The History of Smallpox in Latin America

The discovery of the New World and the subsequent Columbian exchange unleashed a smallpox epidemic which would decimate the native population of Latin America.

The World Health Organization describes smallpox in no uncertain terms: “Smallpox, which is believed to have originated over 3,000 years ago in India or Egypt, is one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity. For centuries, repeated epidemics swept across continents, decimating populations and changing the course of history”.

No evidence has been found of any smallpox-like diseases in Latin America before the arrival of European explorers. With the discovery of the New World, Europeans brought with them Old World diseases, most notably smallpox, which were to decimate the native population.

The Amerindians of Latin America had no natural resistance to the disease, and smallpox was to spread rapidly and disastrously. Spanish Conquistadors were set to wage war against the civilizations of Latin America with steel and horse, but no weapon could have been more lethal than smallpox.

The Columbian Exchange – Smallpox in Latin America

The first smallpox outbreak in the New World occurred in 1507 on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Columbus had founded the first European settlement here on Hispaniola, and it would not be long before the first major Old World diseases broke loose amongst the native population, decimating the islanders.

In 1520, Spanish settlers sailed from Hispaniola to Mexico taking the disease with them. With the Columbian Exchange, smallpox arrived in mainland Latin America and the results would be both swift and catastrophic.

The Spread of Smallpox and the Fall of the Aztec Empire

At approximately the same time as the arrival of smallpox in Mexico, Hernán Cortés and his Spanish Conquistadors had engaged in hostilities with the native Aztec Empire. Cortés and his men, despite an alliance with indigenous warriors hostile to the Aztec Empire, were hugely outnumbered. However, Cortés had another ally, a biological weapon that even he was unaware of.

It has been argued that without the smallpox epidemic in Mexico, Cortés may not have succeeded against the Aztecs. Historians Ian and Jenifer Glynn, in The Life and Death of Smallpox, claim that “Without the help of smallpox, even horses and guns could not have enabled Cortéz, with his army of fewer than 900 men, to defeat the Aztecs and conquer Mexico”.

Smallpox claimed an estimated one third of the Aztec population. The Aztec Emperor Cuitláhuac died from smallpox, further throwing the Aztecs into disarray. The Aztec Empire collapsed and Cortés took control of Mexico. The population of Mexico, estimated at 15 to 30 million at the time, shrank to just 3 million by 1568 and approximately 1.6 million by 1620, according to Ian and Jenifer Glynn. Smallpox, they state, “was the principal culprit”.

The Smallpox Epidemic and the Inca Empire in South America

Smallpox spread south at an incredible rate. Even before Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru to confront the Inca Empire, smallpox was decimating the native population in South America.

Pizarro first arrived in the Inca realm in the mid 1520s. By the time he returned in 1532, intent on conquering the Inca Empire, the smallpox epidemic had contributed to the outbreak of civil war in the Empire and caused the death of the Inca Emperor Huayna Capac.

His successor, Atahuallpa, found himself leader of an Empire weakened and terrorized by a strange and deadly disease. Pizarro, like Cortés, would make the most of the situation. The native Inca warriors already feared the Spanish Conquistadors as gods. Their horses and guns, their white skin and shining armor, both were compounded by the fearful disease which they brought with them and to which they seemed invulnerable.

According to Ian and Jenifer Glynn, thirty years after the outbreak of smallpox in Peru “the Inca population had been reduced at least by a half, and possibly by three-quarters”. Historian Donald R. Hopkins concurs with their assessment of the impact of smallpox upon the fall of the Incas. He highlights three principal factors which allowed the Spanish to overcome such overwhelming odds: “It was made possible by a lucky coincidence of Spanish valor and weaponry, Indian superstition, and smallpox”.

The History of Smallpox in Latin America

The fall of the Aztec and Inca Empires did not hasten the demise of smallpox. Increased colonial movements over land and along the Latin American coast helped to spread the disease even further. The Portuguese colonization of Brazil led to outbreaks throughout the eastern half of South America. Sea links with Buenos Aires spread smallpox to the southern realms of the continent, and Spanish soldiers took the disease to Chile.

Major epidemics were to break out all across Latin America for the next one hundred years. While actual figures are variable, more than 20% of the population of the New World are believed to have died as a result of smallpox, with some claiming as much as 80%. Smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979, a fact officially recognized by the World Health Organization in 1980.

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