Diseases and Mortality in the Americas since 1700

It has been clear to virtually every observer of demographic patterns in the Americas that the differences between Anglo and Latin America are traceable to the differences between the nations that colonized each region, as well as to the characteristics of the indigenous populations of each region. The settlement of North America by the British was a commercial venture, the numerous settlements reflecting the economic and religious diversity of the English Reformation and the growing economic complexity of Britain itself. By contrast, "in Spanish America, the diverse conditions of an entire continent had to find expression in the same set of standard institutions" (Lang 1975).

Moreover, by the sixteenth century the Iberian Peninsula was becoming "underdeveloped" in contrast to the countries of northwestern Europe, includ ing England. Like eastern Europe, it was characterized by large estates worked by a servile peasantry. This pattern was replicated in the Americas, where the Spanish encountered an extensive indigenous agricultural population with whom they established a semifeudal relationship. There was no such indigenous population in the north, and the British either pushed aside or killed those they did encounter. As a result, socioeconomic and settlement patterns differed. With the exception of the southeast, family-owned and -operated farms became the dominant pattern in English America. In most of Latin America, haciendas and plantations became the dominant pattern. In the areas where an extensive agricultural society was conquered, Indians provided the servile labor force. Elsewhere, primarily in the Caribbean islands and in what became Brazil, slaves imported from Africa provided the servile labor force on plantations originally devoted to sugar growing. Only in the southeastern part of English America were there plantations worked by slaves.

Upon achieving independence, these two former colonial regions continued to develop in entirely different ways. The former Iberian colonies remained producers of raw materials for export (Stein and Stein 1970), whereas within a century the former English colony became one of the leading manufacturing nations in the world. It is beyond the bounds of this chapter to offer an explanation for these differences save to suggest the following: (1) In the new Latin American nations there persisted local landowning elites with an interest in perpetuating the former colonial system, complete with its dependence on a servile, illiterate population for the extraction of staples and raw materials. (2) The settlers in English America came from a society "which generally treated literacy, toleration, individual rights, economic liberty, saving and investment as inseparable elements of the process of change and growth" (Stein and Stein 1970).

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