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Malaria – The Mystery Plague of Colonial America

June 30, 2014 in American History, general history, History

The mosquito, a deadly foe to mankind.

Despite modern advances in medicine, there is a plague (one of many) that still haunts mankind around the globe and that is malaria.  Malaria is a parasite spread by the female mosquito that affects your blood cells. Somewhere in the world, every thirty-five seconds, a child unnecessarily dies from this horrible disease.  Of course today, we know that it is spread by the lowly female mosquito — who despite modern technology, modern medicine, and awareness has managed to outwit the humans who live within its many kingdoms.  To understand the way that malaria and the mosquito have changed history, a trip down memory lane to Colonial America will yield a good bit of understanding.

Beginning with the first Europeans setting foot in the Americas, the would-be colonists and explorers, quickly became profoundly aware of their own mortality in the face of such diseases as yellow fever, smallpox, and malaria.  Thanks to a compatible climate, those living in more Southern and temperate locations, such as Georgia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas would soon face an overwhelming reality exemplified by this quote:

“They who want to die quickly, go to Carolina.”

Along with people in the Louisiana and Georgia, during in the late 18th and 19th centuries in South Carolina, especially around Charleston, had such a high mortality that less than 20% reached their 20th birthday.  Most of those who died did so because of malaria, or because of being in a weakened state after a bout of malaria.  It’s almost unimaginable that so many mothers and fathers would be burying their children so young.  Anyone who has experienced such a loss knows that this life event alters your life forever.

Another staggering set of statistics, just in the fifty years that one group, England’s Society for the Propagation of Gospel in Foreign Parts, was sending young men to South Carolina – of the total fifty young men (one per year), only 43% survived, and many resigned within five years of setting foot on South Carolina soil due to poor health from malaria.  And, of course, it goes almost without saying the medical lack of knowledge as to what caused malaria back then, and how to treat it also was another gravestone upon many.  It left much of the South a place to die rather than a place to live.  Perhaps, no greater community suffered from the spread of malaria than those in and around South Carolina for more than a century (except those living in The Floridas and coastal Louisiana).

“More die of the practitioner than of the natural course of the disease.” – Dr. William Douglass

In Colonial days, the cause of malaria was unknown, and when people don’t know something they are scared of — they make up theories and stories as to why their loved one has departed from them.  Different groups of people had different names for malaria.  It was called ague; bilious fever, country fever, intermittent fever, remittent fever, tertian fever, and mal aira.  Colonists believed that the fever, by whatever name, was caused by the methane gasses that could be seen arising from any nearby swamp, often referred to as “vapors” or miasmas” arising from the putrefaction in vegetation in the swamps from rotting plants and dead animals.  People literally believed it came from bad air that attacked you somehow mysteriously in your sleep.  Many of the folk tales of African slaves and the Acadians in Louisiana, had central themes tying folk monsters of the swamps such as the feux-folet of Cajun folklore being somehow connected to this disease.

Additionally, deaths in Colonial America continued well into the early 1900s —  when colonies became states, yet quackery, medical ignorance, poor hygiene, barbaric medical remedies such as blistering, phlebotomy, and purging all continually played a huge role in the malaria disease cycle.  However, there was an obscure fact that is often ignored when it comes to malaria — and that is the role of the crops that early colonists and rural America chose to grow and how it contributed to the problem.  In other words agriculture, plus temperate climate, plus natural terrain, all played a huge role in the spread of malaria.  The female mosquito may have carried the disease, but we unwittingly invited her as a house guest when our early settlers decided to grow rice and indigo.

This was particularly true in the coastal regions of the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana, where the spread of malaria was quickened because rice and indigo cultivation.  In order for both crops widely grown for commercial value, the necessary irrigation and pools of stagnant shallow water were important in making such places is a virtual mosquito growing nursery.  Furthermore, the African slaves who worked the fields became the most likely first victims of malaria bearing mosquitoes.  In turn, a mosquito biting a person with the malaria parasite spread the disease to rich and poor.  The blood thirsty mosquito does not discriminate.

There are countless examples in history of this, one such Carolina example is that of a ten-year-old boy, the only son his parents would ever have.  His father was the governor of South Carolina, his mother the daughter of a former U.S. Vice President, and yet no amount of money could protect him from malaria.  Aaron Burr Alston, died from a mosquito bite, despite having a family rich enough to sleep under a “Pavilion of Catgut Gauze” the choice of the rich in terms of what we call mosquito nets today.  Like countless others of unfortunate victims to malaria, the world will never know what this one little boy or his descendants could have accomplished — a common bond between every malaria victim.

The grave of Aaron Burr Alston who was another loss to history by malaria.

The grave of Aaron Burr Alston who was another loss to history by malaria.  His father, Joseph Alston was buried in the same grave.  

Breeding sites for the female Anopheles mosquito were also naturally prolific between great thunder storms and annual hurricanes.  Drainage especially around both agriculture and towns were another contributor to the huge problem.  It was reported that mosquitoes were so thick that they could blacken an arm in sheer numbers at times and were documented in the deaths of killing cattle by suffocation of the nostrils.  While malaria by itself, actually doesn’t kill the vast number of people who succumbed to it, malaria does weaken its victim’s resistance to other diseases they wouldn’t have normally been bothered by.  Side effects after having had malaria are:  anemia, fatigue, proneness to infections, pneumonia and a greatly weakened immune system.  Once over the initial bout of malaria, victims were also likely to have reoccurring attacks of malaria and never really recover completely.

Malaria also preys on the defenseless, infants, small children, and the elderly were all groups that had high mortality rates.  Women often contracted malaria during pregnancy were also prone to miscarriages, premature labor, and death.  It was the leading cause of death for Colonial Southern women.  More people would die in the Americas from it than all of the deaths from wars fought within our borders, especially during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

Soon, it would become apparent that cinchona bark, similar to quinine was an effective cure, but the people of that those days still lacked the ability to understand the true cause and carrier of the disease.  Others favored alternative remedies and ineffective healing attempts,  such as St. John’s Wort, mustard plasters, wormwood, and foxglove.  Prevention methods of the day were the burning tobacco to clean the air, mud baths, blood letting, and mercury pills – all equally ineffective at best.  Even netting around beds for the lucky who had them was not connected in the minds of people to stopping malaria – only a way of keeping biting and itchy insects off them while they slept.

Fast forward to today, where malaria is still a plague but not longer a mystery, except to the puzzle as to why mankind has not eradicated the disease now that we know the cause.  How many more people will die from the bite of a mosquito?  Will history continue to be altered because of malaria?  This one quote says it all:

There are more people dying of malaria than any specific cancer.” — Bill Gates



U.S.S. Wasp – War of 1812 and the H.M.S. Reindeer

June 28, 2014 in American History, History

Johnston Blakeley, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor

Johnston Blakeley, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor

It’s important for those interested in the U.S.S. Wasp and its battles, to understand that when it comes to the naming of ships, the U.S.S. Wasp was not first ship to carry that name.  In fact, it was actually the fifth ship to be named the Wasp (although internet searches will sometimes refer to it mistakenly as the second ship to be named thus).  Going back in time slightly, it’s also important to remember that the American Navy was in its infancy having been born on 11 October 1775, when Congress decided that the Continental Navy (as it was known then) was authorized the first official ship of the United Colonies.   Ship naming was haphazard until the later assignment of that duty to the Secretary of Navy, which wouldn’t occur until 1819.  Our navy ships were named in honor of famous people, patriots, heroes, American cities and towns, positive character traits, and small creatures who packed a sting, such as insects – hence the popularity of the ship name “Wasp.”  The Wasp was certainly a ship that lived up to the “sting” of its namesake.

During the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Wasp was built in 1813 by Cross & Merrill of Newburyport, Massachusetts and ready to launch by 1814.   She was a fast moving sloop-of-war, meaning that she was a smaller square-rigged sailing warship with cannons on only one deck.  The Wasp had twenty 32 pounder carronades and two long guns.  She carried one hundred and seventy-three Marines and sailors.  That crew was made up of almost entirely New  Englanders of youthful age, averaging only 23 years of age.  For many of them they had not previously been to sea but had on their side both enthusiasm and ambition.  It would take a skilled and talented man to be in charge of them.

American Historical Marker in North Carolina - Captain Johnston Blakeley

American Historical Marker in North Carolina – Captain Johnston Blakeley

Her first and only commander was thirty-three year old, Irish born, Master Commandant Johnston Blakeley, who waited patiently in Portsmouth, New Hampshire until May 1st, 1814 for its first war cruise.  This was not his first war time naval rodeo, as he had already earned his place in naval history on board the U.S.S. Enterprise in the splendid victory over the H.M.S. Boxer.  He had had the perfect ingredients for commanding the Wasp.   The destination was the English Channel.

More than a month before she was to engage the H.M.S. Reindeer in battle, she captured her first vessel, the Neptune which after taking her crew as prisoners, she promptly burned.  Her next conquest was the William, and once again she burned that 91 ton brig as well.   She would also scuttle the Pallas, the Henrietta, and scuttle the Orange Boven before she would encounter the H.M.S. Reindeer.  He would write shortly after in a letter of July 8, 1814 that not every ship they encountered was prey:

“After arriving on soundings, the number of neutrals which were passing kept us almost constantly in pursuit. . . . I found it impossible to maintain anything like a station, and was led in chase farther up the Channel than was intended.”

The battle between the U.S.S. Wasp and the H.M.S Reindeer is recorded in history to have last only 19 minutes, but seldom is it mentioned that for two hours before the actually taking of the H.M.S. Reindeer, these two ships were engaged in a cat-and-mouse standoff and a bit of a chase.  It was the Reindeer that fired the first 12 pound cannonade loaded with round and grape shot.  Still, the U.S.S. Wasp did not immediately respond in turn, but instead, Commander Blakeley, put his helm alee; and only then returned fire, in succession, all the guns of his broadside as they bore.  This caused the Reindeer to become somewhat disabled and run aboard of the Wasp, her port bow against the Wasp’s quarter, in which position the Wasp raked with telling effect.

This is the point in naval battle where the youthful crew of the American marines and riflemen with the marksmanship they were famed for, picked off many of the exposed officers and crew of the Reindeer.  The captain of the H.M.S. Reindeer was among the wounded, but kept the deck and urged his crew on in the fight.  A second wound soon went through his thighs and brought him to his knees, still he was said to have stood up, bleeding profusely, and shouted to his men:

“Follow me, my boys, we must board.”

With those words, it’s told that he climbed the rigging to lead them on, but two balls from the Wasp’s maintop instantly passed through his skull, and killed him.  The sea battle action left the Wasp six round shot in her hull, and a 24-pound shot had passed through the center of her foremast, and her sails and rigging injured.  Commander Blakeley would later write:

“The Reindeer was literally cut to pieces in a line with her ports.”

Medal of Honor was awarded to Captain Johnston Blakeley

Medal of Honor was awarded to Captain Johnston Blakeley

The Wasp lost five of its crew and twenty-one were ,wounded.  The Reindeer lost twenty-five crew, and had forty-two wounded.  The American take on this victory was that the crews were splendidly disciplined and both had the finest of leaders, but in the in that victory depends on something else than determination and courage; and in this case the fair conclusion was it was due to superiority in power.  After the battle Blakeley set out to get care for his wounded and make needed repairs in L’Orient, France — where they remained for a month and went on to make six more valuable captures before arriving back safely in Savannah, Georgia, only to be lost at sea somewhere in the Caribbean a couple of weeks later.  Commander Johnston Blakeley would be promoted to Captain  after his death and  the Medal of Honor was awarded to him.  His widow was given by Congress a pension for the rest of her lifetime and also provided for the education of their child.

Impressment of American Seamen

June 26, 2014 in American History


Most lovers of naval history will already know that the British were famous or rather infamous, for the impressment of British seamen during the late eighteenth century well into the early nineteenth century.  Few, however, will remember that impressment of American seamen is often cited as a major contributing factor to the War of 1812.  Great Britain’s struggles with Napoleon left her desperate to populate her gigantic navy with the number of seamen necessary to keep it operating.  The duties of these seamen were not only hard labor but also emotionally difficult.  Meanwhile, at the same time the American Merchant Marines were a much more attractive paid voyage towards both the unknown possible sea battles.  American ships offered more comfortable accommodations, better food, and astonishing higher wages compared to their British counterparts.  Both deserters of the Royal Navy and other British native seamen soon started flocking not only to American ships, but they also in turn became naturalized American citizens.  This was a thorn of contention on both sides of the Atlantic.

The British government’s policy was clear — once a citizen, always a citizen.  In turn, they claimed the right to stop American ships and seize seamen upon them and impress them back into their Navy.  As bad as that was, it was also problematic because mistakes were frequent and American born seamen were also removed against their will.  It was not only a huge big deal to American ship captains and owners of those ships but also problematic because British ships were stopping and searching their ships supposed for deserters.  This was also a great outrage publicly when Americans were seized against their will and illegally.

Chesapeake Affair

Chesapeake Affair

All of this underlying tension came to a head when the United States frigate Chesapeake was stopped by the British Leopard during a British blockade of the Chesapeake Bay in June 1807.  This incident snowballed into further British and American confrontations and led to even more crews deserting and a huge disagreement over whether or not these men were actually deserters, or whether or not they were British or American sailors.  As the incidents between these two ships and their captain escalated tempers flew.  Soon Americans across the nation were outraged at what became known as the “Chesapeake Affair” leading both nations to be on the brink of war.  In an effort to avert war negotiations were entered into by 1811.  While negotiations continued, war became inevitable both on land and the sea.  By the time the H.M.S. Shannon would capture the U.S.S. Chesapeake on June 1, 1813 in Boston Harbor, this war was being battled on all fronts in a slug out to the finish.  A little known fact is that by the end of the War of 1812  in 1815, there were no winners or victors despite claims on both sides.  In fact, the War of 1812 is one  war that altered history dramatically for all parties involved.

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