J. R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 371 pages, paperback, bibliography.
Mosquito Empires looks to be totally irrelevant to anything related to Presbyterian and Reformed or any church history at all. The author, J. R. McNeill, is University Professor in the History Department and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Despite the apparent irrelevance, the book answered a question regarding Christian missionaries for the author of Presbyterians of the Past. I have read many brief biographies and vignettes in biographical catalogs, encyclopedias, directories, and dictionaries over the years and observed that missionaries in the nineteenth century often died from or were debilitated by diseases they contracted on their fields of service. Often it was said a missionary returned to the States due to sickness. I would say that possibly as many as one half to two thirds of the missionaries’ lives I have read about that lived in the Victorian era and before have suffered in some way from diseases on their fields of service. Thanks to Mosquito Empires, a possible explanation for some of the missionaries’ illnesses, returns home, or deaths is available.
The gist of the book is that mosquito borne disease, the author emphasizes yellow fever and malaria, was a contributing factor in the outcome of wars in the Caribbean, the American Revolution, Central America, and South America, and that the propagation of mosquitoes was increased by ecological imbalance created by the extensive plantation systems developed by colonizers in the areas mentioned. Those residents of the regions with environments conducive to the propagation of mosquitoes that survived having a mosquito borne disease had derringers up their sleeves for battle in the form of resistance to the germ warfare of the buzzing menaces. For example, when the British troops new to the American colonies invaded South Carolina, they were ripe for contracting mosquito borne disease because of little or no antibody resistance. McNeill commented that the South Carolina Tories that had been living in the state for several years had resistance while their colleague soldiers newly arrived from across the sea died left and right. The Spanish occupying their colonies in the Western Hemisphere developed resistance as the years passed but the invading enemies were slain by the sword of the mosquito’s needle. McNeill narrates several conflicts in the course of his book and in each case the air corps under the command of General Mosquito were considerable allies. So, as soldiers invaded territory friendly to the propagation of mosquitoes, they became victims of yellow fever, malaria, and mentioned to a lesser degree, dengue.
Returning to the missionaries and their encounters with disease, it would seem that their relocation to new lands with new diseases led to their sicknesses, leaving the field, and deaths in some cases. Modern missionaries have the advantage of a battery of inoculations for various sicknesses they might encounter in Africa, Central America, Asia, and South America that gives them a leg up in their fight against illnesses in new lands. However, currently it can be seen that new diseases continue to develop with one currently threatening North America that is carried by the effective transmitter of epidemics—the mosquito.
Mosquito Empires is fascinating and well worth reading for its perspective on the influence of the mosquito on history and its unique perspective brings readers to pause and consider how mosquito borne and other diseases have influenced historical events, particularly wars with armies of enemy nations travelling great distances to hostile environments.
The author of Presbyterians of the Past hopes that this review of Mosquito Empires encourages the site’s readers to step outside of their comfort zones of the same old stuff over and over into a wider program involving the publications of varied disciplines.
For an example of a missionary who left the field, in this case China because of malaria, read the biography of Augustus W. Loomis, 1816-1891, by clicking HERE.