Why were Indians difficult to fight?

Free University of Berlin

To the epidemics brought in from Europe, which decimated the indigenous population of America

Prof. Dr. Ursula Thiemer-Sachse

The discovery of America for Europe and the conquest of the double continent brought about phenomena on both sides of the Atlantic, the exploration of which can be of great importance for current issues and future decisions. This also includes the spread of diseases and the consequences of epidemics for population development in both the New and the Old World.

First landing of Columbus (Guanahani, Oct. 12, 1492) - engraving by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598)
Photo: AKG Berlin

In less than a century, around 90% of America's Native Americans were exterminated. It was not until the end of the 20th century that their descendants were estimated to have reached the number that made up the population of America when Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. It was not only the cruel methods of repression used by the Spanish conquerors that enriched themselves at the expense of the Indians. It wasn't just the wars of conquest and punitive expeditions against the defending local population. Above all, it was the diseases that were brought in that led to a reduction in the number of indigenous peoples, a decimation in the truest sense of the word. By 1514, an influenza epidemic was apparently the first wave to kill hundreds of thousands of the indigenous people of the Antilles and almost wiped out the population of the island of Hispaniola (Haiti).

Indications of the devastating effects of the epidemics are contained in reports of conquests, administrative records and church documents on missionary efforts from the 16th and early 17th centuries. Many eyewitness accounts have to be deciphered first. Often, clinical pictures are only vaguely described, and the term plague was commonly spoken of. Since the epidemics in America sometimes showed different symptoms than those known from Europe and the reporters had almost no medical knowledge, the information is inaccurate. Until the end of the 16th century, the terms for measles and smallpox were used side by side in an undifferentiated manner. So it is difficult to characterize the individual diseases that surfaced in waves at intervals of several years across the Indian population and claimed thousands upon thousands of victims.

From the perspective of the latest findings in epidemology and genetic research, the data known from the history of the conquest of America and facts to be interpreted are gaining renewed interest.

As soon as Columbus and the sailors and adventurers who had returned with him from the first voyage of discovery arrived in Spain in 1493, an epidemic became virulent in Europe, which at the time was known as the French disease (morbus gallicus): syphilis. To this day, medical historians disagree as to whether this disease was common among the indigenous people of the Antilles. At least it came up and caught the Europeans off guard.

Worse, however, were the epidemic, even pandemic, epidemics that were transmitted by the Spaniards and the black Africans enslaved by them to America. And the rats that left their ships to conquer the New World were their unloved allies. Due to their isolation from the rest of the world for thousands of years, the indigenous people of the double continent had no natural immunity to the pathogens that penetrated them. They also had no experience of dealing with the novel diseases. The traditional methods of treatment and rituals of the dead were just as unable to get rid of the epidemics, and in some cases they still spread.

The Europeans were by no means ahead of them in terms of knowledge about the origin and effective control of the contagious diseases. The latter believed that star constellations unfavorable for humans were responsible for the outbreak and course of epidemics. It was also believed that it was a punishment from God for human immorality.

When epidemics occurred, the inhabitants of Peru in pre-Columbian times used to gather in streets and squares and try to drive away the evil with shouts, drums and flutes, and threats with weapons.
Fig .: Guamán Poma de Ayala: Nueva Corónica y Buen Gorbierno, around 1610

Native Americans also believed in their gods' punishments for human misconduct. Even if such ideas are inherent in culture, their effects on people's actions are often comparable. Prayers and sacrifices should reconcile the gods. Instead of isolating the sick, there was an increased involvement in the community. Many people came together for appropriate rituals. For example, ritual cleansing in the traditional sweat baths of the Indians or common ablutions in the rivers should wash away the sins committed. As a result, smear and droplet infections had particularly favorable conditions.

For the Native Americans, the pandemic occurrence of the epidemics was initially not recognizably linked to the appearance of the aggressive pale strangers. Because the first waves that broke over the Indians often reached them months and even years before the Spaniards themselves reached them. Some striking examples have survived. The path of infection is not always traceable. This is possible for the western Mexican Tarascans. In 1520 smallpox killed its rulers, high priests, as well as many nobles and common people. The Spaniards themselves penetrated them a year later at the earliest.

As we know from Spanish chronicles, a slave from the Narváez expedition, which had been conquered and conquered by Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, brought smallpox into the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. At the same time, the Aztecs tried to win the Tarasks, who were enemies of them, as allies against the conquerors. Apparently, with this request, their ambassadors had brought the disease to the West Mexican Indians at the same time.

In northern Peru, the dead were buried five days after relatives and friends had mourned the dead in a great ritual. Only then were the deceased washed, dressed in their best clothes and carried on a litter to the funeral tower.
Fig .: Guamán Poma de Ayala: Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, around 1610

The Aztec ruler Motecuhzoma had tried in 1519 to push back the foreign invaders. He wanted to prevent them from entering his capital Tenochtitlan. Among other things, he sent his wizards to meet the Spaniards. They should bewitch the strangers "so that they either fall ill or repent". This is what it says in the Aztec account of the Spanish conquest, which the monk Bernardino de Sahagún had written down based on the accounts of Indian nobles. We know that these magic works in no way impressed the Spaniards and dissuaded them from their plan. They were not sick, but marched into Tenochtitlan. Because of the resistance of the Aztec warriors, they had to evacuate the city temporarily in the so-called Noche dreary (= "sad night") of June 30, 1520. If the Spaniards had suffered great losses, the fate of their Aztec opponents was all the more cruel. The smallpox broke out. There is a remarkably detailed account of this in the Sahagún rapporteurs. The Berlin American artist Eduard Seler translated this text into a European language for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century, into German:

“The twenty-ninth chapter tells how the smallpox came about, which caused the death of the natives called the great rash after the Spaniards left Mexico. And before the Spaniards rose up against us (attacked us), a great disease spread, smallpox. [...]

Some were as if covered with a crust, lay everywhere (the rash), on the face, on the head, on the chest, etc. It was a pernicious disease, many died from it, they could no longer walk, just lay on theirs Laying down, their sleeping quarters, they couldn't move, couldn't move, couldn't move, didn't lie on their side, didn't lie face down, couldn't lie on their backs. And when they moved, they screamed a lot.

The rash that covered the whole body was very fatal (destructive). Many people died from it, and many died from starvation, in general people died from starvation, because nobody cared about the people (the sick) anymore, nobody bothered with them anymore. And the rash affected some of them only in individual places (with pustules) at wide intervals, did not cause them to suffer very much, and not many (of them) died from it. And many people's faces were disfigured, they got splash marks on their faces (or) on their noses, some lost one eye, went completely blind. This vesicle disease lasted a good sixty days, sixty day signs.

When it stopped, when it waned, as (the sick) recovered, came back to life, Chalco suffered from smallpox. And with it she became very weak; but not completely paralyzed. "

It is clear from the report that there were no Spaniards in the city at the time. The most prominent victim was Cuitlauac, the successor to Motecuhzoma, who was taken hostage by the Spaniards. Illness and death meant that Cuitlauac had only been able to lead the Aztec resistance struggle for a few days.

The mummified body of the Inca Huayna Capac was carried in a sedan chair throughout his empire to be buried in the capital, Cusco.
Fig .: Guamán Poma de Ayala: Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, around 1610

Another prominent victim of this first or subsequent wave of a smallpox epidemic, which had spread into the central Andean region by 1524, was the Inca Huayna Capac. Hundreds of thousands died in today's Ecuador, where the Inca resided at the time. Among them was the designated heir to the throne. About ten years later, this should make it much easier for the Spaniards to advance because of the dispute over the throne between the two Inca Atahualpa and Huascar. The disagreement had disastrous consequences and the conquest of the Inca Empire under Francisco Pizarro was not least possible from 1533 onwards. It is believed that this first smallpox epidemic wiped out around half of the Central Andean population. This contributed to the fact that the mummified body of Huayna Capac was carried far south to the Inca capital Cusco in a funeral procession accompanied by many people, to be buried there.

Overall, it can be said that the population of the densely populated areas of the developed states in Mexico and ancient Peru fell victim to the epidemics to a significantly greater extent than the scattered groups of simple soil farmers, gatherers and hunters in the peripheral zones and in the vastness of the rainforest and pampas. Above all, the care of the sick, the lack of opportunities and knowledge to isolate them, and the neglect of agriculture due to a lack of labor resulted in famine. If the epidemics mainly killed the elderly and children under three years of age, people were able to recover from such attacks more quickly. Shortly after such an epidemic, more children were born and the labor shortage was not as severe as in the case where the epidemic mainly killed young people.

From the descriptions of the clinical pictures and references to the age of those affected, of those dying from them as well as of the survivors, some conclusions can be drawn about transmission routes, incubation times and the like. In addition to the three previously mentioned, flu, measles and smallpox - the latter apparently appearing in around ten variants - one can recognize typhus, mumps, diphtheria as well as bubonic and pulmonary plague.

The smallpox epidemic was decisive in the years 1519-1528. About 35 percent of the native Indian population died from this epidemic at that time. A second terrible period was the years 1576-1591, when smallpox, measles and typhus appeared at the same time. Those who survived an epidemic were often so weakened that they succumbed to the others. Almost 50 percent of the Indians fell victim to this pandemic.

Around a hundred years after the Spaniards first met the indigenous people, these diseases began to become endemic. On the one hand, the strong reduction in the population of the double continent, on the other hand, the processes of biological mixing ensured that the mortality rate fell, even if epidemics broke out again and again, but mostly in a regionally limited manner. You have to ask yourself how it was possible that about a tenth of the former indigenous indigenous population survived and in turn made a decisive biological and cultural contribution to the mestizo population of Latin America or could continue to exist as indigenous groups up to our time.

By 1630, the world population had also declined to less than 12 percent compared to when people from both hemispheres collided at the end of the 15th century. The remaining population had by now developed enough antibodies, acquired immunity. This ensured that the epidemics generally subsided. However, this has not been a consistent process. The experience of history and the knowledge of medicine should teach us to recognize the signs of new dangers in good time and to counteract them so that people can be saved from many great sufferings - the huey cocoliztli, as the Aztecs said.


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