Just this past weekend many Jamaicans were alarmed to find out there was a confirmed case of the deadly malaria disease in Jamaica, specifically in St. Ann. The Gleaner on Friday, January 11, 2013, reported that “a Jamaican was on the weekend diagnosed with the highly contagious disease, malaria, after a recent visit to a country on the African continent.”
This report was met with panic by many members of the general public, especially those within the St. Ann area, which led officials from the Ministry of Health (MOH) to urge all Jamaicans for calm. According to the health officials, Jamaica has not had any locally transmitted cases of malaria since 2009. There were five imported cases in 2012.
Malaria is spread when the Anopheles mosquito bites an infected person and then bites others, spreading the virus. Symptoms include flu-like illness with fever, chills, muscle aches, and headache. Some patients develop nausea, vomiting, cough, and diarrhea.
The Ministry is now urging “persons to ensure they check with its officials or the parish health departments before they travel to ensure that they take the necessary health-related precautionary measures” (Saturday Gleaner, January 12, 2013).
Early English Colonists to Jamaica: their Encounters with Mosquitoes
This brings me nicely to the main character in today’s post. Everyone, meet Johnny New-come:
Johnny New-come was not a real person. Johnny New-come was in fact the general name given to young Englishmen, many of whom were military officers, on their initial arrival in the British West Indies. For many of the Johnny New-comes who came to Jamaica during its thriving period as a sugar colony during the 18th century, their main objective was to seek their fortunes from the sugar industry. Unfortunately, their lives in the colonies were cut short by the deadly diseases spread by a particularly small, pesky and annoying insect: the mosquito.
A Lieutenant Abraham James of the 67th South Hampshire Regiment of Foot, who was stationed in Jamaica from 1798 to 1801 (Ward 2007, pg. 185), used the Johnny New-come character to record his observations of how the recently arrived colonists to Jamaica adapted to and were affected by life in the tropical environment, especially as a result of the scourge of the mosquitoes. The result of his observations was a 21-panel caricature of the life and death of a typical early arrival titled Johnny New-come in the Island of Jamaica, published in 1800.
Candace Ward (2007, pg. 185) notes that the Johnny New-come publication presented “a visual narrative of a recently arrived colonist’s encounter with yellow fever, the most notorious of the diseases that struck white populations in the Caribbean.” In fact, a slave song recorded in 1799, summed up the short lives of many Johnny New-comes to Jamaica as a result of the yellow fever disease (Senior 2003, pg. 529):
He get sick
He tak fever
He be die
He be die
Yep, death was inevitable.
Mosquitoes were such a constant nuisance in the lives of the colonists that their fierce attacks were immortalised in many contemporary drawings showing the inhabitants enveloped in clouds of hungry mosquitoes (Buckley 1998, pg. 37), as in the second panel of Lt James’ Johnny New-come in the Island of Jamaica.
In the rest of James’ satirical look at life in Jamaica for a newly arrived Johnny New-come, Johnny falls ill from yellow fever and soon after dies from his illness. Before his death though, he experiences a brief reprieve from sickness in which he “convalesces and believes himself seasoned” (panel eight). During this brief period, Johnny tries to get back to the life of a buckra master (panels nine to 12), but this is very short-lived as soon “The Yellow Claw of Febris gives Johnny a mortal clip” (panel 14). The last seven panels of James’ satirical cartoon traces the rapid decline of Johnny New-come, his body, now racked with the advance stages of the yellow fever disease, a sharp contrast to what he looked like when he first arrived in Jamaica.
Yellow Jack, Mala Aria and the British Troops
The fever that primarily afflicted the new comers, the whites (buckra), was yellow fever, also referred to as ‘yellow jack.’ Both malaria and yellow fever flourished during the 18th century as “the West Indies were an ideal habitat for the mosquito and, consequently, mosquito-borne diseases” (Buckley 1998, pg. 38). Factors such as “atmospheric humidity, constantly warm sea-level temperatures, abundant water, and a sufficient pool of non-immune hosts” (Buckley 1998, pg. 38), in the form of the newly arrived colonists, combined to maintain high levels of the malaria and yellow fever infections within the colonies. Those who had lived all their lives in the region, such as the buccaneers, seemed to have built up some immunity against a first attack of yellow fever.
While today we know beyond any doubt that yellow fever and malaria are caused by certain types of mosquitoes, back then, and up to the 19th century, the cause of these fevers was blamed on “foul air (hence ‘mala aria’), poisons in the atmosphere, or the moral qualities of the victims” (Senior 2003, pg. 530). In fact, as a result of the perception of the deadly nature of the air of the British West Indies, and the resulting deaths of so many, a trip to the colonies was considered a death sentence by those in the navy and military.
In 1840, 189 soldiers and their families from one regiment died shortly after their arrival in Jamaica (Senior 2003, pg. 352). This prompted the commander of the British forces in Jamaica to pressure the Colonial government to establish Newcastle in St. Andrew as a hill station for the troops, as it was found that those who lived in the hilly areas were less susceptible to the fevers that so many living on the plains died from. Newcastle was established in 1841.
The following is a compilation of sketches showing everyday scenes in Newcastle after it was established. In the highlighted sketch, two men are bearing “a victim to yellow jack” to his grave.
Today, Jamaica is relatively free from incidents of malaria since the major malaria eradication campaign between 1958 and 1961, as part of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global malaria eradication programme. The same also goes for yellow fever. Both diseases are easily controlled by destroying the mosquitoes’ breeding sites. Both diseases, however, continue to be a worldwide threat and, with the increased ability for air travel, persons are encouraged to check their various health officials before traveling to ensure taking the necessary health-related precautionary measures.
For instance, you must be vaccinated against yellow fever before traveling to certain countries. Yellow fever vaccinations are available at the Comprehensive Health Centre at 55 Slipe Pen Road, Kingston 5 for JA$250 per vaccination. You will be provided with an International Certificate of Vaccination against Yellow Fever to prove that you have been vaccinated against yellow fever, and which you must travel with at all times.
Until next time…
James, Abrahams (1800). Johnny New-come in the Island of Jamaica. London: William Holland.
Brown, Vincent (2008). The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Buckley, Roger N. (1998). The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age. Florida: University of Florida Press.
Hunter, Nadisha (2013a). Malaria alert – Authorities rush to prevent outbreak after confirmed case of deadly disease. Daily Gleaner, Friday, January 11, 2013.
Hunter, Nadisha (2013b). Don’t panic! Health ministry says latest malaria case being treated adequately. Saturday Gleaner, January 12, 2013.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Sketches at Newcastle, Jamaica. The Graphic, April 20, 1878, pg. 400.
Ward, Candace (2007). Desire and Disorder: Fevers, Fictions and Feeling in English Georgian Culture. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press.