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.


A Review of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus

          1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann is a singular accomplishment.  Yes that’s what I said and it is not hyperbole.  In my former life I dabbled in anthropology, well I got a BA in physical anthropology and was going to Nepal at one point with my mentor to study high altitude adaptations, but life intervened. Later I became more interested in archaeology and Southeastern Native Americans.  This led me to  work with an archaeologist doing phase I surveys and more recently I took graduate classes in archaeology and did lab work and field work so I logically went into library science.  Those are my less than stellar anthro credentials but its concepts are always at work in my mind and they have a great influence on my view of the world.  Given that, the book 1491 was on my radar screen when it came out, why it took six years for me to read it was due to my wariness about reading a book written by a non-anthropologist that attempts to tackle the most fought over and controversial concepts ofthe prehistoric and protohistoric eras of two continents.

            It turns out that Mann was the perfect person to tackle these concepts.  The reason is that besides being an erudite and extraordinarily well read science writer, he doesn’t have a dog in the hunt so to speak.  Anthropologists are some of the most savage infighters of any discipline.  Researchers cling to their pet theories to their last death rattle and many times in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.  It is not rare in the history of anthropological research to have to wait for some god of the discipline to be called home before the science can advance.  Mann begins with the relatively new revelation that the Amazon isn’t as wild as everyone believed and it was once home to many populous civilizations who cultivated the jungle like a garden.  This reality hits home when the author examines a mound in the middle of the jungle that erosion is revealing it to be made entirely of pottery sherds.  Mann asks the researcher how many sherds he thinks is in there and the researcher does a quick calculation before stating “Forty-one million.” This has been a controversy for some time whether the jungle could sustain a large civilization and scientists aligned themselves with one side or another, but the prevailing opinion until lately was that it could not. This is only one of the many changing notions of the pre-Columbus Americas.

            A pristine wilderness lightly dusted with aboriginal peoples, vacuum sealed from time is what most people imagine the Americas as being before the arrival of Europeans.  This view is now being challenged from new insights into the anthropology and archaeology of the Americas as well as reexaminations of the writings of the first Europeans in the “New World.”  Mann deftly combines history with science in his approach to the material.  The writings from the DeSoto mission, the first European expedition into the Southeast and one of the greatest horror stories of all time “he managed to rape, torture, enslave, and kill countless Indians,”  reveal that the Mississippi was “thickly set with great towns”.  But the next visitor to the same area over a century later saw the same land teeming with buffalo and no people. The DeSoto account doesn’t even mention buffalo the entire four years of the expedition.  Also, everyone has heard of the passenger pigeon, mostly because it is extinct.  There were accounts from the nineteenth century of a flock of passenger pigeons taking three days to pass overhead, yet archaeologists find almost no bones of the birds from Native American middens (trash).  Both of these animals would have been competitors with Native Americans for food and farming land.  Once the people disappeared their populations exploded.  What happened to the Indians?  It looks more and more like Indians were much more susceptible to European diseases than it had once been thought.  They had no acquired immunity (being exposed to a disease and surviving) and because of their genetic homogeneity they had less of a spectrum of responses to the European diseases. (Their genetic homogeneity also gave them an advantage over genetic diseases.  There was no cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, newborn anemia, schizophrenia, asthma, nor juvenile diabetes.) This combination left them with almost no defense in the face of small pox, measles, and influenza, which virtually wiped out a whole world of cultures that had been flowering independently from the Old World for over ten thousand years.

            I’m not even touching the surface of all the topics that Mann examines, but here is a list of some more of them: the Clovis first controversy, Mayan philosophy, Incan khipu writing (knots on a string), the fact that the Meso-Americans were the first society in the world to use the zero as well as the first to genetically manipulate an organism as they did in their creation of maize, and Peru was the second place in the world to form a government (after the Fertile Crescent, but they may, in the end, turn out to be the first).  To sum up, Mann is a maestro in his deep understanding of the pre-Columbian Americas and lucky for us he is able to share his knowledge with masterful prose.  I can’t wait to read his new book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  Both books are available at the Wilson County Library for checkout.