I’d been warned about bugs well before my arrival in Suriname. Malaria. Chikungunya. Dengue fever. Yellow fever. Mosquitoes in the tropics, so the dominant narrative goes, are disease-laden vectors of contagion, threatening the lives of all who travel here. And so I had the obligatory yellow fever vaccine. I bought a course of malaria pills (at $10/pill no less!). And I had packed up half a litre of deep woods bug spray. Together, these would be my defense against the almost invisible, but life threatening, mosquito.
When the plane started its descent into Paramaribo earlier this year, the flight attendants announced further disease control measures. In the pleasant voice that flight attendants around the world seem to cultivate, the head attendant told us that they would come around to spray the whole plane. Not to worry, she said, the spray was non-toxic. It didn’t matter whether it was or wasn’t, of course, because we had no option. It was a government directive and we wouldn’t be able to land without it.
Much has been written on the topic of human history; that is about how people interacted, worked with, challenged, oppressed, loved, despised, killed, nurtured, and desired one another, and further, how human actions have shaped the world that we think we know. Much less work, however, has considered the agency of non-human actors; that is, it hasn’t considered how the natural world itself operates, and how its actions, in turn, shape human experiences.
But this complex interaction between humans and the environment in which they live is the focus of J. R. McNeill’s 2010 book, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. McNeill describes a complex ecosystem sustained by both natural and human-generated elements. Human processes created conditions for ecological shifts that then subsequently further impacted human processes.
These processes were varied and diverse. Thus land-based colonization activities such as deforestation for plantation development, the introduction of new plant and animal species, canal building, and the establishment of urban port communities led to such consequences as erosion, the emergence of new marshy ecosystems, the disappearance of a range of bird species, and high human population densities ripe for disease transmission.
The processes of the Atlantic slave trade, meanwhile, transported not only enslaved peoples and goods from West Africa to colonial ports, but also mosquitoes and very particular strains of yellow fever.
What resulted is what McNeill calls a “creole ecology” that brought together elements of European, African and indigenous ecologies into a new and sometimes volatile mix that, in his understanding, had an impact on the successes and failures of imperialist endeavours.
McNeill’s thesis rests on the agency of mosquitoes. These mosquitoes, key agents in the colonization process, thrived on sugar plantations, reproduced in the marshy and swampy areas, enjoyed limited predation from birds, and feasted on the rich human blood to be found in high-density port communities.
McNeill describes the process as follows:
“Every transatlantic ship required dozens of barrels of water, and even local vessels needed a few, so every port and ship was a storehouse of fresh water and a nursery for A. aegypti. As sugar gradually made the Caribbean richer, and increasingly a theater of large-scale warfare, select port cities built the water storage infrastructure – cisterns, ponds, wells, canals, and so forth – to service naval fleets requiring hundreds or thousands of barrels of water. A. aegypti could scarcely have designed more suitable cities than Caribbean ports.
Better still for both vector and virus, the ports were all linked by ever-more frequent shipping. Ships, warm and humid below decks and with plent of water casks, amounted to limousines for A. aegypti. As commerce grew, connecting all the ports in one web of regular contact, the Caribbean ports in effect provided a super-city for the purposes of a virus needing to get from one body to the next. Sailors helped move the virus in their bloodstreams while ships transported the vectors. The sugar trade (as well as others) brought thousands of sailors to the West Indies every year, many of them with inexperienced immune systems. They easily fell ill and, while infectious, served to move the virus from mosquito to mosquito and port to port. Not for nothing did yellow fever go by the name mal des matelots … in the French West Indies. Ships in effect were super-vectors, efficiently moving both mosquito and virus from port to port. And ports in effect were super-hosts, providing warm welcomes for mosquito and virus alike. Thus the sugar revolutions created a new world of plantations, population increase, ships, and ports – a world almost tailor made for the yellow fever vector and virus.” (51-2)
Today, A. aegypti is also the most common vector for the chikungunya virus, now spreading across the Americas.
Other mosquitos, Anopheles darlingi and Anopheles albimanus, were known carriers for malaria. The situation in colonial Suriname was further exacerbated by the Dutch penchant for canal and polder building (what McNeill calls “rearranging land and water,” 55). Irrigation and drainage canals still cover the landscape today, mapping the boundaries of former plantations. But such canals also provide ideal habitats for mosquito breeding.
By the end of my two-week preliminary research stay in Suriname, I was pickled in DEET, my body reeking with the sour sweetness of its perfume. But I was also virtually mosquito-bite – and thus disease – free. Others, like the mother of my Paramaribo property manager, were not so fortunate: she had suffered from a long bout of chikungunya in the months prior to my arrival.
My main goal was to evade the mosquito, and if that wasn’t possible, to minimize my risk of exposure. But a consideration of creole ecologies allows me to see mosquitoes as integral actors in the colonial project.
Photo Credit: Sonja Boon
Newspaper Images via delpher.nl
© Sonja Boon (firstname.lastname@example.org). 28 August 2015