Early Modern Times – God Save the Quinine

Early Modern Times - God Save the Quinine

Dear readers,

Medical experts were gobsmacked by the US President’s statement last week that he has been taking the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to prevent the contraction of Covid-19–despite the absence of solid evidence for the drug’s effectiveness against the coronavirus and the potentially fatal side effects of taking the drug unnecessarily. Although it is highly unlikely that this synthetic form of quinine will be the miracle drug touted by him and his Brazilian counterpart, quinine was a game-changer in the early modern period, as discussed in this travel-related article by the aptly-named Vittoria Traverso (and evoked in the 17th-century engraving above, ‘Peru offers a branch of cinchona to Science’). The use of this alkaloid enabled European imperial expansion in Dutch Indonesia, French Algeria, and British India–leading the latter to utter, ‘God Save the Quinine.’

Malaria continues to kill millions of people in poorer countries with tropical climates. It was even present in the Roman Empire. Although we now know that it is spread by mosquitoes, it was–as its Italian-derived name indicates–thought to be due to ‘bad air’ hovering around swamps and the like. Ineffective medieval cures included bloodletting, induced vomiting, cutting off limbs, and trepanning: the latter was hardly a trepanacea. Starting with Monteverdi, however, proper operatic training prove to be an effective remedy for a mal aria.

In the 17th century, quinine came to the attention of Europeans seeking treatment of malaria. The legendary discovery of quinine is dated to 1631: the Countess of Cinchona, Spanish vicereine in Peru, came down with the symptoms of malaria–high fever and chills. The Jesuits mixed together the bark of an Andean tree with other plants, and this remedy of ‘Jesuit’s bark’ successfully treated her illness. The Cinchona tree, now the national Peruvian and Ecuadorian tree, was named after her; and quinine, which eliminates the malarial parasite, is derived from its bark. In truth, Peruvian-born biologist Nataly Canales says, ‘Quinine was already known to the Quechua, the Cañari and the Chimú indigenous peoples that inhabited modern-day Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador before the arrival of the Spanish. They were the ones that introduced the bark to Spanish Jesuits.’ Far from being a Jesuit discovery, this cure for malaria was–for these indigenous peoples–a cinchona.

The Jesuits ground their bark into a digestible powder, and distributed it throughout European trading networks by the 1640s. Quinine had a different reception in Catholic and Protestant Europe, however. The Pope sanctioned its use in Rome and abroad, and it was prescribed for the French monarch Louis XIV’s fevers (since as the Sun King, he was prone to heating up). In 1658, the vehemently anti-Papist Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, came down with a fever due to malaria: one possible cause of his death. The Lord Protector allegedly refused to ingest the ‘Jesuit powder’ (perhaps recalling the pro-Catholic gunpowder plot?). If true, this was one reason he became incurably Crom-not-well.

After Cromwell, however, the British realised the curative properties of quinine: the Royal College of Physicians listed cinchona bark as an official malarial medicine in 1677. Europeans frantically sought out cinchona in South America, scraping the bark to take on their ships and ravaging the cinchona tree population. The supply of Jesuit’s bark was only restored by planting the right seeds in their plantations, as the use of quinine became an essential tool of tropical colonialism. The global demand for cinchona was, then, the basis of ‘powderful’ overseas empires.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Cinchonerous Studies Program

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