Matthew Mulcahy and Stuart Schwartz, “Nature’s Battalions: Insects as Agricultural Pests in the Early Modern Caribbean,” William and Mary Quarterly (2018)

July 16, 2018

            Among the many environmental hazards that challenged European efforts to colonize the early modern Caribbean were insect infestations of one kind or another. Though scholars have long highlighted the dangers associated with mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases, they have paid less attention to the impact of insects on agriculture, the economic foundation for empire in the Caribbean. At various times, caterpillars, grasshoppers, or so-called sugar ants (sometimes labeled the “blast”) destroyed fields of sugarcane and other export crops. They also ravaged provision crops, threatening the lives of inhabitants and the stability of colonial societies across the region. Infestations could force planters to abandon one crop in favor of another, sometimes temporarily, but at times permanently. Though insects posed problems from the earliest years of colonization, the threat grew more pronounced as plantation monoculture took hold across much of the Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Perhaps the most dramatic infestation occurred in the 1760s and 1770s when swarms of ants and associated homopteran insects devastated sugar fields in Martinique, Grenada, Barbados, and several other islands. Combating insects became an important goal for planters and entomology a necessary science of empire.

Matthew Mulcahy, and Stuart Schwartz. “Nature’s Battalions: Insects as Agricultural Pests in the Early Modern Caribbean.” The William and Mary Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2018): 433-64.

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