The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

by Edith Cody-Rice

Canadian native Dr. Timothy Winegard is an historian and political science professor at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. Educated at the University of Western Ontario, Nipissing University and the Royal Military College, he went on to gain a PhD in history at Oxford University. In this, his fifth book, he explores the role of the mosquito and more particularly the mosquito borne diseases of malaria, yellow and dengue fevers in shaping civilizations from before Alexander the Great to the present day.

Dr. Winegard’s thesis is that mosquitoes have killed more people than all the wars and disasters combined and have shaped the course of civilizations, protecting some from attack, invading other vulnerable populations to make them susceptible to defeat and being consciously used as an effective mercenary army by savy generals.The mosquitoes, Dr. Winegard posits, have won and lost more wars that all of military strategy. It is hard to argue with this thesis when one realizes that more that 60% and up to 95% of soldiers in the field of battle have been killed or incapacitated not by the human enemy, but by the malaria, yellow fever and dengue bearing mosquito.

Going back as far as the flourishing Greek civilizations, he points out how the largest Athenian army every fielded was defeated in its siege of the spartan pawn Syracuse on Sicily in 413 BCE  by the mosquito which injected malaria and killed or incapacitated 70% of the Athenian force. Carthage too, tried to invade Syracuse but its forces, including its generals, perished to a man of mosquito borne disease.

This feat has been repeated throughout history as armies of conquest which unwisely stayed mired in marshy terrain during mosquito season, perished or were incapacitated  to the tune, frequently, of 95% of soldiers. It was a technique of defenders to trap invading forces in mosquito ridden lands until they relented or died. Thus, Spanish and French forces, fighting over rich spoils in the Caribbean were doomed to death when European soldiers were sent to the region. Dr. Winegard suggests that the French lost Canada as that nation redirected forces to the commodity rich Caribbean where they were to reinforce armies of occupation that had perished in great numbers. And Napoleon’s unsuccessful attempt to conquer Haiti, which was defeated by disease, caused him to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States at a bargain basement prices as, without Haiti, Louisiana had become useless to him, or so he thought.

Dr. Winegard’s thesis is that these deadly insects controlled the course of history. In the case of the conquest of America by European settlers, he notes that small teams of explorers who preceded conquering armies inadvertently spread malaria and yellow fever among indigenous people so that they were severely incapacitated, if not decimated and easily conquered.

Throughout the book, Dr. Winegard  shows how ubiquitous malaria has been causing suffering right up to the Arctic circle. !,000 builders of our Rideau Canal succumbed to the deadly disease.

The same may be said of yellow fever which caused calamitous epidemics in the United States and elsewhere. He notes that before the Columbian Exchange (the discovery of the American continents by Columbus), America had mosquitoes but they were not the kind that carried deadly disease. It was the African slave trade that brought the more dangerous disease carrying mosquito across the Atlantic, devastating American civilizations. African slaves were highly prized, partly because they had developed some immunity to these mosquito borne ailments.

He notes that the mosquito driven disease may well have resulted in the emancipation of slaves in the American Civil War. Initially, Lincoln wanted only to hold the country together, but putting northern armies into southern territory during mosquito season (June to October), proved so deadly that the war dragged on and Lincoln felt it necessary to proffer emancipation in order to encourage black slaves to join the union cause and desert their masters. An added benefit was that as southerners, they were seasoned, that is, had developed some immunity to mosquito borne diseases.

The book is stuffed with little known (to all but historians) facts which tantalize the reader. Did you know, for example, that the Carthaginian Hannibal, having trudged through Spain and over the Alps with his army and elephants, was held up in the Pontine Marshes outside Rome by the mosquito which sapped his soldiers’ strength with malaria?  He eventually hastened home to handle the landing of Romans at the port in Carthage but the Pontine marshes remained for centuries Rome’s greatest defender.

Did you know that Oliver Cromwell, Protector of England, died of malaria because he refused to ingest  life saving quinine, recommended by his doctors, because it had been discovered by a Catholic priest?

Did you know that in WWII the Nazis reestablished the dangerous Pontine marshes around Rome, which had been eradicated by Mussolini, in order to encourage the mosquito to destroy the allied army with malaria?

Did you know that the paper bag was invented to allow Union soldiers in the American civil war a lightweight package in which to carry their prized coffee ration?

These are only a few of the facts that Dr. Winegard brings to life in his thorough and gripping account.

A fascinating read.

The Mosquito is published in Allen Lane hardcover by Penguin Canada 

469 pages