McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. 1º ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
The physical space created in this narrative ranges across the Caribbean, looking at agricultural pursuits in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela. But more specifically, this is not a story of imperial exploitation that renders local actors passive (as is the case in Tucker). Instead, McCook draws on the innovations of Close Encounters of Empire and conceptualizes scientific institutions like Harvard’s Atkins Gardens at Cienfuegos, Cuba, the Escuela Superior de Agricultura de Medellín, Costa Rica’s National Museum, etc. as contact zones producing “creole science” something unique to the plant sciences of these countries because ecological variation rendered the imposition of U.S. scientific hegemony useless.
The periodization spans the broad period of late-nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century liberal reforms, and tells a story of the technocratic transformation of nature in the service of liberal states, beginning with export-oriented monocropping and the plant sciences’ treatment of the problems it posed and intensification efforts—especially in the sugar and coffee sector—and ending with the reorganization of the plant sciences during the Depression. The narrative’s general arch not only marks the reorganization of nature and the domestication of forests, but the production of “nationalist floras,” as botanists made local floras known to science, they also contributed to national positivist projects by giving plants a “civil status” and making them legible to the state.
I’ve got to admit I feel slightly mistreated. If you want to know the basic argument of Mosquito Empires read this, because it is little more than an elaborated version of what McNeill has already said. However, McNeil’s elaborations tend to mean more breadth, not more depth. Thus, despite his protest to the contrary I have to say his formulaic approach to geopolitical events can be reduced to mosquito determinism. (compare p. 6 with p. 234) And my qualms with his framework—namely, his belief in the power of stats and his unwillingness to explore the cultural components of individual stories—remain strong.
He deals with the same cases: Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, Surinam and the revolution in Nueva Granada. But he also expands his scope, exploring the “greater Caribbean.” Most notably, he recounts the case of the southern colonies during the American Revolution, where the creole ecology that emerged was generated by the rice economy—not sugar—but the outcome was the same nonetheless: the local combatants, armed with malaria resistance, were able to besiege Cornwallis’ beleaguered forces at Yorktown until the French could intervene. While McNeill is still very much enamored of sieges and stand-offs, he also includes episodes of settlement deterred when he examines the disasters of the Scots in the Darien (1698) and the French in French Guyana (Kourou, 1763).
McNeill, J.R. “Yellow Jack and Geopolitics: Environment, Epidemics, and the Struggles for Empire in the American Tropics, 1640-1830,” in Rethinking Environmental History: World System History and Global Environmental Change. ed. Alf Hornborg, J. R. McNeill, and Joan Martínez-Alier. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. pp. 199-217.
As part of this volume’s larger project of integrating political ecology and environmental history, McNeil sets out to show how ecological change and epidemiological history were part and part and parcel of global imperial designs and the resistance they encountered. In condensed form, this chapter recapitulates the thesis of Mosquito Empires, arguing “[t]hose little Amazons, the females mosquitos Aedes aegypti, vectors of yellow fever, underpinned the geopolitical order of the American tropics from 1660 to 1780. After 1780 they undermined it. McNeil begins by approaching the issue of sieges and why, after Cromwell’s taking of Jamaica in 1655 they became less and less successful. The answer, he proposes, has to do with the introduction of sugar, and yellow fever along with it. While the Columbian Exchange decimated the Caribbean population (therefore leaving fewer vectors for yellow fever and food for A. aegypti), by 1640 the increasing population and increasing sugar cultivation provided ample room for yellow fever growth. A. aegypti could feed on sucrose and human blood—a necessary source of nourishment for ovulation (i.e. sustaining a population). And sugar plantations offered plenty of places where clean water would collect, making for a suitable home. Thus, as sugar export became an economy of scale, the yellow fever carried by female A. aegypti became capable of spurring epidemics in the Americas, starting in Barbados in 1647, then expanding through the Caribbean and Cenrtal America.