It’s The Season for “Mosquito Madness” on the Marsh

Two years ago during the first week of August, the Tantramar region was a-buzz with a celebration known as Yorkshire 2000. One highlight of this event, marking the 225th anniversary of the arrival of Yorkshire settlers, was The Great Big Mosquito Show.

A production of the Marshfire Peoples Theatre Company, the play was written and directed by Sackville’s David Fancy. Some 75 local actors, choristers and dancers supported by a creative stage crew played to sellout audiences. For all readers who missed the show, one question arises: Why should the pesky mosquito be featured as part of the Yorkshire celebrations?

For those who live here, it will not take long to come up with the answer. Its provided on any humid day or night on the Tantramar. Just recently, I was asssured by one local resident that the summer of 2002 just had to be one of the worst for those (xx censored xx) mosquitoes. He then went on to provide the title for todays column by concluding: This is the season for mosquito madness on the marsh.

I cannot confirm his claim that in 2002 we are witnessing the worst season for mosquitoes on the marsh. What can be confirmed by examining the historical record is that this insect has been singled out for comment by visitors to the region from the French colonial period onward.

It was an unknown French explorer who named a point of land that projects into Chignecto Bay Cap des Maringouins. The latter is an old French word for small mosquito like insects. Known today as Cape Maringouin, the name made its first appearance on a map drawn by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin in 1686. By 1704 the feature was referred to on English maps as Cape Mosquito. In 1779 J.F.W. Desbarres revived the earlier French designation calling it Cape Marangouin.

One of the first English references to the muskettoes [sic] comes from the pen of New Englander Dr. Robert Hale (1702–1767) who made a trading voyage to the Tantramar aboard the schooner Cupid in the summer of 1731. He wrote: There is an abundance of muskeetoes here so that on a calm day, tis almost imposssible to live especially among the trees.

The Yorkshire settlers were great letter writers and several kept diaries. To no ones surprise the mosquito was frequently mentioned in letters back home. Heres two examples: Writing in 1774 Luke Harrison did not waste words. We do not like this country, nor ever shall. The mosquitoes are a terrible plague you may think they cannot hurt, but if you do you are mistaken. They will swell your legs and hands they grow worse every year and they bite the English the worst. People of other nationalities will take little comfort from his conclusion!

Another Yorkshire settler James Metcalf Jr. was more optomistic and came up with a remedy for the plague. In August 1772 he wrote: There is a little flye called the miskeeto that bites like a midge. The trobelsome miskeeto can be kept out of the house by smoke pots, and in any case, they will disappear when the wild meadow grass is cut. It is worth noting that there was a reason for Metclfes upbeat tone. He was writing to his fiance, Ann Gill, and obviously did not want to discourage her from emigrating. The following year long before the wild meadow grass was cut Ann Gill and James Metcalf were married by the chaplain at Fort Cumberland. Even the pesky mosquito could not overcome true love.

Recently, while researching and writing the two columns on the Botsford dynasty, I came across an interesting comment about todays topic. Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Gubbins spent six years in New Brunswick as the senior British Army officer. One of his duties was to inspect the militia units throughout the colony and this took him to the Tantramar in July 1811. Fortunately, he kept a detailed diary of his travels which was discovered and subsequently published in 1980 by Professor Howard Temperley. The latter was a visiting professor at UNB from the University of East Anglia, in Norwich England.

Gubbins wrote: I was hospitably received by Mr. Amos Botsford (1744–1812), speaker of the House of Assembly. He is a man of extensive property. In view of his windows [are] some 800 acres of marshland well secured by strong dykes from the sea The mosquitoes were here more troublesome than I had ever found them to be in any other part of the world. Since Gubbins had been posted to many parts of the far flung British Empire, he might well have advanced the claim that the humid summer of 1811 was the worst for mosquito madness on the marsh.

One final on location report from another part of the Tantramar region. Bayfield, west of Cape Tormentine marks the career of Henry Wolsey Bayfield (1795–1885). It was he who was responsible for surveying much of the coastline of New Brunswick. During the summers of 1842 and 1843 Bayfield was charting the Northumberland Strait coastline of present day Westmorland County, and it is thought that his survey party landed within the bounds of the community which bears his name. In any event, Bayfield sailed along this coastline on several occasions, making the place name especially appropriate. During the 1980s the Champlain Society of Canada published a two volume set of Bayfields journals which describe in detail the eastern Canadian and Great Lakes coastline the setting for his lifes major work. Since such surveys took place during the mosquito season Bayfield recorded numerous accounts of the mosquito plague and his attempts to rid ourselves of them.

According to Bayfield the most effective remedy was the one suggested earlier by James Metcalf. Following his landing on the coastline, possibly near present day Bayfield, he wrote: We found a good place for the tents, with plenty of firewood and lots of mosquitoes, whom we smoked unmeRCIfully; an operation that would be more agreeable if it could be effected without smoking ourselves at the same time.

Aside from smoke with its obvious disadvantages, there are several other contemporary remedies. Some people have turned, with apparent success, to various herbs for relief. Lemon balm grown in abundance is one example; another is jewel weed, while citronella, a tropical grass is cited by others. Then there are a number of commercial products available in pressurized spray cans, while others come in plastic bottles. The one most often recommended is Muskol, invented by Charles Coll, a native of Pictou County, Nova Scotia. Possibly the best advice on the subject was given by the American College of Physicans. Its answer is use common sense if you are going into a wooded area wearing shorts and a T-shirt, you are asking for trouble. Wear long pants, long sleeves and loose, light coloured clothing.

Another aspect of mosquito lore suggests that the insects are the result of unrighteous behaviour. A Nova Scotian columnist, the late Norman Creighton once quoted an interesting example dating from early days on the Tantramar. According to his reaearch, the summer of 1795 was one of the worst on record in this area. So plentiful were the mosquitoes that local residents called upon a visiting Jesuit priest for help.

Creighton described the scene as follows: … having all things prepared, [the priest] took a basin of holy water, a staff with a little brush, and having on his white robe, went about the marshes with about thirty following in procession. A young lad going before him, bearing the holy water, sprinkled the marshes on each side, a little bell jingling at the same time, and all singing the words ora pro nobis. They wheeled and turned Thus they passed and repassed across the Tantramar marshes, the mosquitoes all the while rising before them, only to light behind them. Then the priest announced that it was impossible to prevail over the mosquitoes, so great were the sins of the people of the Tantramar.

It is apparent that all sorts of remedies from smoke pots to chemicals to herbal remedies to divine intervention have been tried and to a greater or lesser degree have been found wanting. From at least the 17th century onward, settlers on the Tantramar have been battling mosquitoes. Even the well known and much publicized Tantramar winds provide but temporary relief.

For my money, I am prepared to leave the last word to Norman Creighton. In concluding his column on How to Keep Mosquitoes At Bay he wrote: Whether you use Muskol, orange peel, face nets, or take a stiff slug of Jamaica rum, remember that like every other year, this one promises to be a vintage year for mosquitoes!