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Chapter 9. Manpower and slavery > Epidemics sweep the American mainland

Epidemics sweep the American mainland

The first major epidemic to harry the mainland started when smallpox reached Hispaniola in 1518. From there it was a short step to Mexico, where smallpox arrived in 1520, just in time to save Cortez from an Aztec counterattack. The Aztecs, with overwhelming numbers on their side, had driven Cortez out of their capital city, Tenochtitlan, and things looked bleak for the conquistadors. Smallpox arrived with the Spanish relief expedition, and disease fought alongside the Spaniards. The Aztecs were devastated. Those whom smallpox did not kill were immobilized by shock. From then on, the legions of Old World viruses raced ahead of the conquistadors. By the time Pizarro reached the Inca Empire in present-day Peru, smallpox had already done its work, arriving in 1525–1526. The ruling emperor and his immediate heir had both succumbed to smallpox, and civil strife over the succession to the Inca throne had ensued. Unlike Cortez, Pizarro met no significant military resistance.

Rough estimates suggest that around a third of the total population died of smallpox. The death rate was doubtless higher among those crowded in large cities, whereas many smaller, isolated communities escaped the worst effects. This is remarkably similar to the first arrival of smallpox in Japan in the 700s. In the cities, two-thirds or more died, and the overall death toll was about one-third. Thus, there was nothing magical about the effects of smallpox on the Amerindian population. Exposure of Old World populations to new and virulent infections has had much the same effect.


  

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