Many would say the Covid-19 outbreak may change forever the world as we have known it till now. Power structures may be shifted, economic systems remodeled, along with significant changes in the way we touch, behave, and breathe. With the number of cases continuing to surge and the prospect of a vaccine still distant, we are yet to see the impact that the virus will play out in times ahead. Lessons from the past though can provide some insight into what lies ahead.
In this six-part series, Indianexpress.com will chart out how major epidemics of the past have altered the course of history in the world. Each of these began as a biological phenomenon, but soon turned into economic, social, or political ones. Loss of lives and livelihoods had followed, distress and despair experienced, and yet despite the scale of devastation, the human race made peace with its surroundings and came out victorious. The message was, and still remains the same- there is hope!
Soon after Christopher Columbus set foot in the new world in the 15th century, every powerful European country wished to colonise the continent. Spain, one of the most dominant among them at the time, was the first to set out. In 1519, a Spanish armada of about 600 men led by Hernan Cortes landed at what is now Veracruz in Mexico. The ruling Aztec empire had a strong military force and a population of millions. Yet within a couple of years, the Spanish had gained control over the North American continent.
“The European conquest of the New World was not caused by guns, swords, or barbaric type behavior but by the invisible danger-germs,” writes historian Elizabeth Orlow in her article, ‘Silent killers of the new world’. The Spanish had among them one soldier who was infected by the smallpox virus. Within a couple of weeks, the virus is believed to have spread like wildfire, killing one-fourth of the population of Mexico.
By the 18th century, Smallpox along with several other epidemics from the European continent had spread across all of North America and played a crucial role in its occupation. “Spanish arms performed a notable feat; but it was their most potent weapon, sickness, which made the Spanish-American empire, and later as an ally of the English and French, was to subdue the Indians in North America,” writes medical historian, John Duffy in his work, ‘Smallpox and the Indians in the American colonies.’
‘Virgin soil’ for diseases from the Old World
By the 16th century, Europe had been struck by a number of diseases and epidemics, and its population had acquired immunity against most of them. Even in the case where immunity did not exist, Europeans were familiar with a number of disastrous epidemics, and had made peace with them as an ‘act of God’. The new world, on the other hand, had been largely untouched by ailments. Most European explorers and traders in America, in fact, were quick to notice and comment upon the climate and good health of the native Indians.
Duffy, in his work, records the observation made by an early settler in North America in 1633, wherein he writes, “here I find three great blessings, peace, plenty, and health in a comfortable measure. The place well agreeth with our English bodies that were never so healthy in their native country.”
Smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, typhus, and the venereal diseases were among those that were introduced by the European settlers. For native Americans, these were new and terrifying experiences. “As the wealth and resources of America offered unlimited opportunity for the whites, so their infections found a virgin field in the native population,” writes Duffy.
The deadly spread of the smallpox
Of the many contagious diseases that the Europeans brought to plague the native Indians, the smallpox was the deadliest. Though today, the disease is a thing of the past, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of the leading causes of death in Europe, from where it traveled to America.
A viral infection, smallpox entered the body through the nose or throat,and from there traveled into the lungs and thereon to the lymphatic system. Within days, large pustules would appear all over the body, often leading to the death of the infected person. The disease would replicate through close human contact.
The Aztec empire in Mexico was first to be attacked by the Smallpox when the Spanish arrived. Among the dead was the Aztec ruler, Cuitláhuac, and several of his senior advisors. The missionary, Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, who was witness to the disastrous outbreak in America, wrote of it: “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bed bugs. In many places, it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes became their tombs.”
By 1531, when the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro reached the Inca empire in Peru, this disease had already swept through its territory, its impact more disastrous than that in Mexico. “The leader of the Inca emperor Huayna Capac and his successor Ninau Cuyode were killed by the epidemic. Civil war broke out in Peru and the political structure disintegrated,” writes Orlow.
By the following century, smallpox had afflicted a large number of North American tribes. The culmination of the outbreak was an attack on Boston in 1721, which brought sickness to almost 60 per cent of the population. By 1758, the disease spread out among the natives in New York and New Jersey.
Speaking about the role of smallpox in the settlement of North America, Duffy writes, “by eliminating a number of Indian tribes, smallpox cleared the way for white occupation in some areas with only a minimum of friction.”
Next, the disease made its impact felt during the French and Indian Wars of the late 18th century, when smallpox was used as a bioweapon by the British forces. The soldiers are known to have distributed blankets that had been used by smallpox patients with the intent of initiating outbreaks among the American Indians. It killed more than 50 per cent of the affected tribes.
Yet again during the American war of Independence in the 1770s, the smallpox ran havoc among the tribes, with rumours being spread of the British deliberately spreading it. The epidemic’s advancement was finally checked with a programme of inoculation of all the troops.
The disease subsided only in the 19th century when the first vaccine was developed and the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination programme for all native Indians.
Smallpox and the Indians in American colonies, by John Duffy
Silent killers of the New World, by Elizabeth Orlow