HeathcareConquest of America: the epidemics that killed millions of...

Conquest of America: the epidemics that killed millions of indigenous people after the arrival of the Spanish


More than five centuries ago, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, millions of people faced the invasion of their territories, but the Spanish came to America not only eager to find new riches for the Spanish crown and for themselves, but also with diseases that caused great epidemics.

Those unknown and invisible evils they ended up with more than 90% of the original population. America then had, according to various estimates, more than 50 million people living in the north, center and south of the continent.

This is a short account of how the new diseases brought by the colonizers generated epidemics that reduced the indigenous population and they helped them to cement their dominion over these lands.

No defenses against invisible enemies

Historians of the conquest agree that the new diseases were important in the process of conquest. Estimates of the number of deaths differ, but agree that It took decades for populations to cope with this situation.

Americans had no defenses that could resist contact with these diseases. The immune response, the body’s mechanism to deal with pathogens (bacteria, viruses, etc.), was overcome. Having had no previous contact, these populations were easy targets for these ills and the medicine of that time could do very little against these new diseases.

Researchers such as Henry Farmer Dobyns and Jared Diamond calculate a decrease of up to 95% of the total population of America during the first 130 years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. William M. Denevan in his book The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 estimates the total population at 54 million people. That means that between 45 and 50 million people would have died from the epidemics.

The immune system of the indigenous people could not cope with the new viruses brought by the Spanish.  (Photo: Pixabay)

“Research shows that approximately, depending on the regions, lhe diseases led to a 90% decline in the indigenous population “, details to Trade Carol Pasco, professor at the University of Applied Sciences and specialized in health history.

The estimates are based on the chroniclers’ accounts, official relations, among other sources that relate events related to the great mortality that occurred in the first decades of the conquest.

Between war and epidemics

Despite the widespread belief that superiority in armaments was the key for the Spaniards to prevail in America, historical analyzes carried out in the last century suggest that In reality, it was about 17 different epidemic outbreaks that helped weaken the forces of the great civilizations that dominated America: the Incas and the Aztecs.

The ills brought by the Spaniards were especially the virosis, which are diseases caused by viruses: from smallpox to the flu. Specialists believe that in America the most common infections before 1492 were caused by bacteria.

Representation of people with smallpox.  México, 1538. (Taken from The history of smallpox and its spread around the world)

Two of these viruses had a special deadly power during the conquest and later: the smallpox, introduced in Santo Domingo in 1518, and the measles, for which vaccines were only achieved in the twentieth century.

“The [enfermedades] Identified as those that caused the most deaths are smallpox and measles, then there are typhus and influenza, which are highly contagious. There are various long-term epidemic outbreaks ”, Pasco explains.

But during the first years of the conquest, smallpox was not the main cause of deaths as was believed: “It can be affirmed that the great mortality of the Indians and previously of the Spaniards [antes de la gran epidemia por viruela] it was due to an epidemic of influenza or swine flu, indicates the historian Francisco Guerra, from the University of Alcalá de Henares, in Spain.

“The weapons could not have generated a large number of deaths”

If the infectious diseases brought by the Spaniards were responsible for the great decline in the native population of America, it is worth asking: Did they use them intentionally and systematically to impose themselves on the Incas and Aztecs? Specialists believe not.

The Spanish had arms superiority, but, according to historians, this factor was not so decisive in the conquest.  (Image taken from Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno)

For Agustín Muñoz Sanz, tenured professor of Infectious Pathology at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Extremadura, it is “Materially impossible” that the weapons of the Spaniards caused more deaths than diseases and, in those years, they were perfect allies “involuntary, unintentional” of the Spaniards during the conquests, as he told the SINC agency.

Historian Carol Pasco agrees on this, considering that there is insufficient evidence to believe that there was an intentional use of the diseases by the conquerors, at least in South America.

“The weapons of the Spanish in the war could not have generated a large number of deaths, as it can produce an epidemic like smallpox. That suggests that the deaths of the indigenous people were caused by diseases “reflects Pasco.

The impact on the Inca empire

Smallpox arrived with the Spanish in the Aztec territories. After wiping out practically the entire population of Santo Domingo in 1518, it reached the Inca empire before the conquerors set foot in the Andes.

The arrival of the Spanish had an important cultural impact on America.  (Image taken from Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno)

In the pre-Hispanic stage, according to estimates by Frank Fenner in the book The history of smallpox and its spread around the world of the WHO [La historia de la viruela y su difusión en todo el mundo], in South America there were between 6 and 8 million people, mainly in the Tahuantinsuyo. Other estimates suggest that the population could even reach 20 million.

Francisco Pizarro and his men arrived at an empire that was at war for the succession of power, between Atahualpa and Huáscar. It is then believed that the smallpox epidemic was already affecting those territories. Pasco points out that there is evidence that smallpox arrived 8 years before the conquerors.

So the new diseases and the epidemics produced by them undermined the resistance forces.

It is believed that at least half of the Inca population would have died as a result of the epidemics that came after the arrival of the Spanish. Smallpox was followed by typhus, influenza, diphtheria, mumps, syphilis, and measles.

“They tried to defend themselves against diseases-Pasco points out. Not only did they have to face a war, but they also had to overcome the situation of being forced to enter a new cultural process, and To this we must add that epidemics appear that they do not know how to understand and attribute them to divine causes. All this generated in the indigenous population a great confusion, when facing these fears, suicides occur, massive sacrifices to calm the anger of the gods in order to try to control the plagues ”.

The slaves, the “guilty”

Years passed and diseases continued to affect the population, also in the Viceroyalty. It was with the arrival of the African slaves to the New World that arose “a new culprit” of the calamities caused by the so-called plagues.

According to Frank Fennet, Fray Toribio de Benavides tells in a chronicle the story of an African slave who would have had smallpox: “… already entered this New Spain the captain and governor Dn. Fernando Cortés with his people, while Captain Pánfilo de Narváez landed on this land [actual México]In one of their ships came a black wounded with smallpox, which disease had never been seen in this land, and at this time all this New Spain was extremely full of people, and as the smallpox began to hit the Indians , It was among them such a great disease and mortal pestilence in all the earth, in the others the proportion was lower … ”.

Representation of the African slave trade bound for the USA (USA Library)

For Pasco, in that context there was “An intention to attribute the spread of the disease to populations considered dangerous many times. In this case, African slaves were attributed the arrival of diseases such as leprosy, in addition to others such as malaria, but now it is known that it existed since pre-Hispanic times. Yellow fever was also one of them ”.

Thus, in times when science was not developed to explain how infectious diseases arose, people sought responsible and Measures were taken to prevent the evil from spreading among the population.

At that time, measures against these diseases ranged from quarantines, isolations, sanitary cords among the slave population, mainly to avoid “ending up affecting the workforce.”

“The diseases brought by the Spanish escaped any possibility of knowledge of the Americans”, ends the specialist.

Clarification: This report was originally published on June 14, 2020.

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