The Columbian Exchange: Diseases Brought to the New World

The Columbian Exchange brought unknown diseases to the New World, which decimated the native population and facilitated the European conquest.

Scholars define the Columbian Exchange as the swap of food crops, population, ideas and diseases between the Old World, mainly Europe and Africa, and the New World, referring to America, after Christopher Columbus first voyage in 1492. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, in their essay, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food and Ideas”, indicate that one of the crucial discoveries European conquerors made in America was new food crops. Potatoes, sweep potatoes, cassava, maize, cacao and tobacco are among the most important because of their dietetic and economic impact on the Old World. The European conquerors also found that the soil in America was exceptionally suited for the growing of sugar and coffee, which translated into an increase of availability and market.

While the European conquerors made discoveries in America that economically benefited the Old World, the native population of the New World came into contact with unknown diseases during the Columbian Exchange. The Americas’ native population was not prepared to deal with these mortal diseases since its immunological system was used to an almost disease-free environment. Note that the American Hemisphere had been isolated from the known part of the world for millenniums.

The conquerors’ superior weaponry, cruelty and their subsequent subjugation of the natives through harsh labor played a significant role in the extreme decimation of their population. Edwin Williamson, however, argues that scholars now know that viruses brought by the Europeans to America caused the spread of pandemics that resulted in a “catastrophic decline in population”.

The Spread of the Diseases

Diseases brought to America during the Columbian Exchange include smallpox, chicken pox, typhus, typhoid, measles, cholera, influenza, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and bubonic plague. The most deadly of these diseases for the indigenous population were smallpox, chicken pox, measles, typhus, whooping cough and bubonic plague. As stated before, the natives did not have immunity against these diseases; therefore, the spread of pandemics among their population had disastrous consequences.

Williamson points out that these diseases mostly affected the natives that lived in “low-lying or coastal areas”. Take in consideration that the European conquerors arrived via ships. Noble David Cook, in “Disease, and Depopulation of Hispaniola, 1492-1518”, maintains that the native Taino population of the island of Hispaniola was practically extinct within the 50 years following the beginning of the Columbian Exchange in 1492. The estimates of the Taino population of the island of Hispaniola range between 60,000 and 8 million people.

Nevertheless, the diseases spread fast and reached the indigenous population that lived inland. Mark A. Burkholder and Lyman L. Johnson account the spread of some of these pandemics in their book, Colonial Latin America (2004). Smallpox had already reached New Spain by 1520, and proceeded to expand through Central America. Peru was affected by it in 1527. Between 1530 and 1531, measles spread in Mexico and Peru. An epidemic of typhus arrived fifteen years later. Epidemics reached Brazil a little later. In 1562, the first pandemic arrived in proximity to Salvador. Scholars believe that a strain of hemorrhagic dysentery was the principal virus. A wave of several diseases, which included smallpox and measles, decimated the native population in northeastern Brazil during the 1620s. During the 1650s, yellow fever and malaria arrived to America from Africa through the trade of slaves.

Facilitating the European Conquest

There is no doubt that these epidemics, which decimated the indigenous population of America, made easier the European conquest. When Hernán Cortés besieged the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1521, smallpox had already killed a significant number of its population. Cuitlahuac, Montezuma’s successor, was among of the victims of smallpox. The fact that the disease did not affect the conquerors made the Aztecs believe that their gods were impotent in the face of the Spaniards invincibility.

Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro arrived to the Inca Empire in 1530. An epidemic, probably the first spread of smallpox in the region, had already reached the Inca civilization through the trade routes located at the Isthmus of Panama. Huayna Capac, the Sapa Inca, and his appointed heir were among the victims of the epidemic. Huascar, the leader in Cuzco, and Atahualpa, the ruler in Quito, were the remaining sons of Huayna Capac. After their father’s death, they engaged in a civil war for power over the empire. This political crisis facilitated Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire.

The spread of these epidemics, without a doubt, facilitated the European conquest of the New World. The remaining indigenous population was subjected to harsh labor. Williamson asserts that the evidence demonstrates that the subjugation had a considerable psychological impact on the native population. Social demoralization led the natives to commit suicide and abortions. The natives also lost their will to procreate. These conditions contributed to the decline of their population too.

Estimates of Native Populations Decline

According to Burkholder and Johnson, scholars debate about the size of the Americas’ native population before the Columbian Exchange. Academics estimate that between 8 million to over 100 million people inhabited America before the Europeans’ arrival. The most plausible estimate, however, is that between 35 million and 50 million indigenous people composed the population.

Linda Newson, in her essay, “Pathogens, Places and Peoples”, indicates that scholars, nevertheless, agree that more than the 80 to 95 percent of the indigenous peoples died between the first 100 and 150 years following 1492. Moreover, the leading demographer and historian Nobel David Cook estimates that the regions least affected by the pandemics lost about 80 percent of their population. Meanwhile, the regions mostly affected lost their entire population. Usually, a society lost 90 percent of its native population.

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