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Historical revisionists are turning the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown into a celebration of political correctness. One of the arguments being made is that whole Native American populations were wiped out because of disease, and the Europeans were at fault. J. W. Barber’s Interesting Events in the History of the United States, published in 1829, described an event that was then common knowledge to nearly all literate Americans in his time.
A few years before the arrival of the Plymouth settlers, a very mortal sickness raged with great violence among the Indians inhabiting the eastern parts of New England. “Whole towns were depopulated. The living were not able to bury the dead; and their bodies were found lying above ground, many years after. The Massachusetts Indians are said to have been reduced from 30,000 to 300 fighting men. In 1633, the small pox swept off great numbers.”
William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation tells how the Indians “fell sick of small pox, and died most miserably.” It is dishonest to blame European explorers and settlers for the introduction of diseases to a population that had almost no immunity. The Europeans were certainly carriers of diseases to which they were immune. But did they purposely infect the native peoples? Some multi-cultural historians want us to think they did.
Although a few colonists gloated at the destruction of their “heathen” neighbors, the majority responded with charity. “When the Indians, panic-stricken by the horror of the epidemic, abandoned their sick and dying, the colonists lent generous assistance. The ill were given tender care, the dead were buried, and orphaned children were taken into several English homes. William Bradford related that ‘this mercie which they shewed them was kindly taken, and thankfully acknowledged of all the Indians that know or heard of the same.’” The mercy shown to the Indians is understandable. The Europeans understood the horror of plague, and their Christian compassion set them to work to help the suffering of these native people.
Europeans had their own encounter with disease, and they were nearly powerless in their attempts to contain it. The Black Death, beginning its march of woe through Europe in 1348, killed tens of millions of people, nearly a third of the population. The carnage has never been rivaled, not even by war. “Although the Great Mortality (as it was then called) spared homes and monasteries, it emptied them of their residents so rapidly that the plague hit Europe with a force of several nuclear wars.” Epidemics continued to affect Europe in the decades preceding the age of exploration and thereafter. Typhus, diphtheria, smallpox, and measles were a part of European life. Over time, later generations of Europeans developed immunities to many of these diseases.
The Black Plague of 1348 “which ravaged virtually the whole of Europe may have been the result of Mongol expansion which reactivated the silk routes and made it easier for pathogens to travel across continental Asia.” In addition, flea-infested rats carrying harmful but undetected bacillus disembarked from docked trading ships and began to infect Genovese merchants who in turn unknowingly took the diseases home with them to infect their families.
Italy’s search for wealth became its curse when Genoease sailors, plying the lucrative east-west trade routes, brought the plague to the Sicilian port of Mesina from the Crimea in 1347. Soon la peste was slashing across the peninsula, often carried unwittingly by people fleeing disease-wracked cities. The deadly mix of bubonic plague, transmitted by fleas; pneumonic plague, spread by human sputum; and insect-borne septicemic plague would recur in cycles over the next 400 years, but the first epidemic was by far the worst—killing at least a third of Italy’s ten million people between 1347 and 1351. In addition, the bustling cities of Europe seemed to have been made for the rapid spread of easily communicable diseases. The severity of infection was due in part to the people’s low resistance to disease, malnutrition, poor sanitation.
The Europeans did not know that they carried potentially harmful microorganisms. To the eye they were in perfect health. The idea that many deadly diseases were carried and transmitted by unseen organisms was unknown at the time. It was not until the nineteenth century that the germ theory of disease was established and promoted. John Eidsmoe’s comments are helpful in putting this period of history in perspective:
While the introduction of smallpox to America was tragic, it is as wrong and unfair to place moral blame upon the Spaniards for introducing smallpox to America, as to blame Native Americans for introducing syphilis to Europe. No one at that time understood how disease is spread. If Columbus and Cortez are to be blamed for introducing disease through the exploration and settlement and conquest of America, they should also receive credit for the medical cures that American technology has produced.
This study should not be construed to suggest that explorers and settlers always did the right thing. While smallpox has been eradicated, sin has not. Our history textbooks should tell history in the same way the Bible tells its history: men and women created in the image of God are sinners. The Bible does not obscure this fact. Neither should historians obscure the facts of history. At the same time, we should be reminded that history progresses because God directs it according to His good pleasure. With sin comes the hope of redemption, a notion that secular historians reject.