Evil Air: Malaria in the American South


Image shows the range of Plasmodium Falciparum in North and South America.
From 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Feb. 6, 1692: Taken ill a Seventh time:  with a Tertian Ague: about 3h p.m .it began & was of the same nature with my last which I had all January, but this was the worst.
Feb. 12, 1692: Before noon, a 4th fit. With which I shook about 3h p.m. & then went to bed: where I had a very violent Feaver; this being the worst fit of all: my breath very short; & delirious…
(Mann 2011, pg. 106)

Samuel Jeak, a merchantman in Southeast England, was suffering from an infection from a plasmodium.  The plasmodium is an insidious parasite that conducts a coordinated assault causing red blood cells to burst open with up to ten billion new parasites overwhelming the immune system and causing chills and fevers.  Although the immune system can eventually beat back the assault, the plasmodium will hide out in your liver for years waiting to attack again.  This is of course malaria, a disease that was endemic to the American Southeast at least until the 1940’s and had a strong hand in the formation of the South’s economy and culture.  Recently, well yesterday, I finished reading Charles C. Mann’s sequel to 1492, 1493: The New World that Columbus Created.  And although I had an extensive discussion of the entirety of 1492 in an earlier blog post I am going to focus on a chapter titled Evil Air.  The author, Charles Mann, does a superb job in drawing on resources to show how malaria impacted the Columbian exchange.

Malaria had impacts beyond the immediate sufferings of its victims. It was a historical force that deformed cultures, an insistent nudge that pushed societies to answer questions in ways that today seem cruel and reprehensible (pg. 116).

Could malaria be a reason that slavery became entrenched in the American South but died out north of the Mason Dixon line?  It’s an interesting question that Mann tackles expertly.

            The English word for malaria comes from the Italian word for evil air.  But the old Latin term for malaria is tertian fever which describes periods of fever and chills that occur in a forty-eight hour pattern. You are sick one day and then fine the next, fine the next day and then sick the following day.  The pattern continually repeats itself which is why it was it was given the Latin term for three days which follows the Roman pattern of counting time from the beginning of one period to the beginning of the next.

Malaria did not exist in the Americas before 1492.   Europeans brought the plasmodium vivax parasite to the Americas from southern England, where it thrived during the colonial period.  Europeans from areas where the plasmodium vivax historically lived acquired certain immunity to the disease if they suffered from it at some point in their life (and survived), which is called seasoning.  Therefore these Europeans did not suffer as severely as did the Native American population during the early years of colonization.  Even so the plasmodium vivax caused much suffering and death among European colonists who hadn’t been seasoned. However, a new type of malaria, brought over from Africa with the first African slaves, was devastatingly fatal to all Europeans as well as the Native Americans.  This was the plasmodium falciparum.

The original slave trade in the South was of Native American slaves.  The Mississippian Native American culture that dominated the Southeast was a culture that practiced slavery on a large scale.  They usually took slaves through ritualistic warfare.  Eventually  these slaves could become members of the tribe, or they could be killed in reciprocation for the killing of a tribe member.  The newcomer Europeans were quick to take advantage of this labor force made available through Native American slave catchers until its collapse in the early 1700’s as Native American populations imploded due to Old World diseases, which included malaria.   The possible replacements for Native American slaves were indentured servants from Scotland and Northern England and African slaves.

To the North, Colonial New England was a society that had slaves.  But slaves from Africa were expensive, much more expensive than indentured servants from Europe.  Adam Smith even stated that slaves were not economically viable.  This was true in New England where slavery eventually fell out of favor and the more economical indentured servants became the labor of choice.  However, indentured servants usually came from regions in Britain that did not have any malaria.  These newcomers that had never been exposed to any type of plasmodium died in staggering numbers soon after they arrived in the South, and with the introduction of falciparum, no European was safe.  In some parishes around Charleston three out of four children died by the age of twenty.  In the same period of these malarial fueled die-offs, there was a people that were increasing in number to the colonies that were almost completely immune (ninety-seven percent) to vivax and about fifty percent immune to falciparum.  These people were coming over as slaves from West and Central Africa.

The Southern plantation owners did not know that Africans had a strong resistance to malaria, nor did they know what malaria even was.  They just saw that Africans survived where Europeans and Native Americans died.  Still, Africans died in large numbers from brutality and other diseases that they were subjected to in the chattel slave society that existed in the South.  But when malaria and yellow fever (another deadly mosquito born disease that Africans have resistance to) outbreaks occurred the Africans were left standing while other populations withered away.  These outcomes gave the advantage to the large plantation owners with an African slave labor force over the small farmers with indentured servants.  Also, it just so happens that falciparum is very temperature sensitive and the dividing line where falciparum can live is below the Mason Dixon line.  Above the line is too cold for it to survive.  It is also no coincidence

General Wade Hampton III's plantation house ruins on top of Quinine Hill in Columbia, South Carolina.  The Hamptons went to their home in the North Carolina mountains during the fever season.

General Wade Hampton III’s plantation house ruins on top of Quinine Hill in Columbia, South Carolina. The Hamptons went to their home in the North Carolina mountains during the fever season.

that plantation homes with their high windows that let in a breeze (that kept away mosquitoes) were frequently on a hill with a manicured, treeless lawn that happened to keep away mosquitoes; nor that the plantation families usually went North to Rhode Island or to the mountains during the worst times of the year (fall) for malaria,  while the yeoman farmer and poor had to stay and suffer and die in the malarial zone, therefore creating a more stratified society.  African slavery was not caused by malaria but malaria offset the economic impediments as defined by Adam Smith. The author also documents a similar pattern occurring in the falciparum ravaged slave state of Brazil as compared to the falciparum free Argentina where indentured servants made up the labor force.

Mann also gives evidence for malaria helping to win the revolution by severely reducing the effectiveness of Cornwallis’ largely Scottish troops.  And may be a major reason that the Northern armies lost so many battles in the early years of the American Civil War marching into the falciparum zone where the tertian fever rate was calculated as high as 233% with soldiers suffering from fever 2 times or more.

To conclude, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created provides a extremely well researched overview and analysis of the mosaic of the changes that happened as a result of the Columbian Exchange.  As well as an intense examination of how the introduction of Old World diseases such as malaria to the Americas was a large factor in the destruction of the Native American cultures and peoples that had existed for millennia and the helped to bring about the brutal enslavement of the Central and Western Africans.


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