Noone would argue at the conquistadors were successful in their goal of conquering new lands. They may have been outnumbered, but they had superior weaponry, which gave them an overwhelming advantage. However, their most important asset that aided in their overall victory was not a weapon of sorts. What the conquerors brought with them to this New World was a hidden weapon, one that they had come immune to. This weapon was disease. Only time itself would dictate the effectiveness of this unknown weapon. Upon arrival of the Europeans, natives began to fall ill with such everyday ailments as smallpox, measles, typhus, influenza, and other common viruses of Europe. The European populations in the New World were hardly affected due to their biological immunities. The native populations were struck down with ferocity. At times epidemics would run rampant through native settlements. Around the 1700’s there were a little less than 1 million natives left in New Spain. The population had dropped from nearly 11 million in the 1520’s and 7 million from the 1550’s. This population drop shows the ability of a foreign germ to make its mark known on a population. Cook calls the mixing of new and Old World peoples’ a mixed blessing. “It led to the disappearance of entire peoples in the Americas, but it also resulted in the rapid expansion and consequent economic and military hegemony of Europeans(Cook 1).” This idea of a mixed blessing can easily be debated. If one were to look at the situation from the native standpoint, they would be able to come up with many rebuttals to the mixed blessing idea. The disappearance of entire groups of people no doubt erased many pages from our current history books. We will never know the cultural richness that was lost due to these diseases.
The European view of these diseases was quite different. After all, the Europeans were in the New World to exploit its resources for the betterment of the motherland. To understand the full capacity of the destructive nature and how people, especially Europeans viewed it, one can also look to the spread of disease in North America. The spreading of disease often was the only way of putting down resistance or to acquire new lands that were under native possession. “Disease swept through New England, clearing the land of those pernicious creatures, to make room for better growth(Crosby 42).” There are cases involving people donating quilts to natives that had been used by smallpox patients with the intent of spreading disease. The Europeans had learned of the destructive power of the disease that they had brought with them. Historically, the New World is probably the first employment of germ warfare.
The spreading of the diseases was relatively simple. The natives had no protection. Often there was little to do except to wait. Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote, “among the men of Narvaez there was a Negro sick with the smallpox, and he infected the household in Cempoala where he was quartered; and it spread from one Indian to another, and they, being so numerous and eating and sleeping together, quickly infected the whole country(de Gomara 204-205).” People often fled towns as a way to avoid the sick populations. Men left behind wives and children for their own survival. This population loss affected agriculture as well. Fewer people growing crops resulted in food shortages, which weakened the natives making them more susceptible to disease(de Sahagun 791). This inability to avoid disease was what made it so effective for the Europeans. That had little to do but wait. They then could go into a village and take it over with little resistance.
As ugly as disease was, it did play an important
role in the development of the New World. As Cook stated, it was
indeed a Mixed blessing. But, it is hard to call something so destructive
as disease, a blessing. Ultimately both sides did not fare as well.
The native culture and history was lost forever. The European goal
of fortune in this new land was never attained as thought. Though
disease made it easier for the Europeans, it also made their life hard.
The death of indigenous populations led to labor shortages, which caused
the surviving natives to work harder. One can only speculate whether
or not disease could be one of the origins of rebellion. Disease
and death also brought with it another problem, slavery. Though slavery
only was limited at the time of the early conquerors, it became the mainstay
after the death of indigenous populations.