Ours is the latest generation to be engaged in a blood-soaked conflict that has lasted millennia. The quote “we have met the enemy, and he is us” might come to mind, but no. Rather, as E.O. Wilson once wrote: “It is the little things that run the world“. Historian Timothy C. Winegard here offers a sweeping history of major turning points in human history observed through the compound lens of the mosquito. With an estimated compound death toll of 52 billion an insect that is truly worthy of the title “destroyer of worlds”.
Though readers might be suspicious of single-cause explanations for historical events, the general thrust of environmental history books such as these rings true: our historical narratives are particularly enamoured with pivotal wars, politics, religion, and economics, while side-lining the influence of environmental factors. As Winegard shows, though, those stories are no less fascinating.
After a short overview of the mosquito, the diseases it can harbour, and the genetic defences humans have evolved against malaria in particular, Winegard takes the birth of agriculture as the starting point of our shared history. Or, as he so poignantly puts it: “cultivation was shackled to a corpse“. Land clearance, irrigation, and the keeping of livestock all brought us a lot closer to mosquitoes and created the perfect feeding and breeding grounds for them. Out of agriculture rose city-states, commerce, and conflict, all of which encouraged the spread of disease.
The role of trade was highlighted in Mark Harrison’s book Contagion. Winegard focuses more on conflict, which is not entirely surprising given his background as an officer and his previous books on military history. In colourful prose, often steeped in military metaphors, he takes the reader on a riveting tour of duty through prominent theatres of war.
“[…] “cultivation was shackled to a corpse“. Land clearance, irrigation, and the keeping of livestock all brought us a lot closer to mosquitoes […]”
Winegard covers ancient history with Ancient Greece and the military campaigns of Alexander the Great, Ancient Rome (with a nod to Harper’s magnificent The Fate of Rome), the Crusades, and the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and subsequent barbaric invasions. More modern history follows with the period from the “discovery” of the Americas, the Columbian Exchange, and African slavery, all the way to the First and especially Second World War. Given my limited knowledge of these periods, I was particularly interested reading about the colonial war games between Spain, France, Britain over Caribbean colonies, and the conflicts and revolutions giving rise to the modern United States, followed by the American Civil War.
This tour of duty takes up the lion’s share of the book and is neatly divided over a series of absorbing and very readable chapters. Winegard convincingly shows how, at every turn, General Anopheles stalked the battlefields, attacking people indiscriminately. The death toll from malaria, yellow fever, dengue and other diseases is mind-numbing, virtually always overshadowing combat casualties, sometimes by an order of magnitude.
Insidiously, as Winegard shows, it did not take military commanders long to button on to that. The causes of these diseases may have long escaped us*, but the correlations did not. Starting very early on, a preferred battlefield strategy was to use local terrain to one’s advantage. By forcing, luring, or manoeuvring enemy troops into swampy areas, mosquitoes could take a heavy toll, after which the weakened and decimated survivors could easily be mopped up.
“The death toll from malaria, yellow fever, dengue and other diseases is mind-numbing, virtually always overshadowing combat casualties, sometimes by an order of magnitude.”
Despite Winegard’s initial assertion that historians often neglect the role of disease, this is far from the first popular book that tries to take in the fast sweep of history. Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, McNeill’s Plagues and People, and Shah’s The Fever are but three examples. Indeed, Winegard’s notes are a treasure trove of references for further reading, showing the amount of work he has ploughed through in the writing of The Mosquito. The books mentioned here so far are but a sample.
What I particularly liked about Winegard’s writing was that he does not shy away from unpleasant observations and some healthy historical correctives. There is his amusing takedown of the fabricated narrative around Pocahontas: “In Disney’s vision, Pocahontas and Smith run barefoot through the utopian natural splendor of the New World, frolicking in its idyllic waterfalls. In truth, the situation in Jamestown was a cannibalistic, mosquito-ravaged mess“. Others are more serious, such as his observation that the African slave trade flourished in part because some African tribes willingly captured and sold enemy tribe members to Europeans. Some are ruthlessly pragmatic: “a sick soldier is just as useless to the war effort as a wounded soldier, and twice the burden of a dead soldier“. Others downright chilling: during the Second World War the US was scrambling to find a cure for malaria, using inmates as voluntary test subjects in experimentation that “mirrored the Nazi procedures being carried out on Jewish prisoners at Dachau“.
“Winegard’s writing […] does not shy away from unpleasant observations […] Some are ruthlessly pragmatic: “a sick soldier is just as useless to the war effort as a wounded soldier, and twice the burden of a dead soldier“.”
The final few chapters chronicle how the mosquito was finally unmasked in 1897 as the agent of disease transmission, and the temporary success story of pharmaceuticals and the insecticide DDT in combating malaria during and after the Second World War. A premature feeling of victory, indiscriminate use of these cures, and the profit-motive of pharmaceutical companies all have led to insufficient research on new cures, quickly resulting in resistant mosquitoes threatening humanity once more (a pattern that is seen more widely). Winegard briefly discusses CRISPR as the latest weapon in our arsenal and seems hopeful this could go a long way in fighting back.
If you are fond of big history books, The Mosquito is easy to recommend. Winegard has written a captivating and absorbing narrative history book that serves as a powerful reminder just how much disease has plagued us in the past and just how large a share of this is courtesy of a certain diminutive flying insect with a stinging proboscis.
*The word malaria, for example, comes from the mediaeval Italian “mala aria”, meaning “bad air”, pointing to the long-held miasma theory that blamed noxious fumes associated with marshy and swampy areas for the disease.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: