Epidemics in world cultures | The New World, the Old World and the exchange of epidemics – Monica Manolachi

Epidemics in world cultures | The New World, the Old World and the exchange of epidemics – Monica Manolachi

Epidemics are often described as threats to civilization, similar to hurricanes or asteroids. It suspends ordinary life and leaves deep trauma behind. However, they can also be an effect of civilization, of a certain type of civilization, obsolete, eroded, useless, which can no longer support the progress of the world. That is why they are followed by catalytic events, by inventions and innovations, which fundamentally change our conception of life.

In the 16th century, the American continent was hit by a series of epidemics with catastrophic effects on the civilizations existing in the area at the time. Those epidemics played a crucial role in the conquest of new territories by Europeans and in the transport of African slaves to the territories of the New World. For the most part, the diseases brought by Europeans and Africans, without necessarily wanting it to, spread among the local people, who perished because of them. These are viral diseases such as influenza, smallpox or measles, as well as bacterial diseases such as typhus, malaria or plague. Around the same time, an unknown epidemic broke out in Europe as some of the sailors of Christopher Columbus and other explorers were returning from transoceanic expeditions. Later it also got a name: syphilis. Although there are numerous written testimonies on these diseases since the 16th century, but even earlier, in ancient times it was not very clear which specific disease caused each individual symptom, and doctors and medical science did not have the social status of today. Much research over the past two centuries has attempted to shed light on some of the causes and consequences of disease exchange, a significant component of what historians have called the Columbian Exchange, which includes a range of concepts, food varieties, diverse populations, etc. transferred from the New World to the Old World and vice versa.

Aztecs of Mexico, sick with smallpox, from the Florentine Codex, 1545-1590

On October 12, 1492, when the ethnic Tainos of San Salvador welcomed foreign sailors dressed in unprecedented clothing with friendship and simple gifts, they did not know what awaited them, nor what hideous gifts they would receive in return. The first epidemic of European origin reached America the following year, with the second expedition led by Christopher Columbus. This was larger – seventeen ships, over a thousand passengers and numerous domestic animals – and aimed at creating colonies. The fleet arrived in the Caribbean in November, with some passengers already ill, mostly with influenza, and this spread to the island populations, especially Hispaniola, where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are today, and where the Spanish founded the first civil and military settlement. On the return to Spain, only half of the people brought by Columbus in 1493 were still alive. In 1496, the island was abandoned due to disease and famine. Over the next century, the combination of various epidemics, social chaos, famine, and economic exploitation dramatically reduced the number of natives in the Caribbean islands and spread to the mainland.

Cantino’s planisphere, anonymous map of 1502 (detail)

Originally appearing on the island of Hispaniola in 1507 with African slave ships, smallpox struck much harder in 1518, when it killed a third of the natives. Compared to the more resilient Spaniards, exposed to the virus from childhood, the natives first suffered a high fever followed by an explosion of pustules, initial on the face and then all over the body, some of them even losing their sight. This first smallpox epidemic among the natives coincided with the forced relocation of some of them to communities closer to the Spanish settlements, where African slaves also lived, a measure which, together with the lack of hygiene, fatigue, deprivation and living in closed spaces, increased the death rate among the natives. Among these slaves was Francisco de Baguia, an infected person in the service of Pánfilo de Narváes, the conquistador who arrived on the island in 1518 to replace Hernán Cortés, displaced in Mexico. In a few months, as a result of human contact, the Aztec cities were filled with corpses, so that it was impossible to walk on the streets. From here the epidemic spread like wildfire to other islands, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and today’s Cuba, then to the mainland, in New Spain, i.e., in today’s Mexico, where in 1520 the Aztec leader Cuitláhuac also died, together with some members of the council sages, and later south through Panama to the Andes Mountains, where it encompassed the Inca empire, including some members of the royal family. From the documents of the time, it appears that the death rate varied between 25% and 50%. It is said that because of the vulnerability of the Aztecs to smallpox, Hernán Cortés would have conquered them more easily, helped by La Malinche, the interpreter and his advisor, the daughter of an Aztec chieftain.

Hernán Cortés and La Malinche at the head of the Spanish army, Codex Azcatitlan, c. XVI-XVII

Measles epidemics, which were often confused with other diseases, broke out in the area for various reasons such as transatlantic traffic between Spain and Africa, conquest expeditions, labor displacement, higher population density, very low immunity or the simple movement of local people carriers of the virus. The measles that arrived in America was apparently originally from Seville, an important Spanish port from where ships set sail for the Atlantic Ocean. From the Caribbean islands, measles reached Mexico, including the Pacific coast, where, in documents from 1531, contemporaries describe it as a milder rash than smallpox. Between 1531 and 1534, the death rate in some Latin American communities infected with measles may have reached proportions of 25%-30%. At the time, the Spanish called measles “small leprosy”, compared to smallpox, which they called “large leprosy”.

In Europe, the first records of typhus date from 1489-1490, during the War of Granada, when around 17,000 Spanish soldiers died, almost six times as many as were killed in battle. In 1528, in Naples, about 21,000 French soldiers lost their lives to the same disease. It is the period of transoceanic expeditions and the beginning of great conquests. Some of the surviving soldiers reached the New World, where the bacteria and viruses they were infected with spread over the population of the islands and the new continent, completely unprepared for foreign epidemic dangers. Between 1570 and 1580, the area of ​​present-day Mexico, plagued by drought and famine, is believed to have first suffered from typhus. Transmitted by fleas and lice, the disease would have been carried by rats infested on ships, which, once in the Caribbean Sea, circulated from one port to another. Although the disease was identified by symptoms by Roman Catholic missionary monks, they were surprised to find that they often could not do much to save the sick. The archbishop of Mexico at the time noted that half the locals had died by 1583, and a combination of typhus, smallpox, and measles overwhelmed the Andean regions by the end of the century.

During the fourth expedition, in 1502, Columbus writes that he, his son and other crew members became seriously ill with a very high fever. He does not mention the word malaria in his diaries, but at the time, a milder form of it was endemic in the Iberian Peninsula and Africa. No specific symptoms were found described in the medical works of the Aztecs and Mayans either. The encounter of European explorers and Africans with tropical New World mosquitoes led to outbreaks of disease among both Europeans and indigenous people. However, Africans had inherited greater immunity in the tropical territories where they were born, so researchers believe that they were more resistant and therefore were transported in large numbers from Africa to the Americas to work the land or dig in the mines. In the 17th century, Spanish missionaries noticed that Amerindians treated high fever with plants of the cinchona genus, which were later also used to reduce fever caused by malaria, both in the Americas and in Europe, and from which in 1820 quinine was extracted.

In 1576, the area of ​​present-day Mexico faced a second outbreak of an epidemic that the locals called cocoliztli, “plague or disease” in the Nahuatl language, and which was potentiated by one of the longest droughts in the country’s history, but also the poor living conditions of the indigenous population after the Spanish conquest. It closely resembled the devastating epidemic of 1545, and although it was characterized by dramatic symptoms similar to Old World diseases such as typhus, measles or smallpox, the royal physician Francisco Hernández de Toledo insisted on using the Nahuatl term. The mysterious disease of high fever, bleeding, vomiting and delirium is estimated to have killed between 7 and 17 million people in New Spain, regardless of ethnicity. The Franciscan monk Bernardino de Sahagún himself, the creator of the Codex Florentine, a reference ethnographic work on life in Mesoamerica, made between 1545 and 1590, is said to have contracted the disease from which he nevertheless survived. Studies in recent decades show that researchers have not yet fully agreed on whether it had pre-Columbian (viral hemorrhagic fever) or Columbian (salmonella) causes.

As the Europeans subjected the Native Americans to terrible violence and quickly enslaved those who remained alive, leaving them barely able to feed themselves and become increasingly desperate as that they had lost many of their relatives, the epidemics presented, but also others such as yellow fever or cholera, led to a real demographic collapse among the locals. Since the conquerors still needed workers in the mines and plantations established in the New World, they turned their forays to the west coast of Africa as an alternative source of disease-resistant labor. This was the beginning of what historians have called the transatlantic slave trade or the triangular trade, a large socio-economic phenomenon that meant millions of people were enslaved and displaced on routes between Africa, the Americas and Europe and that lasted until the 19th century, when slavery regimes were successively abolished in several countries.

Map of America by Sebastian Münster, 1540

Whether or not the flow of disease was unidirectional is still a great medical controversy. Historians say that in July 1495, a serious and unknown chronic disease broke out among the troops engaged in the Battle of Fornovo in northern Italy. The war had started in the peninsula a year before, when the French had attacked the Neapolitan kingdom, so at first the Italians called it the “French disease”. At that time, soldiers were poorly paid, undisciplined, dirty, recruited from many places. Among the soldiers who had fought in Naples, it was found that there had been Spaniards from Columbus’ ships, so it was also called the “Spanish disease”. The mysterious and deadly disease, which spread to Europe and Asia over the next decade, was characterized by joint pain, fever, rashes, swelling and sores, tissue destruction, face disfigurement and body putrefaction. The Russians called it the “Polish disease”, and the Arabs called it the “Christian disease”. However, the Spanish were more aware that it could have been brought from the New World. The term syphilis dates back to 1530 when it appears personified in an allegorical poem composed by the physician Girolamo Fracastoro, Syphilis sive morbus gallicus, but the widespread use of the name had to wait until the 18th century. As early as the first half of the 16th century, the idea arose that syphilis may have been brought by the crews of Christopher Columbus and other explorers, a theory that still circulates today in parallel with the pre-Columbian theory that the venereal disease was not new to Europe, but had either been ignored, or confused with something else, or not manifested so overwhelmingly. Although the virulence of the disease appears to have decreased over time, it has become a common condition and the reason for the first commercially advertised drug in Western medical history. Guaiac, a plant originally from the Caribbean, was used in parallel with means already known to Europeans, such as mercury treatments, drainage, cauterization of pustules, perspiration or herbal baths. Officials were not slow to react. In 1496, the French Parliament decreed that all infected must leave the city within 24 hours. In 1497, the Scottish City Council of Aberdeen banned prostitution and isolated syphilitics on Inchkeith Island. In 1515, the papacy began to support the provision of specialized hospitals or at least isolation rooms. The regulation of prostitution has been discussed since then, but such a legislative proposal was not implemented earlier than the 19th century.

In 1976, the American professor and researcher Alfred Corsby created the concept of an “epidemic in virgin soil”, that is, that type of epidemic in which the populations at risk have not had previous contact with the disease that affects them and are therefore much more defenseless from immunologically, which can lead to high and very high mortality and morbidity rates. Among the causes of vulnerability are factors such as: the population does not have inherited immunity, transferred from mother to fetus through the placenta; the population has undergone genetic changes compared to the common original typology; the population did not experience favorable natural selection during previous epidemics. The Columbian expeditions and those that followed seem to be an eloquent example of this theory. This does not mean that in the new territories there was no disease at all. Following the research, the existence of intestinal diseases, fungal infections, streptococcal infections, varieties of tuberculosis, lung diseases, syphilis etc. was identified. About influenza, yellow fever and malaria, however, opinions are divided. But very dangerous diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhus or the plague apparently did not appear until after the massive arrival of Europeans.

In terms of responses to epidemics, Native American civilizations generally had a holistic view of them, seeing them as a consequence of cosmic disorder. The divinities got angry and then the natural order of the world was altered. Religion and healing relied on the power of shamans, mediators between humans and divinities. But the shock of new epidemics in the 16th century, with completely unknown, rapid and frightening symptoms, made the Native Americans believe that the gods had completely turned against them. Herbs, therapeutic blood drainage and baths did not have the expected effects. Fleeing the path of disease meant helpless sick left behind, but also a possible spread of disease to the destinations where those who thought they were healthy were fleeing. Nor were the Europeans more open about faith and cures, given that for a long-time smallpox, for example, was treated with “red thing”: medicines, liquids, clothes and red cloths. Smallpox – voluntary contamination with the virus or a kind of primitive vaccination – was only recorded in the early 17th century when it began to spread as a practice. As the Hispanics and Portuguese advanced into the New World, their leaders removed the shamans, along with their old rituals, not to let the Native Americans get sick and even die, but to convert them to the Roman Catholic religion. European priests often organized religious processions and cared for the sick, while officials and the wealthy made donations to build hospitals. There followed a long period of resistance on the part of the shamans and those who supported them, sometimes resulting in public rebellions.

In terms of official reaction, in 1589, for example, the viceroy of Peru issued a series of medical instructions designed to help local governments reduce the impact of epidemics. On the advice of doctors in Lima, the viceroy-imposed periods of quarantine in the affected areas, therapeutic blood drainage and a proper diet, urging members of each family to limit their contacts. Although well-intentioned, the quarantine proved difficult to implement at the time. The concept had been invented by the Venetians on the occasion of the bubonic plague in the 14th century, so it wasn’t until 1730 that the custom reached overseas and was also implemented in Peru, proving its positive effects among the population.

In the 20th century, some controversies arose among historians regarding the role that epidemics played in the European conquest of the Americas. First, there is evidence that Native Americans perished not only from new epidemics, but also from the cruelty of the conquerors, who possessed advanced firearms, controlled the oceans with powerful fleets, and had well-trained cavalry regiments. Massacres and enslavement were frequent, so the survivors lost their zest for life, as one of the missionary monks of the era, Bartolomé de las Casas, among the few prominent European defenders of the Amerindians, wrote. Historians remind us that his father accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second expedition and brought his son a Taino boy to play with on his return, an experience that probably marked him for life. However, the string of murders described as a chilling refrain in Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias does not explain the drastic reduction in the number of local people over the course of a century, but rather the terror to which small communities were subjected in order to subjugate them. In any case, given the presence of the “Smallpox General” alongside Hernán Cortés in 1521, when the Spanish defeated the Aztecs, and the almost complete disappearance of the ethnic Taino by the mid-16th century, the hypothesis of epidemics gained significance, becoming a fairly relevant factor in the collapse of Native American civilizations, although historians are circumspect about the extent of their impact.

Map of Central America, Jan Barend Elwe, 1792

Apart from the tandem between epidemics and political-economic change, there are other controversies. They refer to the inhabitants found by Europeans on the American continent. Was it only 10, 50, 100 or maybe even 200 million? Were they so far behind in technology that the old practices were completely discarded? Did they live in caves like the savages, or did they cultivate their land like any other peasant of the time, but with specific means? After Europeans arrived, how did Native Americans cultivate their cultural practices in the face of the tide of change? Are Europeans only worthy of contempt and Native Americans only worthy of pity? Is the fact that traditions, customs, and values ​​still exist a sign of resistance over the centuries or proof that the Europeans, with the diseases they brought, were not as cruel as they say? In addition to these questions, the hypothesis that the Europeans deliberately used epidemics as a biological weapon to conquer the Amerindians must also be analyzed with caution, because it is not confirmed by the history of epidemics in the 16th century, nor by the rudimentary conception of Europeans of the time regarding the causes of disease, nor their constant interest in local labor, able to work in the mines and on the newly established plantations. Finally, the label of conquest used to designate the entire historical process that began on October 12, 1492, which assumes the superiority of one civilization over another, is today often replaced by that of the clash of civilizations, and skating over the range of 10 to 200 million Amerindians existing at the time when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Sea depends on the position of the opponent on the political chessboard.

In conclusion, researchers seem to agree that diseases brought by Europeans to the New World, military actions, and administrative colonization measures adopted after 1492 led to the decline of the local population by a percentage ranging between 70% and 90% in the 16th century and that Europeans and Africans were less affected by epidemics than Native Americans because they had greater immunity passed down from generation to generation.

Article signed by lect. Monica Manolachi, PhD, teaching staff at the Department of Modern Languages ​​of the Faculty of Foreign Languages ​​and Literatures of the University of Bucharest.


Byrne, Joseph P. (ed) Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics and Plagues. London: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Clayton, Lawrence A. Bartolomé de las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Hays, J. N. Epidemics and Pandemics. Their Impact on Human History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005.Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, 3rd edition. New York: Facts on File, 2007.

Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, 3rd edition. New York: Facts on File, 2007.


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