Lecture, Week 3, Part 1: Territories ‘Consumed’ by Disease

Jan. 22:

Cod, Salt, & Territory

I. Intro:


A. Review: Last week we looked at instances of early contact between natives and newcomers in the North-Eastern North American Atlantic Region to 1500. This week we’ll cover the century before European settlement: 1500-1600.

Something to keep in mind, given what we’ve looked at and where we’re headed, about what sort of context I’m constructing to sit this series of lectures in:

Words are affected by and have an effect on People who are affected by and have an effect on Things [Things is a very big category — but so is words, so is people]. Words, people, and things all have Histories. The role of the historian is to decipher, from the words left over from the past, what things were factors that affected peoples’ history — and then decide which ones can be argued to have been significant, from the historian’s point of view.

Historiography, then, is a complicated task. Doing historiography means historians use knowledge from other disciplines — in the sciences, for example medicine, in the humanities, for example philosophy, or literary studies — to know about these Things in the past, to judge their role as factors in past human behaviours.

[The Readings: Conrad & Hiller, pp. 41-47

Pope, Peter E. “The 16th-Century Fishing Voyage.” In How Deep is the Ocean? Historical Essays on Canada’s Atlantic Fishery, ed. James E. Candow and Caroline Corbin. 15-30. Sydney, NS.: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1997.

Turgeon, Laura. “French Fishers, Fur Traders, and Amerindians.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Vol. 55, No. 4 (October, 1998): 585-610.]

The readings questions were:

How important were the fish and fur trades of the Atlantic Region to the economies of late medieval and early modern Europe?

Do you think we should consider the history of the Atlantic Region, in the period under review this week, as part of European, or as part of Canadian history?

These are questions that we are also addressing in the lectures this week by looking at the historical context of the region from 1500-1600.

Yes, that context falls within the bounds of European history more than ‘Canadian’, but that European history cannot be ignored if we want to know why Europeans came over to North America and did what they did in the region we are studying. And why they met with the American responses they did.

B. The questions posed in the lectures this week are:

What benefits were derived from 100 years of newcomer activity [1500-1600]?

What were the downsides?

We will approach the answers by thinking about consumption.

C. Consumption:

I am making a rather weak pun here — in these lectures I will be discussing consumption as a

  • noun: the act of consuming something
    • noun: the process of taking food into the body
    • noun: using economic goods to satisfy needs

and a

  • noun: disease involving a progressive wasting of the body


[however, the diseases I will refer to are not limited to the one known as ‘Consumption’ — TB, tuberculosis]

II. ‘Consumption’, population & territory

European settlement in the North-eastern Atlantic region of North America only proceeded after a century of contact. During this 100 years there is a pivotal occurrence — disease — to consider in terms of explaining the different responses of European and American populations to contact.

But first we’ll look at the territorial definitions of these populations, beginning with

A. ‘Europeans’


By 1500 the lands — which we now call ‘European’ — were home to what was back then still only a collection of varied ‘peoples’, groups organized in ways unlike our own societies, and believing very different things than what later or ‘modern’ Europeans came to believe. But, even though they were varied, by 1500 there were already some writers who thought of ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeans’ as meaningful ideas.

The word ‘European’ had become a useful label in the 1400s.

Noel-Nicolas Coypel, “The Rape of Europa,” 1727.

The word ‘Europe’ can be traced back to Europa, a Phoenician princess in Greek mythology, who became queen of Greece. Later Europa as a name stood for mainland Greece, and by 500 BC Europa included lands to the north.

The word Europa may have been derived from an Assyrian word for sunset — thus designating the west-lying lands on that continental land mass, the ‘world’ to the people that lived there.

In the 1400s the term ‘European’ would have helped to distinguish people who lived in what they thought was the original or old ‘world’ from the people they were learning lived elsewhere, in places that were new to them — for example in the ‘Americas’.

B. ‘Americans’


Americans lived in ‘America’, which was the name for the ‘New World’ shown on the maps made by Europeans.

Domenico Ghirlandaio [of Florence, Italy], fresco detail from the Madonna of Mercy and the Lamentation over Christ, in the Church of Ognissanti, Florence. Painted for the Vespucci family (ca. 1475), the fresco is one of Ghirlandaio’s earliest extant works. It includes a portrait said to represent Amerigo Vespucci. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

America is generally believed to have been named for the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who styled himself Americus Vespucius after St. Americus of Hungary). Amerigo Vespucci was the 1st to posit that the newly ‘discovered’ western lands were a continent. And so a German cartographer named the new continent after the Italian explorer’s first name.

An alternate theory — first proposed by a Bristol antiquary (Alfred Hudd, a collector of old maps etc.) — is that the new continent was named for Richard Americke. Americke was a merchant from Bristol, who may have financed John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to Newfoundland. The antiquarian asserted that a variant of Americke’s name appeared on an early Bristol map (of which, however, no copies survive).

[The Richard Ameryk theory and some others are questioned by Jonathan Cohen, “The Naming of America: Fragments we’ve shored against ourselves”:  http://www.uhmc.sunysb.edu/surgery/america.html]

Both European and American populations were affected profoundly by epidemic disease. Historians of epidemics have linked them to trade — not surprisingly, because trade = contact = how pathogens are spread in populations.

“‘Doktor Schnabel von Rom’ (“Doctor Beak from Rome’) engraving, Rome 1656.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

C. Epidemic Disease:


By 1500 European social, political, economic, and cultural life was still reacting to, or recovering from, what had been a major demographic devastation: the plague of 1347 [Black Death, or Bubonic plague] which had taken out approx. 1/3 of the population. [See ‘Black Death,’ Wikipedia, which notes a recent shift in thinking about what exactly the plague was].

Illustration, Black Death, from the Toggenburg Bible (1411). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It appears to have been brought along trade routes to Europe from far/near/middle eastern trade partners’ territories.

It has been argued that the plague was responsible, at least in part, for the end of feudalism and the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the case of feudalism, the high number of deaths among the poor left fewer labourers and artisans. Where once feudal barons had been able to hold the serfs to the land, the shortage of labour created competition, which led to the rise of the wage system.

— The relation of disease to population shifts (geographic movement to escape) and the impact on trade (economic disruption as old patterns fall apart, new people arrive in a territory, outbreaks of conflict erupt) is obvious — it’s pretty safe to assume a nearly direct cause and effect relationship in history: ie big epidemic => big change.

B. America:


That [big epidemic => big change] is probably what happened in America when contact introduced new disease pathogens to American peoples.

It is now generally conceded that, as a direct consequence of contact, a major demographic change took place in the Americas [which have been estimated to have held about 1/5 of the world’s populace in 1500] There is a huge debate about numbers here: maybe there were as many as 100,000,000 people, maybe less — but the point is a lot more had been there than were left alive to meet and mingle with newcomers.

It has been said that, “the single greatest destroyer of [the first American peoples] was disease.” The devastation brought by exposure to previously absent diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles, typhus, malaria, leprosy, plague, TB, and cholera has been described as “simply incomprehensible, an ecological disaster of truly monumental proportions” [D.N. Sprague].

Why did Europeans have these diseases while North Americans did not? One theory: domesticated animals & close contact with them allowed pathogen mutations to make a species jump.

The introduction of disease pathogens that were previously unknown to North America [‘virgin soil epidemic’ Crosby] can be dated back to 1492 when Columbus’ crew brought over a flu bug [swine flu: see timeline for other catastrophic disease outbreaks].

While people in the Americas died off in huge numbers, the European transporters of the pathogens did not.

Transmission electron micrograph (TEM), depicting “a number of smallpox virus virions,” magnification: approximately 370,000x. “The ‘dumbbell-shaped’ structure inside the smallpox virion is the viral core, which contains the viral DNA. This DNA acts as the blueprint by which the virus replicates itself once it is released into the host cell.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

c) Immunity and differential response to disease


So why the differential responses of Europeans and Americans to these diseases? How to explain the apparent differences in immunity between European and North American populations so as to explain epidemic disease in North America?

— Some Aboriginal people suggested that the Europeans didn’t get sick because they were already dead — they were akin to ghosts: people who had returned from the other world of their belief system into this world.

— Some Aboriginal people and many Europeans also posited that the deaths by disease were evidence of a judgment of God or the Great Spirit, or whatever higher power they believed was in charge of worldly events.

— Europeans almost universally believed it was evidence of the superiority of their societies, cultures, and bodies. It is still possible to find evidence of this belief embedded in texts that discuss these epidemics and posit that Europeans ‘evolved’ an immunity, passing on special antibodies, antigens, or blood proteins to their offspring. [these arguments are at odds with scientific evidence].

— Aboriginal peoples were almost universally certain that Europeans and their objects brought and spread the disease — and — their certainty is supported by current biological sciences, such as pathology and epidemiology, which supply the ‘best’ explanation for the differential responses [‘best’ meaning the explanation, to date, has not been refuted].

This scientifically supportable explanation holds that:

i) — all human beings are born sharing the same immune system and respond to disease in an identical way.

ii) — immunity requires previous, survived, exposure to a disease.

Take Smallpox for example:

2. Smallpox


The name is derived from the O.E. [Old English] ‘pocc’, hypothetically from a proto-Germanic word meaning “to swell up, blow up” and refers to the raised bumps that appear on the face and body of an infected person.

Latin names: Variola or Variola vera

Algonkian term: omikéwin; pekopuyéwin [pikupayiwin], meaning “it breaks out” — as a sore or eruption — there is a similar word for scab.

Smallpox was responsible for more deaths during the early centuries of contact “than any other single disease.”

Smallpox is caused by the extremely virulent variola virus, which has some weird characteristics:

— it thrives in low temperatures [-20 degrees F.; -28.88 degrees C.]

— it responds to increased efforts to sanitize and quarantine by becoming more virulent.

Smallpox carries a relatively high mortality rate, regularly killing 25% and sometimes 50% of its victims.

“Child showing rash due to ordinary-type smallpox.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There are several strains of increasing severity:

— the mild form [modified or discreet] is considered survivable in most instances [1-2% mortality]

— a middle range [confluent] from which recovery is ‘always doubtful’ [75% mortality]

— and the worst form [hemorrhagic] leaves the victim “a mass of corruption” and, almost inevitably, dead [99.999% mortality].

Smallpox is contracted through direct or indirect contact with an infected person — it can be transferred on clothing, or by contact with a drop of sputum.

After exposure there is an incubation period of approx. 2 weeks. Then, typically, pustules that look like burns covered with white starch — and that reform as soon as they are broken — appear on the face and spread rapidly over the body, and usually leave permanent, purplish-black scars.

With recovery the virus is completely eliminated from the body — people are not perpetual ‘carriers’, but the virus can exist for more than a decade outside the host. And, immunity acquired by survivors lasts approx. 10 years.

In Europe, smallpox infection persisted in the population [it was endemic] to the mid 1900s.

— practically everyone went through it, usually as infants or young children.

— this might explain the high infant mortality rate and equally high birth rate in pre-contact [pre-Columbian] Europe.

— survivors were constantly re-exposed, which re-activated their antibodies and constantly bolstered their immune response — thus they appeared to have life-long immunity.

— only rarely would an adult be infected — because individuals without childhood exposure, or who lived in communities that were free of smallpox for over a decade, were rare.

So, Europeans were not used to seeing smallpox outbreaks affect an entire population regardless of age. Nor were they used to seeing the more severe reactions of adults to the disease. From European writings it is apparent that a smallpox outbreak was horrifying to witness when it struck North American communities.

“An illustrated panel appearing on fol.54 of Book XII of the en:Florentine Codex, the 16th-century compendium of materials and information on Aztec and Nahua history collected by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. The drawing shows Nahuas infected with smallpox disease. The illustration accompanies text written in Nahuatl, which in English translation says in part:

‘. . . [The disease] brought great desolation: a great many died of it. They could no longer walk about, but lay in their dwellings and sleeping places, no longer able to move or stir. They were unable to change position, to stretch out on their sides or face down, or raise their heads. And when they made a motion, they called out loudly. The pustules that covered people caused great desolation; very many people died of them, and many just starved to death; starvation reigned, and no one took care of others any longer.On some people, the pustules appeared only far apart, and they did not suffer greatly, nor did many of them die of it. But many people’s faces were spoiled by it, their faces were made rough. Some lost an eye or were blinded.'”[English translation: James Lockhart, We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, (1993), 181–185.] Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It was even worse for the American victims to experience: an outbreak of the disease was demoralizing and shattering at the personal, social, and cultural scales.

Some estimate that as many as 90% of American inhabitants died during the first century of sustained contact with Europeans [1492-1592]. The epidemics didn’t hit every region, or hit regions at the same time, but it was the disease — Smallpox — that was combined, of course, with other diseases, that altered everything in North America.

3. Note on Great Pox: Syphilis:

Woodcut, Vienna, 1498. Illustration of physicians treating patients infected with Great Pox using mercury, c. 1496. [See CBC Radio, Ideas, Déja Vu: AIDS in Historical Perspective, Illustrations]. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

— its territory of origin is unknown, Allegedly, there is evidence of its existence in pre-Columbian Europe (although the argument has been disputed).

In the past it was often confused with other diseases — it can lie dormant for 30 years. So its history is difficult to trace, but there was an outbreak c.1493-1495 of what was called ‘Great Pox’ which was more instantly lethal: “pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall off people’s faces, and led to death in a few months.” [see pic in Sheldon Watts, Disease, Power and Imperialism: Epidemics and History, 129].

By 1526 Great Pox was called “the French Disease” and corresponded with syphilis as we know it. In that year Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Summary of the National History of the Indies [La Natural hystoria de las Indias (summary of vols. not yet published)] asserted it originated in the Americas.

Although he is the first to mention syphilis in America — no previous documents written by people who went there or lived there do — his assertion has had a long life as ‘fact’. [Btw: he made money selling an imported quack ‘cure’: a concoction made from the bark of the Guaiac tree of South America, peddled as ‘Holy Wood.’]

Illustration, c.1897, showing flowering twig, leaves, and seeds of a Guaiac tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

~~ end ~~


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