Quinine and the cinchona plant: gain or bane for Africa?

Lom Bryan-Bill Ning
Bamenda, Republic of Cameroon


Slave Market. Frederic Remington. 1893.
The Art Institute of Chicago.

“The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives and minds than all doctors in the Empire.”1 This statement by Winston Churchill referred to the bitter-tasting substance in tonic water, quinine. This antimalarial alkaloid did save lives, but also propelled the economy and prestige of the British Empire as it explored and colonized the hostile, mosquito-infested jungles of Africa. Wonderful as this was for Britain, it was not such a benevolent advance for the indigenous people of Africa. How could such a medical leap forward also be a stumbling block for the Africans?

Africans had lived with mosquitoes and malaria for thousands of years. The effects of malaria had a major impact on the population as far back as the Neolithic Age and the beginnings of agriculture. Genetic traits such as sickle cell, thalassaemia, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, and the Duffy antigen provided protection against malaria.2 Africans had also become tolerant of this natural pest and were at peace with the mosquito; but the Europeans arrived at the coast of what would soon become their graves. As they ventured into the interior of Africa they encountered hostilities and obstacles, the most important being infectious diseases, especially malaria. In 1816 British explorers fascinated by the Congo River went to locate its source in the interior. They soon abandoned their expedition as twenty-one of the fifty-four explorers died after only one hundred miles. In 1825 fifty-two missionaries died along the coast of Africa from infectious diseases, most from so-called “bad air,” or malaria.3 Little wonder that Africa was soon called “the white man’s grave,” the mere description of malaria being enough to scare anyone away from Africa. As the explorer David Livingstone wrote: “Quinine was found invaluable in the cure of the complaint [malaria], as soon as pains in the back, sore bones, headache, yawning, quick and sometimes intermittent pulse, noticeable pulsations of the jugulars, with suffused eyes, hot skin and foul tongue, began.”4

The story of quinine begins in South America; in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Before it was found effective in treating malaria, it had long been used by indigenous people to treat shivering. The Quechuas found that grinding the bark of what later became known as the cinchona tree, produced a bitter tasting liquid that could stop the shivering associated with fever. Legend holds that in 1668 the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Spanish Viceroy to Peru, was cured of an alleged malaria attack by drinking a potion made from the bark of the quina quina. In the following years, she is said to have brought the potion back to Spain. A more favored theory says that an Italian Jesuit apothecary arrived in the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru in 1605 and witnessed how the Quechuas ground the cinchona bark and made a tea used to treat shivering. He later sent it to Rome in 1631, where it proved to be a cure for the Roman marsh fever.

Widespread use of quinine was hindered by it being viewed by Protestant nations as a popish plot, limiting its use in Nordic countries such as England. The large scale use of quinine as a prophylactic medicine started around the 1850s, although it had been used in an unrefined form since the 1600s. The isolation of the quinine alkaloid from cinchona bark was achieved by Frenchmen Pierre Joseph and Joseph Caventon in 1820. By 1848 the medical department of the British army began using it as prophylaxis, spending large sums of money to import the substance.

U.S. Army medical researchers take part in World Malaria Day 2010, Kisumu, Kenya. April 25, 2010.
Photo by US Army, Africa.

It was quinine that allowed colonialists to survive in the malaria-infested jungles of Africa long enough to colonize and enslave indigenous Africans. The slave trade, land expropriations, butchering of resisting fighters, and other inhumane acts could be exacted on native Africans in part because of the discovery and industrial isolation of quinine. In the words of King Affonso of Kongo: “Each day, the traders kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family … This corruption and depravity are so wide spread that our land is entirely depopulated … it is our wish that this kingdom not be a place of trade or transport of slaves.”5 This letter, written in 1526, expressed how cruel the slave trade had been to Africans even before the coming of quinine. A few decades later, when quinine had lessened the fear of malaria, the situation became even worse. In the sixteenth century, fifteen thousand from the Kongo Kingdom alone were enslaved; in 1690 thirty thousand were enslaved throughout Africa. By the 1820s (quinine was isolated in 1820), four enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic for every one European.6 Based on our present knowledge of the optimum population needed for economic and industrial growth, the discovery and industrial manufacture of quinine was a curse to the African economy and cultural advancement, given that it was the tool that propelled the exploration and colonization of Africa.

Quinine was a great advance in medicine and further proof that nature holds the answer to many questions of human health. But its contribution to the colonization of the African continent and the horror that came with it cannot be overemphasized. If King Affonso, resistance fighters, and enslaved Africans were asked whether quinine was a gain or a bane, their answer would be a resounding bane. But given that thousands still suffer and die from malaria, most Africans today would count the Jesuit powder as a gain.



  1. Layla Eplett “Quinine and Empire” Scientific American (blog) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/quinine-and-empire/
  2. Canali S (2008). “Researches on thalassemia and malaria in Italy and the origins of the “Haldane hypothesis”” Med Secoli 20(3): 827-46.
  3. Vern Cleary “Before the Scramble for Africa” Modern World History http://websbcp.org/sites/vcleary/mordernworldhistorytextbook/imperialism/section_6/beforethescramble.html
  4. Christopher Lawrence “Fever in the tropics” Livingstone Online http://livingstoneonline.org/unid/node/d9054e6-fa44-4235-af76-80c34119b996
  5. Vern Cleary “Before the Scramble for Africa” Modern World History http://websbcp.org/sites/vcleary/mordernworldhistorytextbook/imperialism/section_6/beforethescramble.html
  6. Steven Mintz “Historical context: Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History



LOM BRYAN-BILL NING studied biochemistry at the University of Bamenda and is now in his second year of clinical studies in medical school. He is a fan of history and music and admires the contributions of Leonardo Da Vinci.



Spring 2019  |  Hektorama  |  Infectious Diseases