A Conqueror More Lethal Than the Sword
Colonizing was a deadly business. Of the 7,500 settlers who came to Jamestown from 1607 through 1624, fewer than 1,100 were alive in Virginia in 1625. In other words, not 1 in 6 had survived.
Yet, as grim as those figures were, the people displaced by New World settlers suffered far worse. Once Europeans arrived, scholars believe the native communities of the Western Hemisphere lost from 50 to 90 percent of their populations.
The No. 1 force that conquered the Americas was not a weapon the conquerors from Europe relied onthe likes of guns, swords, or even the holy word. Instead, it was something inadvertent: the cataclysmic loss of native life from smallpox, measles, typhus, and other Old World diseases to which Indians had never been exposed.
Devastation. The carnage began in the West Indies. Only 25 years after Columbus's 1492 landing, diseases and taskmasters reduced the Arawak population of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) from a quarter million down to 14,000.
From Hispaniola, smallpox spread westward, infecting Mexico just as Hernando Cortés plotted the capture of the Aztec capital. "Clearly, if smallpox had not come when it did, the Spanish victory would not have been achieved in Mexico," wrote historian William McNeill in his book Plagues and Peoples. Nor, he added, could Francisco Pizarro and his 168 Spaniards have conquered a Peruvian empire inhabited by millions of Incas.
When the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod in 1620, they beheld an astonishing sight. Awaiting them was an empty Indian village, Patuxet, and abandoned cornfields. Bones of residents lay scattered about. All of that resulted from an epidemic of unknown form that broke out along the New England coast four years earlier, perhaps from germs of a French fisherman or a sick sailor on an English ship that made a brief stop.
Experts believe that in 1492 perhaps 10 million people lived above the Rio Grandetwice as many as may have inhabited the British Isles at that time. The hemisphere's population possibly exceeded 15th-century Europe's 70 million. But by 1650, records suggest that only 6 million Indians remained in the New World. The catastrophic loss of native life, wrote Alfred Crosby, author of The Columbian Exchange, "was surely the greatest tragedy in the history of the human species."
This story appears in the January 29, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.