A wry view of life for the world-weary

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Twelve


Smallpox in South and Central America

Conservative estimates put the indigenous population in the Americas in 1492 at around 50 million of which some 25 to 30 million lived in Mexico when Cortes arrived. Fifty years later the population was down to some 3 million. In other areas of the Americas there was a similar story. The cause of this mass reduction in population was the cocktail of previously unknown diseases that the white man brought with him. The extent of the impact of the diseases on the populations has led some to describe it as biological genocide.

The reasons for the widespread destructive nature of the diseases are fairly simple: the local populations had not previously been exposed to them and, therefore, had not built up any immunities. When the disease struck they had neither the medicines to deal with the symptoms nor the understanding of how to quarantine or isolate those who were carrying the disease. And culturally the sick were tended and visited by relatives spreading the disease’s reach still further.

Europeans brought many diseases with them including measles, scarlet fever, typhus, whooping cough, influenza, tuberculosis and cholera. But the biggest killer was probably smallpox.  The pox is thought to have first emerged around 10,000 BCE and the first known physical evidence of it was a pustular rash on the mummified body of Ramses V. The disease was no respecter of rank and status. It was so endemic in Europe that towards the end of the 18th century it accounted for around 400,000 deaths a year. As Europeans explored the world and expanded their empires, it was inevitable that it would be transported across the Atlantic.

The key symptoms of smallpox were rashes and fluid-filled blisters. Survivors were usually left with tell-tale scars and blindness was often a by-product of a bout. The Lakota called it running face sickness. The only consolation was that if you contracted the disease and survived, you wouldn’t get it again.

Cortes’ arrival in Mexico in 1519 brought smallpox to the Aztec empire. It accounted for most of the Aztec army and around 25% of the civilian population and enabled what was a pitifully small invading army to accomplish an astonishing coup. A contemporary wrote, “as the Indian did not know the remedy of the disease..they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in the house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of the dead, they pulled down the houses over them, so that their homes became their tombs”. When Cortes marched into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards could not walk anywhere without stepping over the bodies of smallpox victims.

For the Incas the effects of smallpox were even more catastrophic, claiming some 60 to 90% of the population, its spread aided by the efficient road systems that were in place. But smallpox didn’t stop there. It reached Chile in 1561 when a ship carrying the new governor, Francisco de Villagra, landed on its shores carrying the virus. Within a year around a quarter of the population had died, so devastating was the disease that, as a Spanish historian reported, the gold mines had to close because all the native labour had died. The Mapuche, who were fighting the Spanish at the time, thought that the pox was a magical device to aid de Villagra’s campaign to subjugate them.

Next time we will look at smallpox’s effects on North America.


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