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Disease and the Conquest of the Americas

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In his book, Born To Die, Cook explores the role that disease played in the European conquest of the Americas. Cook maintains that contrary to the Black Legend, so popular during colonial times and ever since, Old World diseases were immensely more successful than Spanish cruelty and atrocities in the conquering and subjugation of the indigenous peoples in the Americas.

While not denying that there were atrocities committed by Spaniards, Cook insists that the deaths of so many native peoples cannot be attributed to the atrocities exclusively, since “there were too few Spaniards to have killed the millions who were reported to have died” (Cook 9). Cook also points out that native peoples died wherever they came into contact with Europeans, be they Portuguese, English, French, or Dutch. The popularity of the Black Death was due, in large part, to what was occurring in Europe at the time. This was the period of the Spanish Armada and the Inquisition. Other nations used the Black Legend to justify taking actions against the Spaniards “in Europe or within their overseas territories” (Cook 8).

Cook begins his discussion where contact was first made: the island of Hispaniola. Within fifty years after contact, the native people were “virtually extinct” (Cook 16). According to Cook, this extinction of the Caribbean peoples “set a pattern that was repeated time and time again” in the Americas (Cook 16). Cook goes into much detail, in subsequent chapters, tracing the spread of diseases throughout the Latin American continent and North America. Numerous diseases afflicted the native peoples who had no immunity to them; smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, bubonic plaque, yellow fever, and malaria spread quickly among the native peoples throughout the continents. These outbreaks of diseases were usually intensified through malnutrition and lack of medicines, and they were most often followed by pestilence, famine, and starvation. He draws his evidence concerning the disease epidemics mostly through missionaries’ and crown officials’ letters to the Spanish king.

Cook also refutes the accuracy of the Black Legend by insisting the Spaniards would not have committed indiscriminate slaughter of entire indigenous populations. Indeed, it was in the Spaniards’ best interests to protect the natives, since they needed the natives’ labor in the fields and mines. Cook contends that the Spaniards did take measures to protect the natives. They established quarantines to limit the spread of disease, but which were rarely successful. Spaniards also established laws to protect the natives from abuses by their employers or overseers, which the natives took full advantage in seeking justice from Spanish courts. These measures were undertaken to protect the Spaniards’ economic interests, no doubt, but they were undertaken, which disproves that Spaniards were indiscriminately murdering entire populations.

Unlike the Spaniards who tried to prevent the spread of disease, the English in the New England area of North America deliberately encouraged it. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, New England Puritans, deliberately and knowingly, gave the indigenous peoples “blankets infected with the smallpox virus” (Cook 213). Their motivation for these actions were to clear the land of people, who, they felt, stood in the way of their establishing “God’s City on a Hill” (Cook 213).

Cook contends that the “natural flow of epidemics followed normal trade and communications routes between groups of peoples” (Cook 209). This would explain how some communities fell victim to Old World diseases even before coming into contact with Europeans. It also would explain how many communities were not affected by diseases concurrently, but in many cases, it was years later before the epidemics showed up among their peoples.

Cook’s most convincing evidence to refute the Black Legend comes from his contention that it was not in the Spaniards’ best economic interest to wipe out entire communities of indigenous peoples from the area. The Spaniards needed their labor and, moreover, sincerely desired to convert them to Christianity. The laws passed by Spaniards to protect the natives from cruelty and exploitation, and the establishment of quarantines, further testify that the Black Legend is fundamentally untrue.

Cook offers compelling evidence in support of his refutation of the Black Legend, but the manner he presents the evidence is, on the whole, rather disjointed and confusing. His tendency to lump many different epidemics in different regions and at different time periods invariably forces the reader to continuously search for the particular time and place.

His writing style reads more like a collection of statistics, except for Chapter Two, which was rather lively and interesting. The reason it is more interesting is because Cook provides personal insights of the natives’ responses (e.g. running away to evade infection) and the effects of the epidemics (e.g. the struggle for power between Atahualpa and his brother Huascar after the prior Inca ruler succumbed to disease).

Despite the text being dry and hard to follow, it is very beneficial in refuting the common belief of the Black Legend. Although I have long known that disease played a role in the conquest of the Americas, I also believed that the Black Legend was the primary factor that brought conquest to fruition (so strongly was this belief that my personal name for Columbus Day is Mass Murder Day). While I still believe that European cruelties were excessive, I now see that disease, propagated by pestilence and malnutrition, was the cause of the majority of the deaths in the Americas.

Cook, Noble David. Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

By Mary Arnold

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