The Worst Epidemic in History? The Scourge of Smallpox in the Americas

Sarah Roller

Early Modern
HISTORYHIT.TV A new online only channel for history lovers

This year has reminded us exactly how devastating viruses can be – and so, on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of smallpox in the Americas, it seems poignant to examine one of the deadliest diseases in human history, and the impact it has had on the world we know today.

A deadly virus

Smallpox is a virus, passed from person to person primarily through airborne transmission, as well as by touching contaminated objects. With a 30% mortality rate, smallpox was widely, and rightly feared. Those who did survive often suffered serious scarring.

Originating in farming livestock, the disease crossed over to humans. However, after centuries of exposure, European populations had begun to develop some resistance to the smallpox virus.

However, populations which had not spent the same time in close proximity with farming livestock had no such exposure or resistance. When they were first exposed to such microbes, there was an exceptionally high mortality rate.

smallpox-virus
Smallpox virus grown in a laboratory. Image credit: PhD Dre / CC

Why was the Spanish conquest so easy?

Many have wondered precisely why, and how, the Europeans conquered the Americas so swiftly and successfully – Aztec and Inca societies were extremely sophisticated, and although they were not used to horses, or fighting on horseback, they had far greater numbers than the Spanish conquistadors.

In initial skirmishes between Hernan Cortes and Emperor Moctezuma of Tenochtitlan, there is no doubt the Aztecs were naïve about the skill of the invaders they were facing – overconfident, perhaps, because Cortes arrived with only 600 Spaniards. However, after this initial battle they fought with much more strength and tenacity.

Guns and load-bearing animals (I.e. horses) were a considerable advantage for the Spanish, as were the alliances Cortes had made with neighbouring rival city states, but even with these, there is no feasible way they would have been a match for the armies of militaristic Aztec city states.

When smallpox arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1520, it ravaged the population of the Aztec Empire, even killing the emperor.

In November 1519, Hernando Cortés approached the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with its ruler, Moctezuma. The story which follows has been told countless times following a Spanish narrative. A key part of the story has been overlooked - until now. After being taught the Roman alphabet, the Native Americans used it to write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Camilla Townsend is a Professor of History at Rutgers University. For the first time, she has given these sources proper attention, providing a fresh take on our understanding of native Mexicans. She showed me how Moctezuma and his people were not just the exotic, bloody figures of European stereotypes and how the Mexica people did not simply capitulate to Spanish culture and colonization but realigned political allegiances, held new obligations and adopted unfamiliar technologies.Listen Now

The psychological effects on the unafflicted cannot be underestimated either – before their very eyes, their families and friends were dying painfully, whilst the Spanish invaders remained seemingly untouched and unaffected.

With no natural resistance, the disease spread rapidly through native populations, devastating the city of Tenochtitlan. It is estimated 40% of the city perished.

Smallpox was not the only new disease to arrive on the shores of America with the conquistadors. Scientists and virologists are still unsure exactly what was behind later epidemics – known as cocoliztli epidemics, but it is thought that the virus was probably of European origin. By the early 17th century, it estimated the native population in Mexico had plummeted from 25 million to around 1.6 million.

Smallpox reached the Inca settlements in Peru long before Francisco Pizarro arrived there in 1526, making his conquest infinitely easier as the disease had killed the emperor, weakening the Inca state as his two sons fought for power.

The Spanish did not have the medical understanding or skill to try and help those afflicted even if they had wanted to, but this does not detract from the fact they were hardly sad to see this happen – some even viewed it as a sign of divine providence.

The two flinty syllables strike at the imagination like the sudden hard beat of an Andean drum. Cities of gold; sun worship; virgin sacrifice. The stuff of legend. Legends that for the most part remain hidden in the impenetrable no-man’s land of Peru’s high country. For the better part of 400 years people have searched the deep canyons & towering ice peaks of these mist-covered cloud forests trying to locate the lost cities of the Inca. They were all after one thing; gold. Any gold would do but there was one thing desired above all others, the Great Golden Disc of the Sun. The most sacred of all Inca relics. The Inca Holy Grail. It is in search of this Holy Grail that David Adams goes on his journey to Puncuyoc, sacred Sister City of Machu Picchu; the city sought but never found by Hiram Bingham.Watch Now

The worst epidemics in history?

Whilst there have been epidemics with higher overall death tolls in more recent history, the combined death toll of these epidemics in the Americas is thought to have killed roughly 90% of the native population in less than 100 years, making it one of the most deadly outbreaks in history.

Furthermore, it had a huge impact on both Europe and the native populations. Not only was the Spanish conquest made considerably easier by scores of natives being struck down with smallpox, the social and cultural impact of such a large percentage of a population dying had profound effects.

Combined with Spanish attempts to wipe out native religious practices, customs and beliefs, aspects of Aztec, Incan and native culture disappeared in a remarkably short space of time, replaced by a new hybrid culture – Catholicism tinted with vestiages of indigenous cultures.

 

mexico evangelisation
Page from Historia de la Marina Real Española. Image credit: Biblioteca Rector Machado y Nuñez / CC

Biological warfare

Smallpox, cholera, measles, and other European microbes continued to decimate native populations for several hundred years after the initial conquest. One particularly gruesome rumour suggests that in the mid-18th century, the British infected Native Americans through smallpox-infested blankets in an attempt to wipe out local indigenous populations.

Whether or not this story is completely true remains unclear, but it does illustrate a degree of intentional biological warfare that had not previously been present. Even today, biological warfare remains a highly contentious topic – the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention has outlawed the use of weapons of biological warfare in international law.

Whilst the arrival of new European diseases in the Americas might not have been an intentional or deliberate act, it proved a decisive factor in the conquest and colonisation that followed, and in creating the world as we know it.

teotihuacan
The Pyramid of the Sun & the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan. Image credit: Gzzz / CC

Tags: Aztec Empire Hernan Cortes

Sarah Roller