Beginning with Columbus’s voyages, diseases from smallpox to influenza, which accidentally accompanied people, animals, and goods from Europe and Africa, set off a demographic catastrophe among American indigenous peoples and helped Europeans win control of the New World with relative ease. Since at least the publication of Alfred Crosby’s path-breaking work in the 1970s, this has been the most common broad assessment [End Page 154] of the significance of viruses and bacteria in early American history. In Mosquito Empires, John McNeill complicates and turns this story around. Far from enabling conquest, introduced diseases—such as malaria and especially yellow fever—kept Europeans (or at least some Europeans, some of the time) from fulfilling their dreams of empire in the Americas, particularly in what McNeill calls the Greater Caribbean, a region stretching from the Chesapeake to northeastern Brazil. Furthermore, beginning in the late eighteenth century, malaria and yellow fever provided decisive help to creole revolutionaries throughout the Atlantic world, pushing European armies made up of particularly vulnerable bodies out of parts of North, South, and Central America for good.
Mosquito Empires tells this story clearly and convincingly, making a strong case to readers unfamiliar with the epidemiology of yellow fever and malaria as well as to environmental historians. These two diseases, McNeill argues, made particularly interesting history both because of the ways their biology intersected with European and African patterns of mobility, settlement, and war and “because their geopolitical significance shifted sharply in the late eighteenth century as a result of new currents in Atlantic world politics” (10). The book first lays out the creation of new disease ecologies in the Caribbean with the beginning of the slave trade, plantation agriculture, and urbanization, after which McNeill shifts to the history of particular military campaigns, explaining how yellow fever allowed Spain to resist multiple British efforts to dislodge it from the Caribbean through the middle of the eighteenth century. In a final section titled “Revolutionary Mosquitoes,” McNeill hones in on malaria’s importance to the American victory at Yorktown and to the even greater role that disease played in revolutions in Haiti and South America. Mosquito-borne illnesses faded as a strategic threat in the Caribbean world only in the early twentieth century, with the identification of mosquitoes as vectors and the implementation—initially to facilitate the construction of the Panama Canal—of public health measures to make Caribbean landscapes less comfortable for them.
Mosquito Empires is impressive in its geographic and chronological scope as well as in the clarity and persuasiveness of its argument. McNeill synthesizes older and recent studies of individual epidemics and of particular colonial military misadventures with a wide range of sources from British, Spanish, French, and American archives. The book is an unusually effective blend of military, political, and environmental narrative at scales from the imperial to the local. McNeill concisely explains imperial [End Page 155] and national goals across three centuries; the often misguided or hapless execution of those goals in colonial and military strategy; and the prosaic but dangerous environmental changes set in motion by the movements of new peoples, animals, and technology around the Caribbean. Planters, slave traders, and generals as well as ordinary free and unfree migrants inadvertently created conditions perfect for Anopheles and Aedes aegypti mosquitoes—the vectors for malaria and yellow fever, respectively—as they built cities filled with rain barrels and plantations lined with ditches all over the Caribbean, even as they formed populations ideally equipped to spread and suffer from both diseases.
In some ways these are not new observations. For more than three hundred years, as Mosquito Empires itself amply documents, newcomers and natives to Caribbean islands and Atlantic coastal and lowland regions as far north as Philadelphia recognized “climate”—inherent qualities of the landscape and weather—as a key factor in colonial and national economies, settlements, and wars. Climate itself, as understood by the subjects of his book, was also a creation of culture. That culture, particularly its elite European...