A virulent predator

Timothy Winegard’s book sheds light on how malariacausing mosquitoes have played the role of mankind’s most fierce enemies and changed the course of history.

A virulent predator

Photo: SNS

‘They slaughtered our ancestors and derailed our history. And they’re not finished with us yet,” Brooke Jarvis, an author, has been quoted as saying in The New Yorker, on the topic of mosquitoes.

I was reflecting on some tea gardens in Assam where there are regions confronted with malaria. One particular tea estate’s population was so seriously afflicted that the disease virtually wiped out the entire labour force, which resulted in the tea garden closing down for a few years till more labourers were recruited.

This incident took place during the British rule. Professor Ashwani Kumar, in his research, wrote that in India, nine Anopheline vectors are involved in transmitting malaria in diverse geo-ecological paradigms.


About two million confirmed malaria cases and 1,000 deaths due to malaria are reported annually. WHO states that India contributes 77 per cent of the total malaria cases in South-east Asia.

This is a mere prelude to the larger picture we must view in relation to malaria-causing mosquitoes. Timothy C Winegard, a scholar, who completed his doctorate in history from the University of Oxford and whose epic book has just been published, encompasses the extent malaria has impacted humanity and history.

The severity of its impact leaves one aghast and bewildered. In his narrative, The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, Winegard has projected an almost melodramatic dimension of history through millennia and has articulated the ways in which this insect has been one of the worst enemies of mankind.

He says that the mosquito species has actually determined humanity’s destiny. We are reminded of our complacency because our hopes have been tied to advanced technology, reassuring ourselves that no threat can harm humanity from the natural world.

But, ever since humanity has been in existence on this planet, the mosquito has proved that our complacency has fooled us. In fact, mosquitoes and malaria influenced a new page of history involving both Scotland and England. Let me tell you a tale that involves 1,200 Scottish people on five ships.

In 1698, five ships sailed from Scotland, carrying various kinds of cargo, including a functional printing press, which was programmed to churn out contracts and treatises. 1,200 Scots were heading for Panama.

They were ambitious and their endeavour on this expedition reflected Shakespeare’s words, “The substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.” Mosquitoes and yellow fever foiled the ambition these Scots yearned to accomplish. Historians revealed that half of all the money in circulation in Scotland at that time “followed the trade winds to Panama,” writes Winegard.

However, the expedition was confronted with a serious setback. The Scots on board the five ships were afflicted with yellow fever and malaria, which these people could not withstand, and this culminated in a virtual disaster.

They began dying at the rate of a dozen a day. Winegard traced this invidious chapter of the past, while articulating that the deaths increased and bodies were thrown overboard. Eventually, when the ill-fated ships arrived with a few survivors, there was barely any cargo left, except the printing press.

These adventurers planned to colonise Panama’s Darien. The complete failure of this expedition resulted in Scotland being confronted with a huge debt. The Scots were faced with a workable solution: they accepted a unification offer from England; so, in actual fact, mosquitoes and malaria brought both nations together.

To reflect Winegard’s words, in this context, “Our apex predator has been the ultimate agent to historical change.” In an incredible twist of irony, 15 centuries before the Scots tried to begin colonising Panama, the Romans tried to colonise them but their efforts were thwarted due to being afflicted by a strain of malaria, local to Scotland. It was estimated that half of the 80,000 Roman soldiers were killed in this significant scale of devastation, as the Romans tried to reach the shores of Scotland. To add to this tale resembling a Greek tragedy, endemic strains of malaria repulsed the armies of Genghis Khan, which prevented them from trying to invade Southern Europe. Whilst reflecting upon Greek tragedy, Hippocrates (460-370 BC), one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine who lived during Greece’s classical period, associated malaria with the “Dog Star,” calling the time when malaria raged, as “the dog days of summer.”

In ancient Rome, people made efforts to build their houses on hilltops, not necessarily to enjoy the sight of a panoramic view, but to be away from mosquitoes. A similar principle applies in different parts of the world.

A few days after Winegard’s remarkable book had been published readers in the US shared their views. Jill Elizabeth writes on the mesmeric effect the book had on her and states the many features of science, health, history and above all, facts that the world at large must know about this insect. All these factors have been “beautifully packaged” into a spellbinding narrative.