Many people think that most Indigenous people died after contact with Europeans because the European invaders were so powerful and the natives were so weak. This is of course grounded in that Original sin. The Europeans assumed they were superior and they have taught this prejudice to those that followed them to the “New World”. It is commonly believed that the natives of North and South America succumbed because they were primitive, from weak societies, there were so few of them, and they were superstitious. As Ronald Wright said in his book Stolen Continents, “Such explanations explain nothing, even by their own false premises.”
It is true that Europeans came to the “New World” with powerful weapons. Astonishing ships, blades of steel, guns, vicious dogs, and horses. But those were not their most powerful weapons. Their most powerful weapon was disease. As Wright explained,
“Europe possessed biological weapons that fate had been stacking against America for thousands of years. Among them were smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, yellow fever, cholera, and malaria—all unknown in the Western Hemisphere before 1492. Somehow they had not made the journey to the New World with the remote ancestors of the American Indians during the last Ice Age. Perhaps they were frozen to death on the way; perhaps they had not yet evolved. Whatever the reason, Native Americans, having had no exposure, had little immunity; they caught the new sickness quickly, and infection was extremely virulent. “The Indians die so easily that the bare look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost,” one eyewitness wrote. Even today, isolated tribes can be decimated by something as “minor” as the common cold on the first contact with missionaries or prospectors.”
Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, speculated that the original Europeans who travelled across the land bridge between Asia and North America during the last Ice Age came to the “New World” before they themselves had built up immunities. He suggested that the first people of the Western Hemisphere came before they domesticated animals in Europe and most of these diseases evolved from animal diseases to human diseases. At first they were just as deadly to Europeans as they were much later to Indigenous people of the Americas. It took many millennia for the Europeans to build up immunity. By the time they arrived in the “New World” after 1492, the invaders were not affected by the deadly germs they carried. The people in the “New World” were not so lucky; they were ravaged by those diseases.
Ronald Wright described the onslaught this way:
“It is now clear that Old World plagues killed at least half the population of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilization shortly before their overthrow. The sheer loss of people was devastating enough (Europe reeled for a century after the Black Death which was less severe), but disease was also a political assassination squad, removing kings, generals, and seasoned advisors at the very time they were needed most.
The great death raged for more than a century. By 1600 after some twenty waves of pestilence had swept through the Americas, less than a tenth of the original population remained. Perhaps 90 million died, the equivalent, in today’s terms, to the loss of a billion. It was the greatest mortality in history. To conquered and conqueror alike, it seemed as though god really was on the white man’s side.”
I often wonder why I did not learn this brutal history in school. Was someone trying to hide something? It seems like a surprising oversight.