European Diseases

Perhaps no other region on the globe has ever experienced such a sudden and devastating ecological assault as the islands of the Caribbean with the arrival of the Europeans. Ship after ship arrived to disgorge humans bearing Old World pathogens in their blood, bowels, and hair, and on their breaths and skin. Disease-bearing insects and rodents winged their way and scampered ashore, while cattle, horses, and especially hogs wobbled down gangplanks on stiff legs to begin munching and trampling their way across the fragile flora of the islands, reproducing wildly as they went with no natural predators to thin their numbers.

The long-run consequence of this Old World invasion is that today the islands are truly artificial; only their limestone, volcanic rock, coral, and the underlying mountain ranges upon which they rest are of this hemisphere. The plants that grow on them, along with the animals and humans that inhabit them, are practically all Old World immigrants.

Of the pre-Columbian island inhabitants, the humans were the first to depart, and their disappearance unfortunately was accomplished very quickly. They left behind them little more than a few artifacts and the unanswered question of how numerous they were prior to the arrival of Columbus so that the magnitude of the demographic disaster that befell them can be measured. There has been a tendency to disregard early Spanish estimates as excessive and to portray the West Indies as sparsely populated. More recently, however, considerably more respect has been accorded the earlier estimates, and the size of pre-Columbian populations is being revised sharply upward. For example, S. F. Cook and W. W. Borah (1971,1974, 1979) have calculated that the island of Hispaniola (today the Dominican Republic and Haiti) contained close to 4 million Indians; they suggest that by 1508 that population had dwindled to less than 100,000, thereby providing us with at least a glimpse of the holocaust of disease the islands had become.

Another glimpse comes from Cuba, which was conquered in 1511. Just a few short years later, Francisco Lopez de Gomara could write that this island "was once heavily populated with Indians: today there are only Spaniards." This of course was an impression only, and the Cook and Borah estimate, although based on an array of evidence and informed demographic reasoning, remains an estimate only. Yet knowledge of what specific diseases have done to immunologically defenseless peoples lends a good deal of plausibility to theories that urge the existence of much larger pre-Columbian populations than previously believed.

Francisco Guerra (1988) argues convincingly that the first epidemic disease unleashed on the Indians was swine influenza; it reached the West Indies in 1493 with swine brought by Columbus from the Ca nary islands on his second voyage. Certainly some disease began sweeping the islands shortly after the discovery and long before smallpox apparently made its Caribbean debut. There were reports of massive die-offs not just in Hispaniola but in Cuba and the Bahamas as well.

Typhus had surfaced in Spain during the war with Granada and doubtless also reached the islands (and the Indians) even before smallpox began its relentless assault on Hispaniola in 1518, and on Cuba the following year. There ensued a decade during which dozens of other diseases were probably introduced, before the next reported epidemic, measles, which struck in 1529.

Swine influenza has been known on occasion to precipitate mortality levels as high as 20 to 25 percent of a population, and smallpox has killed upward of 40 percent of a people experiencing it for the first time; measles, a relatively benign disease for Europeans, has thinned the ranks of "virgin soil" peoples by 25 percent; whereas typhus has historically produced mortality for between 10 and 40 percent of those ill with the disease.

Clearly then, with maladies capable of producing these high levels of mortality, conceivably the pre-Columbian populations of the Caribbean could have been much larger than heretofore believed. This also ignores mortality generated by other illness such as chickenpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid, whooping cough, and bubonic plague, all of which were also introduced from Spain. No wonder then, that by 1570 most of the Indians of the region had vanished. Only the Caribs still survived in the eastern Caribbean - an area not yet much frequented by the Europeans.

It is important to note, however, that all of these maladies struck equally hard at mainland populations. But although they also experienced massive die-offs, the survivors slowly built immunities, and after a century or two those populations began to grow once again. But this was not the case in the West Indies. Part of the reason was that the Caribbean was a corridor through which all Europeans had to pass to reach various parts of the mainland; therefore, those in the corridor had more exposure to disease than those outside it. But the main reason was that the West Indian Islands became the target of still another wave of disease - this time from Africa. The most deadly of these diseases were mosquito-borne and seldom reached up into the cooler elevated regions of the mainlands, which were home for so many Indians, but they turned the low-lying areas of the West Indies into one huge death trap for the remaining original Americans as well as for the white newcomers who up to this point had found the islands reasonably healthful.

Your Heart and Nutrition

Your Heart and Nutrition

Prevention is better than a cure. Learn how to cherish your heart by taking the necessary means to keep it pumping healthily and steadily through your life.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment