- Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914
John R. McNeill's Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 is a wonderful book, as fun to read as it is thought-provoking and informative. McNeill brings to bear an ecological perspective on the development of the Americas: in his retelling of three tumultuous centuries of Greater Caribbean history, the feeding imperatives of bloodthirsty mosquitoes change the course of human affairs. This book represents a significant contribution to numerous historiographies, perhaps chief among them Atlantic history. However, McNeill's interest lies so clearly in the intertwined nature of global phenomena that I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the multiple links between disease, ecology, warfare, and geopolitics—in short, anyone who is interested in contemplating the interconnected nature of the world.
The stars of McNeill's book are two "tiny amazons" (p. 5), the Aedes aegypti and the Anopheles quadrimaculatus, and his argument concerns [End Page 840] the tremendous influence these mosquitoes exercised as the female carriers of two deadly viruses: yellow fever and malaria, respectively.
McNeill's contention is bold but simple: he writes that as vectors of these diseases, these two insects "underpinned the geopolitical order in the Americas until the 1770s, after which they undermined it, ushering in a new era of independent states" (p. 5). In his defense of this thesis, McNeill combines an impressive grasp of the science of disease transmission and the changing ecology of the Greater Caribbean with the evidence provided by several violent struggles in the region. These include the Dutch occupation of Recife in northeastern Brazil (1624-1654), French attempts to settle the colony of Kourou in Guyana (1764-1765), and the Haitian and American revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century. McNeill's conclusions about the role of yellow fever and malaria in determining the outcome of specific engagements is in large part informed speculation, as he himself explicitly acknowledges on numerous occasions through his recourse to words such as "surely," "likely," and "perhaps." Nonetheless, he makes a powerful case for the two diseases' role in shaping the regional balance of power over multiple centuries.
McNeill's successive exploration of similar events in different places at different times does get a bit repetitive, and his unwavering emphasis on the role played by the mosquitoes in each and every episode does seem too deterministic. However, McNeill's prose is so lucid and kinetic that he keeps the book's momentum going throughout its eight chapters. The flourish with which he closes his brief introduction commences a thrilling tour through Caribbean history: less fusty historian than master narrator, McNeill pulls back the curtain and invites the reader to "turn to the tandem careers of two of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, war and pestilence, as they galloped along the coasts of the Caribbean" (p. 11).
McNeill proceeds to guide the reader through the various acts of the drama with clarity as well as verve. He offers excellent explanations of the mechanisms by which the viruses are transferred between and among insects and humans, and the various factors that contributed to creating optimal conditions for both the mosquitoes and the diseases they carried. Differential immunity (resistance to the diseases due to prior exposure) and herd immunity (a community's protection from disease epidemics due to the overwhelming presence of people with prior immunity) are the terms that McNeill employs to describe two concepts that were poorly understood but that nonetheless played crucial roles in shaping the geopolitical consequences of the insects' potentially lethal bite (pp. 4-5, chap. 2). [End Page 841]
These immunities reflected the evolving socioeconomic realities of the Greater Caribbean. McNeill discusses the changing "creole ecology" of the region that laid the literal groundwork for the rise of a unique and deadly disease environment, and the key roles played in the creation of this ecology by both the ravenous sugar industry and...