The Impact Of Infectious Disease In The New World

.. period was a long 10-14 days and because of this unsuspecting traders carried the virus all over the New World. “In general, the epidemics moved from east to west, loosely following the extent of European-American Indian contact:” (4) This was compounded by the high population densities of large Inca and Aztec cities and a more sedentary lifestyle for the Indians. By the time Pizarro and his conquistadors reached Peru in the 1520’s, the Incas had already suffered from the ravages of smallpox. The epidemic left their leader dead with no clear successors which caused political unrest and the civilization was split into two easily defeated armies.

One Spanish contemporary wrote at the time,”Had the land not been divided, we would not have been able to enter or win.”(1) Clearly, the reason the Europeans were so successful in their campaign against the native populations despite being outnumbered was because of disease. Not only did disease result in military defeat but also enabled the Europeans to usurp property left behind by dead Indians and consequently fill the empty space with their own colonists. The spread of disease in the New World contributed to the decay of the culture there. Indians became too weak to harvest food or care for their young. It is believed that the Indians became depressed by the upheaval caused by recent events and became complacent and suicidal. There was a large scale abandonment of traditions such as marriage customs, which became difficult to observe because of the scarcity of marriage partners.

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Survivors of dying tribes banded together and formed new tribes. And the most lasting effect was the undermining of the Indian religions that caused the large-scale conversions for which the Spanish missionaries had hoped. “The defeats suffered by indigenous peoples always had a religious dimension-the traditional gods seemed to have lost their power to save their worshipers’ lives. The argument that these abandoned then accepted whatever awaited them at the hands of their conquerors is however, the subject of continuing debate.” (3) The Indians were devastated. Their devastation was evident by the writings of the time.

“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!(1) One disease that may have originated in the New World is syphilis. Syphilis is named after a character in a poem written by Giraolamo Fracastoro in 1530 about a Greek shepherd Syphilis, who offended the goddess Venus and was punished. The term venereal disease comes from the name Venus.

There are three theories concerning the origin of syphilis: 1. Syphilis originated completely in the New World and was transmitted by Columbus’ men to the Old World in 1493. 2. That syphilis was documented in Europe only after the discovery of the New World and that it already existed in the Americas is a complete coincidence. 3. Syphilis existed in Europe prior to 1492 but was not the venereal strain but rather a milder strain.

Most information about the origin of syphilis supports the first theory, that syphilis was a New World disease and was transmitted sexually to the invading Spanish by Indian women. For example, most knowledge about syphilis after 1492 was mostly contained to the Spanish ports of Seville and Lisbon which were gateways to and from the New World. This would implicate that sailors coming from the Americas were treated here. There was consequently a leadership of Spanish and Portuguese physicians in the area of knowledge and therapy for syphilis. Also, there was no concrete name for syphilis in Europe before 1493. Symptoms that are similar to this form of venereal disease were widely referred to as leprosy, which was used to identify any disfiguring disease.

In addition, there were no writings about syphilis. On the contrary hundreds of Indian tribes had names for syphilis and evidence of it’s pre-Columbian existence is found in skeletal remains. In addition, several historical accounts support the New World origin theory. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo and Bartolome de Las Casas claimed syphilis was in the New World for a long time before discovery and that few were spared from this cursed disease. Dr.

Ruy Diaz de Isla claims he treated Columbus’ crew members upon returning from Hispaniola and that this disease was not known in Europe before then. Dr. Diaz de Isla should have known. He was the leading authority on syphilis in Europe, being a syphilis specialist in Lisbon from 1495-1521. He wrote, “‘there is not a village in all Europe with a hundred inhabitants in which ten persons have not died(of syphilis) and a third of the people have not been infected.'” (3) Venereal syphilis didn’t discriminate between its’ victims. Royalty, as well as children, and grandchildren were affected because of transmission from mother to child.

It’s victims were crippled, disfigured, if not killed by it. “Next to tobacco, it was the most harmful gift of the New World to the Old.”(3) The New World origin detractors claim that although this theory was circulated in 1539 there are some questions with this logic. The 1539 theory was that syphilis entered Mediterranean ports from ships returning from the Americas. From here it spread to Naples and was picked up by invading French forces under the command of Charles VIII in 1494. However, there were no reports of infection during Columbus’ first return voyage in 1493 but by the return of the second voyage in 1496, syphilis was already spreading through Europe.

By 1498, syphilis had arrived in India with Vasco de Gama and in 1505 arrived in China and Japan. However devastating syphilis was to Europe it cannot be compared to the effect that infectious diseases had on the New World. “Biologically, this was the most spectacular thing that has ever happened to humans.” (2) Infectious disease brought over by the Europeans decimated the indigenous populations and enabled the conquering of civilizations that greatly outnumbered the arriving forces. Nor was the impact of smallpox and other diseases short -lived. “After 1492, it would take nearly 500 years of exposure to repeated epidemics and the advent of modern medicine, before their populations would begin to rebound.(6) Epidemic Timetable 1518 – Smallpox hits Espaniola. 1520 – Mexico with Cortes 1525, 26 – Peru, Pizarro conquers Cuzco 1530,31 – Measles hits Mexico and Peru 1546 – Typhus arrives 1556-60 – Influenza hits Europe and Japan 1558,59 – Influenza hits the New World 16th and 17th c.

– Diphtheria, mumps, smallpox(again), and Influenza(again)(1) ————————————————– ———————- Bibliography 1. McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples. 2 .Cowley, Geoffrey. The Great Disease Migration. Newsweek, Fall-Winter 1991 vol.

118, pg.54 . 3. Lunenfeld, Marvin. 1492 Discovery, Invasion, Encounter. Lexington, Mass. and Toronto, D.C.

Heath and Company, 1991. 4. Bedini, Silvio A., Editor. The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia. Vol 1. New York, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1992 5.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Conquest of Paradise, Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. New York, NY, Penguin Group, 1990 6. Meltzer, David J. How Columbus Sickened the New World.

New Scientist, Oct. 10, 1992 v. 136 pg. 38.


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