Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mysterious 16th C Ant Plague - E. O. Wilson's "The Creation"

A graduate student at Georgia Tech's Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, one of my 
required courses is Empirical Research Methods. 
E. O. Wilson's "The Creation" is one of our assigned texts and I've 
transcribed a section of the book below - Wilson describes a 
mysterious ant plague that hit the Caribbean soon after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.

An excerpt: 

          At that precise moment, in those circumstances, I felt confident I had solved a 500 year old mystery. At last, as the culmination of considerable effort, I could report the cause of the first environmental crisis experienced by European colonists of the New World.
          Around 1518, a plague of ants irrupted at the fledgling Spanish colony of Hispaniola. The event was witnessed by Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, exacting chronicler of Columbian America ("who promises before the divine word that everything said and referred to is the truth") and defender of the Caribbean Indians. A great saint, in my opinion, never canonized. He described the scene at the monastery as follows in his History of the Indies. "This plague was an infinite number of ants that…bit and caused greater pain than wasps that bite and hurt men. They could not defend themselves from these ants at night in their beds, nor could they survive if the beds were not placed on four small troughs filled with water."
          Elsewhere, in the newly established capital of Santo Domingo and in other parts of what is today the Dominican Republic, ant swarms destroyed the gardens and orchards everywhere. As the plague spread, entire populations of oranges, pomegranates, and cassias were wiped out. "As though fire had fallen from the sky and burned them," Fray Bartolome agonized, "they stood all scorched and dried out." The loss of the cassia trees, source of a purgative widely used in Spain, was particularly distressing. The colonists, whose income from mining had dropped with the near-extinction of the enslaved Taino Indians from maltreatment and disease, had turned to this crop as an important new source of income.

My copy of E. O. Wilson's 'The Creation'
Photo by Donna Welles 09/05/12

          Fray Bartolome believed that the plague was an expression of God's wrath for the maltreatment of the Taino people. Whatever the Spanish themselves thought about the cause, they soon turned to the highest authority for relief:
As the citizens of Santo Domingo saw the affliction of this plague grow, doing such damage to them, and as they could not end it by human means, they agreed to ask for help from the Highest Tribunal. They made great processions begging Our Father to free them from such a plague so harmful to their worldly goods. In order to receive divine blessing more quickly, they thought of taking a saint as a lawyer, whichever one by chance our Lord should declare best suited. Thus, with the procession over one day, the bishop, the clergy, and the whole city cast lots over which of the litany's saints Divine Providence would see fit to give them as a lawyer. Fortune fell on Saint Saturnin , and receiving him with happiness and joy as their patron, they celebrated him with a feast of great solemnity, as they have each year since then…
          And indeed, according to Fray Bartolome, the plague, as if miraculously, soon began to recede. Within a few years new trees were planted and brought to fruit. To this day citrus and cassia trees flourish throughout the Dominican Republic, and they remain mostly free of damage from ants.

Note: Wilson goes on to argue that the mysterious ant species was the 'tropical fire ant'. 

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