They slaughtered our ancestors and derailed our history. And they’re not finished with us yet.
The insects are estimated to have killed more people than any other single cause.
In 1698, five ships set sail from Scotland, carrying a cargo of fine trade goods, including wigs, woollen socks and blankets, mother-of-pearl combs, Bibles, and twenty-five thousand pairs of leather shoes. There was even a printing press, with which the twelve hundred colonists aboard planned to manage a future busy with contracts and treaties. To make space for the luxuries, the usual rations for food and farming were reduced by half. But farming wasn’t the point. The ships’ destination was the Darien region of Panama, where the Company of Scotland hoped to create a trading hub that would bridge the isthmus and unite the world’s great oceans, while raising the economic prospects of a stubbornly independent kingdom that had just struggled through years of famine. The scheme was wildly popular in the desperate country, attracting a wide range of investors, from members of the national Parliament down to poor farmers; it has been estimated that between one-quarter and one-half of all the money in circulation in Scotland at the time followed the trade winds to Panama.
The expedition met with ruin. Colonists, sickened by yellow fever and strains of malaria for which their bodies were not prepared, began to die at the rate of a dozen a day. “The words that are repeated to the point of nausea in the diaries, letters, and accounts of the Scottish settlers are mosquitoes, fever, ague, and death,” the historian Timothy C. Winegard writes in his sprawling new book, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator” (Dutton). After six months, with nearly half their number gone, the survivors—except those too weak to move, who were left behind on the shore—returned to their ships and fled north. Still, they kept dying in droves, their bodies thrown overboard. When a relief mission arrived in Darien, they found, of all the wigs and combs and shoes and ambition that had left Scotland, only a deserted printing press on an empty beach.