"Whether the late unparalleled increase of piracies is to be ascribed to defects in the laws of civilized nations, or the laws not being enforced, or to other causes, it is alike certain that it is an alarming and growing evil, which a just regard to the interest of commerce, no less than to the moral state of society, requires to be forthwith repressed."The above, submitted to President James Monroe in December 1819, the result of piracies to 44 American vessels that year, summed up the country's frustration. The result was a war against Caribbean pirates - probably the most cost-effective and successful of any U.S. war.
Funded for 1822 at $500,000, the ironically named "Mosquito Fleet" consisted of the steamer Sea Gull - the first application of steam to war - the frigate Macedonian and a dozen or so fast, small vessels capable of pursuing pirates to their shoreline sanctuaries.
In this four-year war, the United States focused on Cuba's northern coast (and eastward) while the British focused on the southern coast. Notable is that very few sailors and Marines were killed in combat. However, on the Macedonian, 103 of the 360 sailors, surgeons and officers died. The killer was yellow fever, or vomito negro.
As yellow fever virus infects the liver, jaundice occurs and liver failure ensues. With decreasing output of blood-clotting factors (produced by the liver), gastrointestinal bleeding follows. Not at all pretty, black, bloody vomiting and death can result.
The prevailing theory of disease in the 19th century was that bad air (mal aria) caused illness. Thus, hospitals were located on hilltops or surrounded by high walls to prevent contact with "miasmatic" surroundings. In adhering to this causality, the role of microbes and their vectors (carriers, such as mosquitos), first proposed in 1854, was not confirmed until 1900-01 by Dr. Walter Reed and others.
There were clues. Yellow fever was worse in summer months and in southern latitudes, as are mosquitos. In New Orleans, 8,000 died of yellow fever in 1853, and as late as 1905, New Orleans and other southern port cities had thousands of cases of yellow fever annually.
At Thompson's Island, now Key West, Fla., the naval base in the war, it was noted that men upwind of the island were healthier than those downwind. Ships' crews arrived in port well and departed sick - again, exposure to mosquitos.
The concept of bad air was so strong that Capt. Isaac Hull, hero of the USS Constitution/HMS Guerriere fight, was the subject of a court of inquiry about the allegation that Macedonian was a dirty ship. Hull, the Charlestown (Boston) Navy Yard's superintendent, had responsibility for refitting and cleaning Macedonian.
Mosquito control began a century ago, and today, yellow fever vaccine is available, yet piracy continues as it has for millennia. Piratae - the ironically, oddly feminine, Latin-plural for pirate - itself is derived from Greek. Piracy will remain a threat until, yet again, threatened.
Shots for piracy? Likely not in the arm.
Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency-room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.