Monday, April 17, 2006

The Shit Cure

Juan Cole passes along glad news: a secret weapon in the second battle for Baghdad . Naturally, it has an acronym: S.W.E.A.T., or "Sewer, Water, Electricity and Trash." But alas, turns out this patented strategy isn't all that new: in fact, they've been flogging it for an awfully long time now.

The latest promise of a silver bullet against the Black Beast in Iraq reminded me of what has to be the ickiest episode in the history of European medicine. When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived in the Spice Islands in the early 1600s it discovered a wealthy sultanate in South Sulawesi, based at the port city of Makassar. The Makassarese were armed with a military technology that even the most up-to-date European powers found it hard to defend against: sap of Antiaris toxicaria, otherwise known as the poison tree. When absorbed into the bloodstream, this brew of cardiac glycosides (known locally as ipo) can cause the heart muscle to contract so fast it stops in mid-stroke. Ipo was extracted with great care by local tribes and sent as tribute to Makassar, where the sultan had blowpipe darts, arrows, and even bayonets impregnated with it.

In the 1650s the VOC tried to enforce a monopoly in trade with the Spice Islands. The sultan, naturally, found this absurd, and his blow-pipe wielding footsoldiers went on the march. The English, who were also feuding with Holland over trade routes at the time, took a particular interest; and after the Royal Society was founded in 1660 it eagerly solicited reports on the Makassar poison. Two years later, the Society's contact in the East Indies came through: "Such is the effect," he reported, "that a small arrow being imbued with it, giveth a fatal wound, if it draw blood in any place, and is incurable."

A dire report--or an appealing one, depending on your perspective. But the best part is the end. The only known antidote against Makassar poison, wrote the informant, was "human ordure, which being crammed down the throat, enforceth so strong a vomit, that it often cureth." Dutch central command had ordered all troops to carry their excrement with them when they engaged the enemy in battle.*

Any surviving Dutch soldiers would doubtless have been somewhat annoyed to discover that their shit-eating was all for naught: the toxicity of ipo, a bloodborne poison, is entirely unaffected by induced vomiting. While their artillery did eventually prevail against the Makassarese, the war lasted over a decade, and thereafter, the Spice Islands went into permanent commercial decline. Some years later Holland (a pale shadow of its former self) ceded them to the British: one sleepy little way station in the emerging Asian empire.

*from Daniel Carey, "The Political economy of poison: the kingdom of Makassar and the early Royal Society," Renaissance Studies 2003; 17(3): 517-543.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Even in our own time we may hope to see some improvement. but the unselfish mind will find its highest gratification in the belief that, whatever may be the case with ourselves, our descendants will understand many things which are hidden from us now, will better appreciate the world in which we live, avoid much of the suffering to which we are subject, snjoy many blessings of which we are not worthy, and escape many of the temptations which we deplore, but cannot wholly resist. -John Lubbock, Prehistoric Times

Those utopian Victorians.