J. R. McNeill’s fascinating study of the impact of mosquito-borne disease in the early modern Americas is both a military and an environmental history, attentive to geography, ecology, and pathogens as historical inputs. He shows both how human imperial designs rendered a new ecology in the Greater Caribbean, and in turn how this ecological zone fostered disease patterns that strongly influenced subsequent military outcomes. While there is little discussion of maritime matters here, McNeill offers much food-for-thought regarding the related subjects of Atlantic history and the impact of health on military enterprises. When considering how to apply this book to my own historical work, I found most interesting McNeill’s ability to work with contingencies and unknowns.
The uncertainties that come into play in Mosquito Empires might be roughly categorized as the scientific and the historical-intellectual. The monograph’s scientific uncertainties include the extent that West Africans might harbor some degree of inherited resistance to yellow fever, and whether survival of dengue also gives the survivor yellow fever immunity. Also, often it is impossible to know for certain whether a specific documented epidemic really was yellow fever. McNeill is careful to make a case for strong probabilities based on the available evidence, and communicate that these remain uncertainties.
What I am calling historical-intellectual uncertainties include the extent that human actors understood the disease differentials between local populations and newcomers, and their ability to use this knowledge. For instance, McNeill writes, “[p]erhaps Bolívar and his allies knowingly exploited differential resistance and immunity as part of their strategy. Morillo seemed to think they did” (285). In this case we cannot know exactly what Bolívar was thinking. It is important, because if knowledge is power, we attribute more agency to Bolívar (and Louverture, Washington, etc.) if they acted knowingly. To portray their successes as the dumb luck of disease environments risks reaffirming troubling notions about imperialism and its speechless subalterns.
Of course, just like in algebra class, unknowns can pose problems. A wider audience might feel that McNeill’s caveats and conjectures undermine his expertise. Comments like “nothing more than guesswork is possible” do not instill confidence (293). This question of expertise gets to some of the issues discussed by Timothy Mitchell in “Can the Mosquito Speak?” While McNeill takes one factor, the mosquito, and looks at how it influenced many events, Mitchell’s paper looks at one event, the devastating 1942 malaria outbreak in Egypt, and the multiple factors that went into it.[i] At times by emphasizing the power of disease and disease vectors McNeill verges on reaffirming a binary of human agency and nonhuman “nature”. Mitchell, on the other hand, demonstrates that not only is that a false construct, but that it can be used to further powerful interests. In the McNeill book, by embracing and communicating the unknowns clearly, he somewhat avoids playing into such political interests.
At least, until the very last sentence when he inexplicably asserts that yellow fever’s “career as a governing factor in human history, mercifully, has come to a close” (314). In a book full of uncertainties, this seemed to me an odd place to suddenly be so sure of something. Personally I am very comfortable contemplating uncertainties and found Mosquito Empires a delightful read and a useful model for approaching Atlantic and imperial history. In practice I might attempt to isolate my variables more, but often, especially in ecological history, this is not possible.
[i] [i] T. Mitchell, Rule of Experts. (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), p. 28.