Jan 22, 2006

The Spaniards, Microbes, and the Caribbean

Left: Depiction of the Taino from a 1493 letter of Columbus, courtesy of Athena Review Image Archive.

The arrival of the Spaniards into the Americas ended the period of near-complete continental isolation. At the time of the appearance of Columbus, the island of Hispaniola boasted an indigenous culture composed of Arawak-speaking peoples known as the Taino. These Arawak/Tainos Indians were, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the predominant group of Native Americans inhabiting an area that stretched from present-day Florida, through the islands of the West Indies, and along the coastal area of South America.

Pre-Columbian population estimates of the Taino population on Hispaniola range from 400,000 to 2 million people; Columbus himself, while perhaps in a moment of hyperbole, summed up his belief that the natives “were innumerable, that I believe there to be billions of them.” Irrespective of the exact number, the Taino were a people with a sophisticated social structure, complex religious cosmology, and a tropical culture that dated back to 5000 BP.

The Taino, however, were not in possession of antibodies to European microbes; wave after wave of epidemics began to take their toll shortly after the second voyage of Columbus. While there is considerable speculation as to the particular infectious agent, primary source accounts agree that large-scale depopulation occurred among the Taino in the years 1493-96. Bartolomé de las Casas wrote:
There came over them (the Taino) so much illness, death, and misery, from which infinite numbers of fathers and mothers and children died…according to what was believed there did not remain a third part of the multitudes of people that were on this island (Hispaniola) from the year of 1494 until that of 1496.
If a Taino survived the unknown infection(s), this was not necessarily a blessing; it appears that an episode of starvation followed the period of sickness. In October 1495, Columbus wrote that he found “the land (Hispaniola) depleted of foodstuffs, and so much that, innumerable Indians had died of hunger.” It is likely that the first waves of illness disrupted normal agricultural patterns; it is possible that crops may not have been planted, and the surviving populace may have been in such poor health that ordinary systems of crop harvest and food distribution did not function.
Left: Cover of 1552 text by las Casas, courtesy of website of Dr. Rita Raley, UCSB

The death toll taken by disease in the first decades following the arrival of Columbus was not limited solely to the residents of Hispaniola; according to de las Casas:
Thus, the multitude of vecinos and peoples who were on this island were being consumed, who according to what the admiral (Columbus) wrote to the monarchs had been innumerable…and in the eight years of that administration (first royal governor, Nicolas de Ovando) more than nine-tenths perished. From here (Hispaniola) this drag-net passed to the island of San Juan (Puerto Rico) and Jamaica, and afterwards to Cuba…and thus it spread and infected and devastated all this sphere.
The islands of Boriken (Puerto Rico) and Xaymaca (Jamaica) did not escape the swath of death that accompanied the influx of European diseases into the Caribbean; while not as densely populated as Hispaniola, these islands witnessed a comparable period of depopulation in the decades following the arrival of the Spaniards. Las Casas described the devastation in the following manner:
Before the arrival of the Spaniards there had lived on these islands (Boriken and Xaymaca) more than six hundred thousand souls, it has been stated. I believe there were more than one million inhabitants, and now, in each of the two islands, there are no more than two hundred persons, all the others having perished without the Faith and without the holy sacraments.
As with the accounts given by Columbus, the population figures described by las Casas are, at best, informed estimates; given the ideological convictions of las Casas, it is possible that the priest purposely exaggerated the information that he recorded in order to sway his readers. Nonetheless, his claims of widespread death from epidemics in Spanish colonial holdings have been substantiated by a wide variety of his contemporaries; for example, the Spanish historian Oviedo estimated that out of an original population of one million, “there are not now believed to be at the present time in this year of 1548 five hundred persons who are natives…” Historical accounts generally disagree only in the reasons for the deadly epidemics in the native populations.

Disease alone cannot fully account for the drastic reductions of Taino populations in the Caribbean. Food shortages, brutal working conditions, and warfare are among the contributory factors leading to indigenous depopulation trends in the Spanish Caribbean. Las Casas recounts a scene of colonial brutality:
…And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them (the Taino). They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughterhouse…They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”
However, such brutality represented the exception, rather than the rule, in the massive depopulation of the lands of the Taino. One smallpox-infected Spaniard could wreak far greater destruction than ten thousand musket-bearing conquistadores; the spread of microbes by European invaders set in motion a chain of epidemiological events that would only end when microbial balance returned to the hemisphere.

This is an excerpt from a book project I have been working on for a few years; the goal is to highlight the role of epidemic disease in the European conquest of the Americas.


Anonymous said...

Another harrowing tale of how biological factors depleted native lives during the imperial invasions of the 16th and 17th centuries. A well-written piece, Mike.

Stephanie said...

Wow! I knew that epidemics played a role...but I had no idea how much devestation they caused. Was most of this intentional (in similitude to our distribution of small-pox infected blankets) or accidental? It adds a whole new element of danger (at least, in my own mind) to the visitation of "westerners" to indigenous people, even for the purpose of research and reaching understanding.

historymike said...

Thanks, anon.

historymike said...


Some historians and anthropologists argue that the depopulation rate of Native Americans was about 90% within the first century after contact with Europeans.

Successive waves of epidemic diseases certainly took heavy tolls among immunologically naive indigenous groups. Diseases like smallpox had death rates of 50% or more in the first pass through a population that did not possess antibodies.

Stephanie also astutely notes the difficulty faced by researchers who can bring along microbes when working with isolated groups. A simple influenza virus devastated a Brazilian rain forest people in the 1960s when anthropologists were studying them.

Stephanie said...

I understand better why the South American cultures have been so heavily influenced by Western culture to the point of being very much a sub-set instead of a unique force onto themselves in many areas... Since so many within their populations died and so quickly, and because the foreigners (um...us) were so powerful, they simply lost it in the shuffle and Western culture filled the vaccuum left by the broken cultural line (passing cultural traditions from one generation to the next).

Being a sub-set in this manner, and in some very real senses considered weak for it (as they are *insert haughty racist bastard voice* a backwards version of ourselves), it is probably a major factor in their being repeatedly and, imo, stupidly considered inferior and thus "worthy" of being taken advantage of.

Okay, that moment of introspective clairvoyance is gone... I'm probably wrong anyway.

Hooda Thunkit said...


I could have sworn that I commented on this post last time I read it...

It was a thought provoking and insightful post too ;-)

Or maybe it was the one about the Maya...

I've been away too long (again).

historymike said...

I have posted several excerpts from my book project on the epidemiological history of the Americas, Hooda.

In some way, since the depopulation rate for indigenous peoples was as high as 90% in the first post-contact century, it may have seemed like the same story, over and over...