Peter Coates, Professor of American and Environmental History at the University of Bristol, and a co-investigator on WetlandLIFE, reflects on a paper he gave recently at the 3rd World Congress of Environmental History in Florianópolis, Brazil. The World Congress of Environmental History has met every 5 years since its inaugural meeting in Copenhagen in 2009.
At the eastern entrance to the Florianópolis campus of the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), in southeastern Brazil, a huge billboard greets the visitor. Translated, the wording reads: ‘UFSC against Aedes aegypti. Stay alert and report possible mosquito outbreaks. Send message to Sustainable UFSC’.
Aedes aegypti is readily distinguished by the white markings on its legs, as clearly seen on the poster’s phone camera. Though originating in Africa - as the name suggests - it’s now found throughout the tropical and subtropical world. And recently, it’s been edging into the warmer fringes of Europe, such as the Black Sea coast and Madeira, as well as appearing in locales in North America such as Washington, DC. Often simply referred to as the yellow fever mosquito, it can also spread dengue, chikungunya, Mayaro and Zika viruses.
The last-mentioned virus - named for the Ziika Forest, Uganda, where the virus was initially identified in 1947 - is the reason for the big poster on the Florianópolis campus. Deployment of the larvicide Paris green across northeastern Brazil during the 1930s had eliminated the recently arrived African malaria vector, Anopheles gambiae, by 1940 . And Florianópolis itself has been malaria free since 1947. In the early 2000s, though, Zika crossed the Atlantic to the Americas and an outbreak struck Brazil and other South American countries in 2015-16, spread primarily by A. aegypti, which is mostly active during the daytime. The western media reported widely on how Zika, when transmitted from a pregnant woman to her foetus, can inflict severe birth defects, such as microcephaly (undersized head). And you may well recall the concern that circulated, not least on social media sites, about the risk to those participating in and attending the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. (Zika is transmittable by sexual activity and my hotel room in Rio came with a box containing a complimentary condom, protection against Zika as well as AIDS being specified as a compelling reason for its use. I’m kicking myself for not bringing it back as a prop for future talks.) The Brazilian government’s response to the outbreak of Zika virus was to authorize the nationwide release of batches of genetically modified, ‘self-limiting’ male A. aegypti mosquitoes (known as OX513A), whose offspring die before attaining adulthood.
There has been no incidence of Zika in Florianópolis to date. Still, I was quite surprised that the topic did not come up in conversation at the Congress, or among the questions posed after my paper. Entitled ‘The “gravity of the menace” from the temperate to the tropical’, my talk entailed a case study of the British Mosquito Control Institute established in Hayling Island, Hampshire, in 1925 (the subject of a previous blog post, ‘Pursuing British mosquitoes into the archives’). In my available time, I concentrated on the imperial context that shaped the Institute’s work, its global significance as a template for a mosquito control operation, and the keen interest with which its activities were followed in the tropical world.
The UK government’s Ministry of Health did not classify British mosquitoes as disease carriers. Nevertheless, the ‘gravity of the menace’ along the English Channel coast in the 1920s - the quotation comes from the title of a chapter in British Mosquitoes and How to Eliminate Them (1928), a book by A. Moore Hogarth, founder and chairperson of the London College of Pestology – was considered severe even by sanitarians with extensive experience of tropical climes. A former assistant director of Medical Services (Sanitary) in the India Expeditionary Force, Colonel S.P. James, remarked of southern England that ‘the abundance of these insects in nearly every rural district…is greater than in many exceedingly malarious places in the tropics’ (S.P. James, ‘The disappearance of malaria in England’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 23 (1929-30), 75). Moreover, the list of Council Members of the British Mosquito Institute reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the great and the good in the world of imperial science and medicine. A journalist (in an unidentifiable archival news clipping) described them as ‘men learned in the ways of the mosquito in India, the Gold Coast, or at Khartoum, where [the mosquito] is not merely a nuisance’. Not least, the Institute’s visitors’ book (1925-37) contains the names of scientists and health officials the length and breadth of the malarial world.
None of the other papers in the session in which I spoke (‘Agriculture and Science: Histories of the 20th Century’) - covering Mexico, Chile and the tropics more generally – mentioned wetlands or insects. But I had seized my opportunity to assert (and celebrate) the powerful agency of the small creature whose beguiling character and behaviour has prompted so many of us project team members to take out life-time memberships in the Mosquito Appreciation Society. Closing discussions of tropicality and its geographical and ideological situating also gave me an opportunity to reiterate how the proliferation of the (non-malarial, non-lethal) ‘nuisance’ saltwater mosquito, Aedes detritus, in resort towns along England’s south coast in the years after 1919 brought notions of tropicality and tropical places into contact with an unlikely part of the temperate zone chiefly associated with ice cream vans, fish and chips, buckets and spades and stripy deckchairs.
Postscript: Rather disappointingly, I did not hear, see or feel a single mosquito during two weeks in Brazil. The charismatic fauna in the vicinity of the conference venue was the broad-snouted caiman (Caiman latirostris), known in South America as the jacare-de-papo-amarelo, which inhabits the mangrove swamp and bayous of Parque do Manguezal do Itacorubi, a coastal wetland just a ten-minute walk from the conference venue.