Maybe it’s too much to say that imperialism caused AIDS. But at the very least, it’s karma—payback, if you will, for mass slaughter, slavery and vicious exploitation in central Africa more than a century ago.

That’s the point of a stunning excerpt of a new book in the Washington Post today. The book is Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin, and it’s high on my reading list now. Its point is that the penetration of Africa by Belgians, Germans and other colonialists in the late nineteenth century not only brought syphilis to Africa, a disease that killed countless Africans, but unleashed the AIDS virus, too. From “a small patch of dense forest in southeastern Cameroon,” the HIV-1 Group M virus catapulted itself from monkey to man, traveling down a river system to the colonial outpost of Kinshasa sometime between 1880 and 1910 or so.

Some of the research that informs this book has been circulating for a while. Much of it was conducted by Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Paul Sharp of the University of Edinburgh and published in Science in 2006. But Tinderbox puts it all together in a way that shows the consequences of imperialism, colonialism and the attendant public health disaster that followed it.

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