10/30/07 - jamestown and mosquitos

In today's excerpt - Jamestown, malaria and the course of American history:

"Much of what we learned in grade school about the New World encountered by the colonists at Jamestown turns out to be wrong. ... The idea that the English were 'settlers' of land that was unsettled before they arrived is complete nonsense. In fact, three English ships landed in the middle of a small but rapidly expanding Indian empire called Tsenacomoco. ... By the time the foreigners came from overseas, Tsenacomoco's paramount chief, Powhatan, had tripled its size to about 8,000 square miles and more than 14,000 people. ...

"Not wanting to antagonize Powhatan, the newcomers ... looked for uninhabited ground. Because native villages occupied all the good land upriver, the colonists ended up picking a site about 35 miles from the mouth of the James. ... Alas, there was a reason no Indians lived at Jamestown: It was not a good place to live. ... Their chosen site was marshy, mosquito-ridden and without fresh water. ... By the end of September, nearly half of the original 104 colonists had died. ... [Most of the] colonists were killed by 'typhoid, dysentery and perhaps salt poisoning.' All are associated with contaminated water. ... By the beginning of 1610, the settlers at Jamestown were dining on 'dogs, cats, rats and mice', [Jamestown president George] Percy wrote, as well as the starch for their Elizabeth ruffs, which could be cooked into kind of a porridge. With famine 'ghastly and pale in every face', some colonists stirred themselves to 'dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.' One man murdered his pregnant wife and salted her for food.' ...

"The central mystery of Jamestown is why the badly led, often starving colonists were eventually able to prevail over the bigger, better-organized forces of the Powhatan empire. ... [Part of the answer is the malaria that the colonists brought with them], which spread throughout the East Coast eventually playing a major part in the pageant of U.S. history. Without malaria, slaves would have been less desirable to southern planters: Most people from tropical Africa are resistant to [malaria]. The disease ... crippled the army of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis during the Revolutionary War. England had by that time drained its marshes and largely been freed of malaria. Meanwhile, the colonists had become seasoned. ... 'Cornwallis's army was simply melting away [from malaria]', says J.R. McNeill, an environmental historian at Georgetown University ... with a critical role played by 'revolutionary mosquitos.' "


Charles C. Mann


'America Found & Lost'


National Geographic


May 2007


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