British Capitalism Introduced New Diseases to the Caribbean

The British quest for profit turned the Caribbean into a deadly environment for both Europeans and Native Americans.

Painting of a Jamaican rainforest, 1865 by Cooper Hewitt. Before the European arrival to the Caribbean, most islands would have looked almost exclusively like this. Source: Smithsonian.

IT WAS 1625. The British captain John Powell was on his way to London following a successful raid in the Spanish Caribbean. Aboard his ship was plenty of gold and silver, booty that’d fetch him a good price in England. He stumbled upon an inconspicuous, unknown island that, like many in the Caribbean, had rich forests and a teeming wildlife.

As was custom in the 17th century, he claimed the island in the name of the English king, Charles I. It would change Caribbean history forever.

Once he returned to England, Powell shared the discovery of the small island. Henry, his younger brother, became enamored with the stories of the island. So, too, did the king. In 1627 the two Powell brothers were sent back to the Caribbean along with 10 slaves and 80 settlers. Their mission: to begin a colony on the island.

They named it Barbados.

No engine can run without fuel, and no colony can run without an economy. The forests were cut down and used as fuel for sugar boilers, the land as fields for sugar canes. Soon the cash began trickling in. Sugar was a hit in England. The colony had become a sensational success story.

Sugar had been a well-known commodity in Europe since the middle ages, famous for its sweet taste quite unlike anything else. But it was expensive. The closest production was in North Africa and the Middle East, regions that had kept its production small. The alternative was India, but in an age of caravans the cost of the transportation alone ensured that only the wealthiest could enjoy the small, white crystals.

Smart entrepreneurs figured out that their own production in the Caribbean would cut costs and greatly expand the market in Europe – to the benefit of their purses. They were right.

So rapid was the spread of the sugar plantations that by 1666 there was not a single tree left on Barbados to support the plantations. Trunks had to be imported from Surinam, another English island in the Caribbean. As the forests disappeared, so did much of the wildlife. The way was cleared for diseases brought by mosquitoes from West Africa. Yellow fever and malaria killed thousands, rich and poor. The story would repeat itself countless times throughout the Caribbean.

French engraving of a sugar plantation. Most European plantations were founded and worked on the same structure, whether French, British, Dutch or Danish. Source: Wellcome Library.

WE TEND TO THINK that capitalism and inequality are modern issues, but capitalism was doing quite well by the 17th century. So well, in fact, that some historians talk about a capitalist world economy. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein are probably the most famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) of these scholars, but its adherents are many.

The core idea is that the Europeans created a global economy (by 17th century standards) in which there was a core area nurtured by its periphery. In the case of the British empire, Britain itself was the core and its colonies the periphery.

The relationship between the core and periphery was an exploitative one. The periphery was relegated to using the core’s manufactured products whereas the core sucked raw materials out of its periphery. If it sounds eerily like the exploitation between H&M and its underpaid laborers in the global South, it’s because it is.

It’s an idea that’s received its fair share of criticism. Sometimes the evidence doesn’t support the sweeping conclusions of the theorists, but all theories are inescapably a simplification of the world. They broaden our horizons and teach us to acknowledge aspects of the world we didn’t before. And acknowledging that capitalism has a long, problematic history is essential if we want to solve the issues it’s giving us today. Even if the past wasn’t only capitalist exploitation.

THE WILDLIFE THAT LIVED in the Caribbean in 1600 was all but gone a century later. As the forests disappeared, so did the animals dependent on them. Birds flew to greener pastures and monkeys went extinct. The Euroepan arrival fundamentally changed Caribbean biology.

That in itself is nothing new. From Australia to the Americas, the arrival of humans usually meant mass extinctions. But the Europeans not only killed of countless species, they supplanted them with new ones.

One of these newcomers was a small mosquito, black with white stripes. It originally lived in West Africa where it had fed on humans for millennia. It carried a viral disease, yellow fever, which proved fatal for Europeans and Native Americans alike.

Once the yellow fever virus enters your body, it spreads like wildfire. Some people survive, but others enter a toxic phase with coagulated vomit that looks like coffee grounds, yellow skin and bleeding from the eyes, mouth and nostrils. In a time when medicine basically amounted to bloodletting and prayers, entering the toxic phase was usually fatal.

There was a silver lining however. If you survived, you were immune for the rest of your life. And in West Africa, people had been infected for millennia. Most had experienced the disease during childhood (when it’s less fatal) and were immune. And the European planters noticed. Slavery had never been hotter.

YOU MIGHT WONDER WHY the yellow fever mosquito spread rapidly in the Caribbean. The answer is simple.

In the sugar colonies it had no natural predators. Birds and monkeys both fed on mosquitoes, but due to the deforestation, they were long gone. The only detriment to its success was a question of whether it could find enough food.

It definitely could.

First, there were plenty of people in the sugar colonies. As sugar, tobacco, and other cash crops created whole new markets in Europe, the poor migrated in droves. Plantations, towns, and ports sprang up which equaled plenty of blood for the mosquitoes to suck on.

Second, sugar water provided a nice, humid environment for their eggs and more importantly, it led to bacteria growth. Bacteria which could sustain a mosquito from egg to fossil.

The only way to ensure that laborers stayed profitable was to keep them alive. In 30 degrees C with a baking sun, plantation owners learned to provide water or risk the life of their laborers – and their investment. That’s why even the cruelest slaver could be counted on to provide plenty of water for his slaves. And as is always the case in industry, cross contamination was plentiful. Sugar crystals and juice inexplicably found its way into barrels, jars, jugs and vats scattered around the plantations. The mosquitoes gobbled it up.

It was mainly female mosquitoes that spread yellow fever, like the one depicted here under its scientific name, Aedes aegypti. Source: Wellcome Library.

THE FIRST YELLOW FEVER OUTBREAK was in 1647 in Barbados. It spread across the English colonies and from there to coastal ports, killing hundreds in Florida, Yucatan and the West Indies. As much as half the population perished wherever it surfaced.

By comparison, the death rate of COVID-19 is less than 2 %.

To keep the plantations productive and the pockets of planters full, slavery became the norm in the colonies. Since West Africans were mostly immune to the disease, they could keep on working even when others couldn’t. And slavery was already established. From an economic point of view, the planters simply made a sound investment.

Capitalism isn’t pretty, it’s efficient. Especially for those at the top. It doesn’t matter what diseases it spreads, species it drives to extinction or which human detriments it fosters so long as it keeps the machinery running smoothly.

That was the case in the 17th century. It still is today.

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