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The 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown is being “acknowledged” this year. I don’t say celebrated, because some groups are taking the politically correct route in denouncing the settlement. One line of argument being used against the colony is that the settlers wiped out native populations through infectious diseases. It is true. Disease did take its toll. But can the settlers be blamed for this?
The Europeans did not know that they carried potentially harmful microorganisms. To the eye they were in perfect health. To the microscope—not invented until the seventeenth century—they harbored microbes that killed but had little or no effect on them. 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. Of course, today we know that bacteria are not all bad. Bacteria recycle waste, capture nitrogen gas to replenish the soil, turn half-chewed grass into digestible sugars in the stomachs of cows, ripen cheese, and ferment wine. Without bacteria our planet would be an ever increasing mound of dung, dead animals, plants, and humans. We are surrounded by and dependent on bacteria. “Contrary to popular belief, viruses, bacteria and other invisible parasites aren’t designed to cause harm; they fare best in the struggle to survive and reproduce when they don’t destroy their hosts. But when a new germ invades a previously unexposed population, it often causes devastating epidemics, killing all but the most resistant individuals.”
By the time exploration began and colonization was established, many Europeans had developed immunities to diseases that those living in the Americas had never encountered. Of course, the price that Europeans paid for immunity was enormous. Tens of millions died.
A contributing factor to the spread of contagion was related to different farming practices. The European domestication of goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, and horses meant that humans shared many of their microbes. “Tuberculosis probably sprang from cows, chicken-pox from chickens, measles from dogs, influenza from hogs and ducks. Domesticated animals and humans probably share more than two hundred diseases in total.” At first many Europeans succumbed to the new animal-borne diseases. In time, and after countless deaths, the population developed immunities, turning some of the killer plagues into childhood illnesses.
Farming among the Native Americans took a different path. Domestication of animals was rare, although dogs find a prominent place among Amerindians. Eskimos still depend on dogs as work animals. Llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs were domesticated by the Incas. Immunities to any diseases these animals carried were acquired by Amerindians in the sixteenth century. Horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and even bees, were brought to the Americas by Europeans, and with them their diseases.
Smallpox had its greatest impact on the Indian populations in what is now Central and South America. Some historians have theorized that “it was not Cortez’ soldiers but smallpox that conquered the kingdom of the Aztecs in Mexico in 1520.” While this might be an exaggeration, smallpox certainly took its toll. It’s no wonder that the “Aztecs couldn’t believe that such a disease could be considered small and called it the ‘big pox.’”
The psychological impact of smallpox was also great. Between 1518 and 1531 nearly one-third of the total Indian population died of smallpox while the Spanish remained mysteriously unaffected. The Indians interpreted this to mean that their gods had failed them. In a deeply religious and superstitious society this assessment undermined the will to resist and made it possible for the Spanish to conquer what was left of the well-established pagan Aztec population.
Contagions did play a role in the death of indigenous peoples in the Americas, but this tragedy cannot be laid at the feet of the Europeans. It was only a matter of time before the two civilizations met.