Africa and the Caribbean

The massive African continent, with a commerce, migration, and disease history that was at least Europe's match, loomed large in the imagination of the earliest open-sea European explorers. With all its riches, however, as Alfred Crosby (1986) has commented, "Africa was a prize well within European reach, but it seared the hand that tried to hold it." In addition to malaria, one of the most destructive diseases humans have ever faced, so extensive was the barrage of African diseases that greeted the Europeans - in Crosby's words, "blackwater fever, yellow fever, breakbone fever, bloody flux, and a whole zoo of helminthic parasites" - that Africa quickly became known as the "white man's grave." Even as late as the nineteenth century it was routine for British troops stationed on the Gold Coast to lose half their number in a single year to the ravages of African disease, and European soldiers stationed alongside black troops in West Africa died from disease at a rate 15 to 20 times higher than their African counterparts (Curtin 1968). The Europeans, of course, returned some of these favors with diseases of their own to which the Africans had little or no resistance - in particular, syphilis and tuberculosis, which took a heavy toll among their African recipients.

Whereas some explorers plied the African trade, others ventured deep into the Atlantic. There they encountered peoples living in the most salubrious of island environments, peoples with no domesticated animals and no history of almost any of the diseases Europeans had had to live with for centuries and even millennia. In their great isolation, the natives of the Caribbean had long since come to biological terms with the relatively few microparasites in their midst. In this sense, they were probably similar to the Old World populations of thousands of years earlier. Predictably, European contact was calamitous for them. The Caribbean island natives, living in fairly dense coastal settlements, were overwhelmed by the barrage of diseases that rolled over them. Unlike even the worst epidemics the Europeans had historically had to endure, including the infamous Black Death, the biological invaders of the Caribbean came in a swarm: A variety of scourges hit them all at once. In their confined island worlds there was nowhere to hide.

The island of Hispaniola was the first to be hit. In 1492, when contacted by Columbus, its population may have been as large as 8 million; less than half a century later its people were, for all practical purposes, extinct (Cook and Borah 1971). The pattern was the same throughout the islands of the Caribbean. Diseases descended on the natives in clusters. And with no one in the community having any resistance, everyone fell sick at the same time. With no one left to haul water or feed children or provide comfort to anyone else, nutritional levels plummeted and despair swept over the populace — further reducing their resistance to infection.

As the first epidemic waves passed, longer-term illnesses like tuberculosis and gonorrhea took hold, reducing the island populations still further while undermining their reproductive potential and thus any possibility of recovery. In this condition the natives were yoked to forced labor by the Spanish invaders. With the failure of native labor to produce as desired, the Europeans turned to Africa for their work force. This spelled the end for the Caribbean's native island peoples, for the enslaved Africans brought with them the diseases that earlier had made their continent the storied "white man's grave." Whipsawed between the diseases that had been accumulating in Europe and Africa for millennia, the island natives at last ceased to be (Kiple 1984).

In the centuries that followed, down to the present, the European and African diseases did most of their damage to the populations native to the other continent - tuberculosis, smallpox, and pneumonia attacking the African immigrants, malaria and yellow fever assaulting the Europeans. Demographi-cally, the Africans triumphed: Today the descendants of African slaves dominate the populations of the Caribbean. As Kenneth Kiple (1984) has clearly shown, however, new catastrophes now lie in wait as population pressures build in the region and the safety valve of out-migration threatens to close.

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