Malaria in the Colonial Americas

Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium. Mosquitoes are the vectors, meaning that they carry this parasite and spread the disease from person to person. Symptoms of malaria can include fever, headache, and vomitting (usually 10-15 days after mosquito bite). It can become life threatening if it disrupts blood flow to major organs, but there are non-fatal cases. Malaria is completely curable and preventable. Quinine is a chemical that comes from the cinchona tree (found in South America) and is often used to cure malaria. A few prevention methods are mosquito nets with a long-lasting insecticide or indoor residual spraying of insecticides. The majority of cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa, but it also affects people in Asia, Latin America, Middle East, and part of Europe.

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Malaria in Early Colonial America
Before malaria became a disease common or influential in Colonial America, it was spread in the Caribbean because of the number of Africans who had emigrated there. Also, when Cortez and his soldiers arrived in the Caribbean, they were carrying the parasite with them and gave it to the people on the Caribbean islands they visited. It was easy for mosquitoes to live in a warm climate like the Caribbean.

The first known case of malaria in America was after Columbus arrived in 1492. On his second voyage to the New World his entire crew, including himself, was infected with the disease. At this point it was difficult for malaria to survive in such a cold climate because every year the mosquitoes would die off. The small number of inhabitants on the coast of North America also did not aid the infected mosquitoes in the spread of malaria. Once the mosquitoes established a place in the swampy marshes, ponds and lakes of southern North America and the population of the colonies increased, the mosquitoes carrying malaria were able to maintain their location in America.

When the number of infected mosquitoes became a problem, a few groups of people decided to move west, away from the east coast. The Soiuan and Dhegihan Sioux tribes, for example, feared the disease that was common in the east and moved west away from danger. A few villages of colonists also moved away from the rapidly spreading malaria. The first lasting case of malaria was in the Jamestown settlement in 1607.

Slavery and Indentured Servants in Colonial America
In the 1660s Africans were brought to America as slaves in order to work on newly developed plantations. With these wslavery2tradeimage.jpgorkers came a lot of new diseases, one of the most common being malaria. Malaria existed in Africa long before it was carried to the New World and Africans had been living with the disease for a long time before they brought it over to the colonies. Once sugar plantations were established, more slaves were imported because of the higher demand for workers. The flow of workers from England to America also helped malaria spread. At the time, malaria was already common in parts of Europe, especially England, so when indentured servants were brought to America they also carried the malaria parasite with them.

Detailed explanation

What happened?
The first lasting case of malaria in the Jamestown settlement in 1607 was largely due to the fact that the founders of the settlement carried malaria with them from parts of England such as Kent, Essex, Somerset, and London. The Native Americans were, in turn, infected by these settlers. In the winter between 1607 and 1608 more than one third of the colonists died from diseases including malaria, typhoid fever, scurvy and dysentery.

The introduction of domesticated animals by Europeans to the Americas led people to stay put in their towns and villages, which led to an easier way for crowd diseases to spread. If people are staying longer in one place and in close quarters because they no longer need to travel, disease can pass very easily from one person to another.

AliceRavenelMendingABreak.jpgIn the Carolinas the spread of malaria was quickened because rice cultivation became so prominent. In order for rice to grow the best it needs to be in pools of stagnant, shallow water which is very welcoming to mosquitoes carrying the parasite. The African slaves who worked on the rice plantations could easily get malaria out in the pools of water and often the people around them would get it as well because of the mosquitoes.

To who?
Both rich and poor were affected with the disease because mosquitoes lived in the sewage and stagnant water of neighborhoods. Poor were sometimes effected more than rich because they lived in less sanitary conditions. Geographically, people from the more southern states on the coast of North America were affected the most. They lived in warm swampy areas which served as mosquito breeding grounds; they also had a lot of slaves from Africa working on the plantations that carried malaria with them.

When and where?
The first instances of malaria were in 1492 but it didn’t have a lasting effect until the Jamestown settlement was established in 1607. From there, it spread to the Carolinas, then to Maryland, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. From these southern states it spread westward to Ohio, Missouri and the Gulf of Mexico. Later in the timeline of Colonial America, during the Revolutionary War, malaria spread every more quickly than every before.

Important people or incidents affected by malaria in Colonial America

Doctors who researched malaria
Morton, a doctor from 1696, was the first to create a detailed picture of malaria and to introduce the treatment of cinchona or quinine. He believed that the disease was caused by a poison. He is one of the first doctors, on record, to make such a discovery. This finding shows just how early on people began to wonder and research the treatments and causes of malaria.

Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician in Colonial America, researched malaria and yellow fever. It is not apparent that he was able to differentiate the two, but much of his research is applicable to gaining an understanding of how doctors reacted to malaria in Colonial America. Dr. Rush believed that a shipment of coffee rotting on a wharf in Philadelphia could have caused an outbreak of disease. He tended to believe that malaria/yellow fever was caused by rotting things or swampy water.

Giovanni Maria Lancisis was the first doctor to notice the black pigment in the brains and spleens of autopsied malaria victims in 1716. At the time he didn’t know that the disease he was observing was, in fact, malaria. In the 1800s, other doctors and researchers were able to use his information to conclude that what he observed was a symptom of malaria. Lancisis believed that malaria was caused by the poisons of swamps and stagnant water. He was also able to figure out that the saliva of mosquitoes entering the human blood stream had something to do with malaria.

A few other notable doctors who observed malaria were James K. Mitchell who believed that bad air around marshy areas cause malaria and John Crawford, who contradicted this theory in 1796. Dr. Crawford believed that malaria was carried by mosquito’s eggs. This idea was considered ludicrous.

It is important to take into account how educated medical professionals viewed malaria in Colonial America at the time that it was happening.

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Prevention Theories
In early Colonial America, the prevention theories were fairly civilized and effective. They used cinchona bark which often helped to cure malaria because it contained a substance similar to that of quinine. Later in Colonial America, however, the prevention theories became a bit more ineffective. Health officials of late Colonial America suggested burning tobacco to clean the air as well as public prayer and fasting. Common people also tried to take mudbaths to prevent the disease. Many doctors of the time also would extract blood or administer mercury pills to their patients. Eventually quinine and cinchona bark became, once again, the most effective and widely used method of preventing the spread of malaria. Even today, quinine is a popular method in preventing and curing malaria.

People who suffered from malaria
This is a list comprised of well-known people who suffered form malaria during the time period of Colonial America. Sincecristobalcolon.jpg there were not many notable or well-known people who contracted the disease from North America this information is from all over the world.

Columbus and his crew on their second voyage to America in the late 1400s
Pop Leo X in 1521
Ethiopian Emperor Minas in 1563
Spanish Explorer Alvaro Mendana de Neira discoverer of the Solomon Islands, in 1595
Caravaggio, an Italian painter, in 1610
Oliver Cromwell in 1658
Shakespeare alluded to malarial disease in 8 of his plays including “The Tempest”

Specific outbreaks of malaria
There were various outbreaks of malaria in Massachusetts in 1634, 1647, 1650 and 1668. Also there was the epidemic of malaria in the Jamestown settlement in 1607. There were various other outbreaks occurring along the North American coast throughout the colonial period. For example, in 1775 Congress provided George Washington’s troops with $300 worth of quinine in order protect their troops against malaria.


Bruyn, G.W., and C.M. Poser. An Illustrated History of Malaria. 1 ed. Stockholm: Informa Healthcare, 1999.

Carrol Faust, Ernest . History of Human Parasitic Infection. no.10 ed. New York: Public Health Reports, 1955.

Gale Research Inc.. "Yellow Fever and Malaria." American Eras. <> (accessed January 10, 2010).

"Jamestown." United States History. <> (accessed January 8, 2010).

Shaffer, Lynda Norene. Native Americans Before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands (Sources and Studies in World History). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1992.
Image Bibliography

"Christopher Columbus." Columbus Day. <> (accessed January 12, 2010).

Huger Smith, Alice Ravenel. "Mending a Break in a Rice Field." A Corolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties. <> (accessed January 12, 2010).

"Slavery image by aphra_behn on Photobucket." Image hosting, free photo sharing & video sharing at Photobucket. <> (accessed January 12, 2010).

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