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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/September 1900/The Conquest of the Tropics

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 57‎ | September 1900

By DR. GEO. G. GROFF, Late Major U. S. V.,


THE most beautiful and the most fruitful portions of the earth are at the present time in the possession of partially civilized, or barbarous and savage races, to the exclusion of the more enlightened Caucasian. Shall he ever remain unable to possess and occupy tropical lands to the exclusion of dark-skinned and inferior races? Will the time never come when he can rear a family of strong and vigorous children, of pure blood, under the equatorial sun? Is it true that the white man removing to the Tropics necessarily deteriorates?

The almost universal belief is that these questions must be answered in the affirmative. That, owing to the great heat, and to evil influences operating through the air, the water and the soil, it will always be impossible for white people to live in hot countries permanently, and, at the same time, to retain the physical vigor of temperate latitudes, and to rear healthy children. But these persons do not take into account certain recent great discoveries in the domain of science, medicine and hygiene. In the light of these discoveries, it is not wise to say that the white man will never conquer the Tropics.

White races have, in the past, reached a high degree of civilization in hot countries. Egypt, where the first civilization arose, is a land of tropical heat. The valley of the Euphrates, where arose the civilization of Babylon, and much of Persia, are both tropical or sub-tropical in temperature. The people of Egypt, Babylon and Persia were white. It would seem that to originate a civilization is more difficult than to maintain it.

Many countries, now most salubrious, were once considered very unhealthful. Health conditions were so bad in England, after the withdrawal of the Romans, that for nearly a thousand years there was absolutely no increase in the population, and the most dismal accounts of the reign of disease have come down to our times. What was true in England, was in great part true of all of Europe throughout the Dark Ages. Scurvy, rheumatism, fevers and plagues held high carnival in recurring epidemics every few years. If we can believe the reports, it was fully as dangerous then to dwell in the most favorable portion of Europe as it is now in the most dreaded tropical regions.

New England was at first thought to be a very unhealthful land. The early settlers in Massachusetts wrote to their friends in England imploring shipments of ale and beer, because the water was 'wholly unfit to drink.' What held concerning New England was doubtless maintained about every other portion of the Continent settled by the English, and, in some cases, these views prevailed until recent times.

It is well known that our ancestors thought it would never be possible for white people, or, indeed, for any people, to live on the treeless prairies of the great West. The earliest settlers always occupied the wooded belts, and only seventy years ago the prairies, which now sustain millions of happy and healthy whites, were looked upon probably in much the same way as we regard the plains of the Amazon, of the Orinoco, or even the Sahara of Africa.

Many persons yet living can recall the terrible struggles with disease which the first settlers passed through in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and even in salubrious California. The early settlers in these States were doubtless as sallow, as cadaverous looking, and with as little prospect of leaving vigorous descendants as the present white inhabitants in Cuba, Porto Rico or the Philippines. The reputations of Florida, Louisiana and Texas were no better.

Adults can live without deterioration in the Tropics. This has been proven by English and Dutch officers in India, Ceylon, Java, Sumatra and elsewhere. In the West Indies are men from the United States and from all the countries of Europe, who have been in the islands twenty, thirty, forty, and in some cases even fifty, years, who are to-day the picture of good health, active and vigorous in their work. The same is true in all parts of the tropical world. Adults can live in good health there.

Children born in the Tropics, if educated in temperate latitudes, can return to the Tropics, and this can continue indefinitely in the same families without deterioration. This has been found true in India, Java, the Sandwich Islands and in the West Indies.

It has been assumed, heretofore, that the bracing climate of the north-lands has produced vigorous constitutions in the children sent from the Tropics. That this was of some value will not be denied, but it is insisted that of greater value is the education in the higher ideals of the temperate latitudes. In the Tropics, ideas of morality, of sanitation, of correct living, are very crude. A child born and reared in the midst of low ideals unconsciously absorbs them, and assimilates readily with the population around him. The Spanish idea that everyone born in a tropical colony is necessarily a 'degenerate' is practically true, if he is also reared among 'degenerates.' The custom which exists in these colonies of giving each child born a 'degenerate' native child as a companion and playfellow, only makes more sure the outcome. Isolated families exist in Cuba and Porto Rico, where, high ideals having been maintained and inculcated in the children, we now find vigorous descendants to the third and fourth generations. There are many such families in Porto Kico, and the same is true in the Sandwich Islands.

It is here maintained that it is the letting go, little by little, the correct views of living, which causes the white race to deteriorate, and not the climate. The necessities of life are fewer and easier to obtain in hot countries than in cold ones; and this makes it easy for men to become indolent, to lose ambition and to sink to a low level of living and thinking.

The Tropics, contrary to the usual view, are healthful regions. Malaria exists in hot countries, but so it does in temperate ones. Typhoid fever and contagious diseases are no worse than in cold climes. Smallpox is regarded as a mild disease. Scarlet fever is said not to exist at all. Where filth is allowed to accumulate disease prevails, but in lands well drained and free from decaying matter and filth, there is, under ordinary care, no more to be feared from disease than in the most favored portions of the earth. At present, in hot countries the people pay little attention to sanitation. As a rule, they are unutterably dirty. They live in their own filth, and seem to enjoy it. The germs of disease from one body are promptly taken into another before they have time to die, or are cultivated in filth deposits until the whole community is affected.

The Tropics, in themselves, are no more and no less healthful than temperate regions. But the people in cold countries have some respect for sanitation, while those in hot countries have very little or no respect for decent cleanliness. This is the whole explanation of this matter. People who have the latrine in the kitchen and uncleaned for a century, who sleep in rooms into which a breath of fresh air cannot enter; who seldom wash their bodies; who use rum and tobacco instead of food; who permit children to cohabit promiscuously, can scarcely hope to escape disease, if any prevails in their neighborhood. Such conditions are the rule with the masses in hot countries.

Those who become 'acclimatized' will be able to live in hot countries. It is doubtful whether or not there is any actual condition known as 'acclimatization,' although if the term means becoming accustomed to filth, and to certain germs which live in filth, there may be something in the term.

Instead of a bodily change, the individual gradually becomes educated to his new environment. He learns what to eat and drink, what to wear and where to sleep, when and how much to work, to come in out of the shower and to change his wet clothes, to avoid the midday sun and the damp air of the night. When a man new to the Tropics has learned these things, he is 'acclimatized.' Some learn them at once; others axe years in learning, and meanwhile suffer from sickness and distress.

New conditions must be met in every country new to the pioneer, whether the country is in temperate or hot latitudes. In opening up a new country to settlement, it is the severe labors, the exposure, the meagre diet, the anxiety, the general hard conditions of life, which undermine the general system and make the body an almost unresisting victim to the germs of malaria and other diseases. It is not the climate in new countries, but the hard conditions of life, which kill the settlers.

So, in the recent war with Spain, bad conditions in the northern camps, uncleanliness of person due to lack of water, over-exertion in practice marches, sleeping on the ground, change of food, overcrowding in tents preventing restful sleep, unsanitary conditions on transports, caused the men to be landed in the Tropics in an extremely bad condition of body. Landing in the rainy season, opening the earth to form trenches for defence and about their tents, sleeping upon the damp ground, with a deficient and unbalanced ration, with no change of clothes for nearly three months, it is no wonder that many became sick. But the sickness was not due to the climate at all. It was due to the hard conditions in the home camps, and to hard conditions during the campaigns in the islands.

It is said that the heat, the rains and the insects of the Tropics are certainly unbearable by a white person from the temperate latitudes. But these things are magnified by the distance from which they are viewed. So far as the tropical lands recently acquired by the United States are concerned, they are not elements to be dreaded.

These lands are all Oceanic Islands. Surrounded by immense areas of water, they have an unvarying, or slightly varying, temperature. They are warm the whole year round, while never hot. In all these Islands the midday temperature is about 80° Fahrenheit. At night it falls to 75° or even to 70°; in the mountains still lower, depending upon the elevation.

But this heat is moderated by sea breezes. Except for about an hour in the morning, there is a breeze the whole day long, which tempers the heat. Sunstroke is unknown. No bad conditions arising from the heat have been seen in Porto Rico. The nights are always so cool that refreshing sleep may be obtained, and the effect of the sun is tempered by clouds, which shade the earth nearly all summer.

All the islands have mountains which may be reached in a few hours, where the climate of the temperate latitudes may be enjoyed by those desiring the change.

The tropical rains are no serious drawback. They fall at a fixed time each day, usually from two to four o'clock in the afternoon. They are much like heavy June showers in the States, unaccompanied by thunder and lightning. The ground soon dries off, and the rain has occasioned no inconvenience of consequence to anyone. The absence of thunder and lightning is remarkable. This is certainly true in Porto Rico.

The hurricanes and other great wind storms are probably no more frequent nor more destructive than are cyclones in the States. In Porto Rico there is a belief that a single severe hurricane occurs about once in each hundred years.

Insects are strangely few. The mosquito is grown in the cisterns, and is abundant in the towns. It is practically absent in the country. The flea is found only in the towns, where it is a sort of domestic animal. A little attention to cleanliness would diminish the numbers. The bedbug has not been seen in a year in Porto Rico, though there is no reason why it should not be here. Centipedes, spiders and tarantulas are so scarce that the natives expect about fifty centavos for each large specimen which they catch. Indeed, instead of an abundance of insects, these islands are remarkable for the small number of species and individuals indigenous to them.

Recent inventions and discoveries have made the conquest of the Tropics by the Caucasian race possible. There have been great discoveries made in chemistry, biology, bacteriology and medicine within recent years. Chemical discoveries have produced new and powerful remedies. Biology and bacteriology have brought to light numerous microscopic forms of life, traced their life histories, and shown that beyond a doubt, many, if not all, of the diseases designated communicable (contagious and infectious) are due to living beings called 'germs/ The experimental physician has discovered, in some cases, remedies which will destroy these germs after they have been introduced into the body, while the sanitarian has made vast studies in demonstrating how they may be destroyed before entering the body. Thus, sterilized food, water and clothing never convey diseases. Cities which are kept clean and have pure water supplies have little fear of epidemic diseases. The draining of lowlands, the thorough cultivation of the soil, the paving of streets and the use of quinine cause malaria to retreat from its old haunts.

Biologists have shown that a tick conveys the Texas cattle fever; the tsetse fly in Africa spreads the 'fry disease' among the cattle in that continent. The house-fly spread typhoid fever among our soldiers last summer, and there is good reason for believing that the mosquito is in large part the disseminator of malaria. Consumption, dysentery, the Asiatic plague, leprosy, typhoid fever, are all germ diseases. Knowing the causes of these diseases, the life history of the germs, and the remedies to apply, it is hoped that in a very few years the biologist, the bacteriologist, the sanitarian, all working together, will make tropical diseases to be no more dreaded than are the diseases of temperate regions. As warm countries become better known, physicians will certainly become more skillful to treat the diseases peculiar to them.

Eapid transportation and rapid communication between the tropic and temperate regions will rob the former of many terrors. When a person can communicate with his family every few days, or by telegraph in a few hours, and when he knows he can reach his old home readily, one element which disturbed former pioneers is removed.

Eapid transportation and the discovery of the process of canning fruits, vegetables and meats, together with the process of manufacturing ice, and of cold storage methods, make it possible for a person in a hot country to enjoy the foods to which he was accustomed in his old home. This will be a great help until he has learned to use native products.

Education and good laws will remove from the Tropics many undesirable features which now repel people from the North. It has been already remarked that the people in these islands have no knowledge of sanitation, and live in utter disregard of all the well-known rules of hygiene. Some of the most striking examples of this are the living in their own excretions, sleeping in air-tight compartments, the lack of a variety of food, working long hours in the hot sun with an empty stomach, using rum, tobacco and coffee in place of food, the utter lack of any restraint of the sexual instinct by either men or women of the lower classes and by the men of all classes, producing a well-nigh universal corruption of blood.

These unsanitary and unhygienic conditions have dwarfed the tropical dwellers in body and in mind. These things cannot be laid to the climate. They are due to ignorance. The same condition would produce similar results in Pennsylvania or Connecticut, and such results were seen a generation ago in New Mexico, California and elsewhere.

The laws under which these people have been living have been monstrously bad. Marriage has in some cases been actually discouraged; there was little opportunity and little inducement to accumulate property. There were few schools, and they were of poor quality. The different races, white, Indian and African, have fully commingled, and the result the world knows is bad. The strongest arguments against the mixing of the Caucasian and the African are to be found in the West India Islands. The mixed races will be much harder to deal with than pure bloods of any race.

The climate in Cuba and Porto Rico—and the same is claimed for the Philippines—is equal to any in the States south of the Carolinas. With the masses educated and with wholesome laws, these islands will all become garden spots, and will ultimately be occupied by pure-blooded Anglo-Saxons, the present inhabitants disappearing before the stronger and purer-blooded race.