding all his didactical efforts, McNeill still seems to present an almost impossible mixture. After all, the traditional history of warfare relies so clearly on individual agency and its impacts, in particular the genius or failings, the courage or cowardice of military commanders—whereas the history of incurable diseases and uncontrollable epidemics illustrates human helplessness and lack of agency with nearly unique poignancy. On the whole, McNeill tends to privilege the latter of those two contrary perspectives, as he repeatedly and provocatively claims to write history “from the virus’ point of view” (e.g. 47, 50). At times, he overemphasizes the merciless anonymity and inexorability of deadly fevers at the expense of the multiple contingencies and individual decisions that are usually thought to determine the outcome of sieges and battles. Especially in the conclusion, he states quite clearly what matters most from his point of view: it is the epidemiological patterns, which he and others have been able to study with admirable rigor. By contrast, the vicissitudes of military campaigns appear random, impossible to account for in ways that meet the standards of scientific explanations, and therefore less interesting.

Nevertheless, students will gain a nuanced understanding of human agency, contingency, and regularity from reading one or two case studies in addition to the structurally-oriented and summarizing chapters. For one thing, the Caribbean ecology was largely human-made. McNeill clearly states that deforestation, monoculture, slavery, and medical practices were all crucial in creating the “disease environments” that allowed mosquitoes to thrive to the point that yellow fever and malaria became devastating at certain points in history (see esp. 25-27, 38, 48, and chapter 3 on “Deadly Doctors”). Moreover, in the case studies, he points out that military tactics continued to matter in the context of ‘siege ecology,’ as did random occurrences such as the failure to unload tents from the British ships that were sent to capture Cartagena de Indias in 1741, which left soldiers unprotected against mosquitoes at night (159).

What students could take away from this, therefore, is not the radical and simplistic idea that human action was irrelevant in Caribbean warfare. Rather, human actions are of decisive importance throughout McNeill’s story—just not necessarily in the way the actors themselves imagined them to be. The key concept here is that of “unintended consequences,” mentioned early on by the author (32). And even if Mosquito Empires fits more easily in the box of Atlantic history than of world history, the lessons that it offers can very well be extended to illuminate phenomena of truly global dimensions. In the history of diseases, AIDS constitutes probably the most important recent example of a world-wide epidemics that took an extraordinary death toll before humans even started to understand, let alone control it. But ultimately, pursuing the theme of unintended and dauntingly severe consequences of human actions, scholars and teachers can take on a stunningly wide variety of issues, among which modern climate change may be the most prominent.

Syllabus Based on this Book

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