Speed of Diseases


The speed of the devastation brought about by European diseases on contact with Indigenous people, for which the native people had no inherited defences as the Europeans did, was astonishing. Even the Europeans did not fully appreciate what had happened. They had never experienced anything like it either.

As historian Jay Miller explained, “Again and again, throughout the Americas, as Europeans advanced, they moved into regions already emptied by disease.” That seems incomprehensible. The European diseases travelled faster than they did!

As a result as the Spaniards in the south and later French and English farther north, moved on from ravishing one native community they would arrive at another only to find them already depleted.  As depopulation ensued local indigenous people could not muster enough people to carry on their traditional ceremonies, thus disconnecting the people from their land and hence their source of spiritual sustenance. Political and spiritual leaders were also lost. It left the native communities in disarray and reeling and unable to resist the European invaders.

Jay Miller described the contact between Europeans and Indigenous people like this:

“The end result of the European quest for riches, slaves, and land, was the reshaping of the native social order.  But it was not the direct action of Europeans themselves that produced this vast change. Rather, it was their inadvertent introduction of virulent diseases.  The germs that Europeans carried to the so-called New World visited utter and complete devastation on its indigenous inhabitants. Diseases unknown in the Americas, to which the natives had no immunity, struck whole communities with fierce and heartrending violence.’

What makes this even more surprising and disorienting, was that the indigenous people were so healthy. They were actually healthier  than the European invaders! As Miller said,

“Except for parasites, occasional malnutrition, and minor germs, the native population of the Americas was remarkably healthy. The people lived an open, uncrowded life, knew a great deal about herbal medications, and practiced cleanliness in sweat baths. This was sufficient to deal with most common illnesses. But this way of life proved no match for the germs cradled and nurtured in the filth of European cities and ports.”

Smallpox, measles, and other common European diseases wiped out entire communities before most of their inhabitants had actually seen a European. Whole regions were depopulated.

New diseases have come to plague people in the past, and in fact are doing so now as I write this with the introduction of a new, deadly, and scary disease, namely coronavirus. This has had dreadful effect on people around the world. But  imagine what the effect would be if we were faced with multiple new diseases! This is exactly what indigenous people experienced after contacting European invaders. If an indigenous community survived one deadly epidemic it would soon be met with another. If not small pox, then measles, or whooping cough, or scarlet fever, or influenza. The list of deadly new killers was astonishing.

In the result, some have estimated that 95% of the indigenous people vanished within a century of European contact! Nothing beats that.

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