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Epidemic Disease

By Don Mabry

The inhabitants of the New World had no serious infectious diseases which were transferable to Europeans or Africans except, perhaps syphilis, but New World peoples they had no immunity to African and European diseases. Because of this, there was a demographic disaster in the Americas. Microbes, not humans, conquered the New World. The scope of the disaster reflected the dense population population of central Mexico and the highlands of the Andes. The two most important American food crops, maize (corn ) and potatoes, were more productive of calories per acre than any Old World crops except rice. This allowed denser populations per square mile than anywhere except East Asia .  The American population may have been 100 million persons with 25-30 million in central and southern Mexico and an equal amount in the Andean highlands.  By 1568, however, the population of central Mexico had dropped to 3 million; by 1620, 1.6 million.   Disease spread silently and rapidly. For example,  there were some 6,000-8,000 Cayapo in South America in 1903 when a single priest arrived. He wanted to safeguard them from the evils and dangers of civilization but he did not realize that he was introducing contagious disease into a population which had no immunity.   By 1918, only 500 Cayapo survived; by 1927, only 27. By 1950, there were only 2 or 3. 
    Faith in established institutions and beliefs cannot easily withstand such disaster. Skills and knowledge disappear. There was wholesale demoralization and simple surrender of will. Although Europe and Africans did not do this intentionally, modern biological terrorists understand these effects. In America, the rapid spread of these fatal diseases created labor shortages and economic regression. The population decline destroyed the requerimiento. Haciendas became more attractive to Spaniards and Amerinds alike. They provided a haven for the native population and made them easier to control and work. Smallpox was in Hispaniola by 1518. Las Casas said that only one thousand survived the epidemic. It reached Mexico in 1520 when Pánfilo de Narváez arrived. Between the time of Moctezuma's death and La Noche Triste in 1520, smallpox  raged in Tenochtitlán. Leaders died within hours of Cortez' retreat. The Aztecs were beaten by smallpox long before they were beaten by Cortez. By 1520, smallpox had also spread to Guatemala. By 1525 or 1526, it was killing people in the Inca empire. Pizarro and his men found a population devastated by this deadly disease . The Spanish were immune, giving credence to their claims of superiority. Both the Spanish and the Amerinds saw the smallpox pandemic as divine punishment for the Amerind way of life. Stunned acquiescence to Spanish "superiority" was seen as the only possible response. 
    Other diseases were also devastating. Measles were in Mexico  and Peru by 1530-31. Typhus may have come to the New World by 1546. There was an influenza epidemic in 1558-59; the European epidemic lasted from 1556 to 1560 and killed 20% of England's population.  The Amerinds also had to withstand diphtheria and mumps epidemics. A German missionary in 1699 observed "The Indians die so easily that the bare look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost." Breath instead of smell would have been more accurate! The Amerinds were also inflicted with the African diseases of yellow fever and malaria. Yellow fever came to the Caribbean from West Africa in 1648, hitting Havana and the Yucatán peninsula.   As one Amerind observed: 

Great was the stench of death. After our fathers
 and grandfathers succumbed, half the people
 fled to the fields. The dogs and vultures 
devoured the bodies. The mortality was terrible. 
Your grandfathers died, and with them died the 
son of the king and his brothers and kinsmen. 
So it was that we became orphans, oh, my sons! 
So we became when we were young. 
All of us were thus. We were born to die!

©    2001 Donald J. Mabry

You can read about colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.