- Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914
In Mosquito Empires, McNeill offers the first sustained examination of the major role of mosquito-borne diseases in the grand sweep of Caribbean history. By bringing modern biological knowledge of yellow fever, malaria, and the environments that sustain their insect vectors to bear on the history of European struggles to build and maintain empires in the region, McNeill argues that differential resistance to these diseases explains how Spain and Portugal successfully held nearly all of their colonies [End Page 483] against their rivals for so long, as well as why both Spain and Britain ultimately lost their mainland empires in the Americas during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The book is impressive in its scope, and it brings to the foreground a topic that has too long been an afterthought in the historiography of the region.
McNeill reveals a genuine passion for this subject. In a few instances, however, his excitement gets the best of him, such as when he attributes the origins of Great Britain to “the fevers of Darien” (119). The failed 1698 attempt to colonize Darien, in present-day Panama, effectively bankrupted Scotland; the English offer to pay off the resulting debts in exchange for union proved too attractive to refuse. McNeill documents how sickness—including, probably, malaria and yellow fever—took a heavy toll on the colony. But facing repeated attacks by Spanish forces determined to regain complete control over the strategically vital isthmus, and an English embargo that cut off any practical source of re-supply, the tiny settlement had virtually no hope of success even if it had remained healthy. Despite prompting the occasional overreach of this sort, his enthusiasm for the topic mainly yields delightful prose that is engaging, accessible, and a pleasure to read.
The most controversial aspect of the work is its reliance on retrospective diagnosis, the use of present medical knowledge to illuminate past events, against which many historians of medicine counsel. This book demonstrates both the promise and the pitfalls of the approach. Done carefully, retrospective diagnosis can provide fresh insights on even much-studied historical episodes. For example, the resistance to malaria and immunity to yellow fever that Spanish defenders had acquired—and the newly arrived armies to the region did not possess—go a long way toward explaining the repeated and otherwise puzzling failures of Spain’s stronger rivals to pry away its valuable colonies in and around the Caribbean. Given the potential for such advances, a blanket prohibition of retrospective diagnosis is plainly unwarranted. Too frequently, though, current knowledge displaces rather than complements a historian’s efforts to reconstruct contemporary understandings of disease. Historical figures’ relative ignorance is then easily seen as powerlessness, and disease alone comes to be viewed as dictating the course of history. This is the concern that motivates the opposition to retrospective diagnosis, not a desire to spare people of the past from ahistorical ridicule as McNeill suggests (63). Despite McNeill’s anticipatory protests (6), the book often lends itself to such an overly deterministic reading.
On the whole, however, Mosquito Empires is a valuable addition to the historiography of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Caribbean. Students and scholars of the region, of environmental and ecological history, and of the history of medicine will benefit from reading and discussing it. [End Page 484]