This was a longwinded reply to a comment to a piece in the Atlantic. I didn’t realize I’d posted it to the blog….
Actually, between 80 and 90% of the population of the western Hemisphere was dead within a century and a half of the arrival of Columbus, and nearly all of this was due to disease. 100 million is a very high end estimate, a more realistic number is 40-50 million, still incredibly high. Vast stretches of the New World were nearly depopulated and there were places with 100% mortality. The disease spread at a stunning speed so that the Spanish were unaware of just how much mortality there had been because in many places they arrived several decades after the local population had been destroyed by smallpox, influenza, etc. By the time the English arrived in 1607 arrived there were very few Indians left to oppose them which allowed them to settle with far less resistance than they would have met a century and a half before. Germs had done all the dirty work for them. Even the most minor European malady–a mild flu, for instance–could lead to a pandemic with mass fatalities.
The Spanish conquest hit the population of the Americas like a thermo-nuclear war. The loss of 80-90% of the population a was reasonable estimate of the cost of a US or Soviet attack in the 60’s. The Spanish, via the germs they released almost always accidentally, inflicted by far the worst human catastrophe in the history of the world. After the various plagues had done their work, settlement by English, French and Dutch was easy and profitable. The French, incidentally, inadvertently devastated entire populations in the Great Lakes region who had been spared some of the effects of the Spanish conquest when they explored the interior of the continent by canoe. And even today, uncontracted tribes in the Amazon can suffer 90% mortality from illness when making contact with the outside world. And those people might be remnants of the estimated seven million people who once lived across the Amazon in large, complex societies, destroyed by diseases that followed conquistadors down the Amazon or came in from the coast.
There are a number of excellent Wikipedia articles on the effects of the Spanish conquest on the population of the Americas. A side effect of this was the African slave trade. The Spanish bought huge numbers of slaves brought over by the Portuguese from present day Angola to do the work that the Indian populations were too ill and dead or dying to perform. They began doing this in the mid 1500’s. Mexico City was built by African labor. The mass deaths in the New World were not part of the plan..something commonly misunderstood today. The locals were to supply the labor and taxes and farm production required by the Spanish empire but they died too soon. The difference had to be made up for with immigration from Spain. Hence Mexico is most Spanish now, genetically, the Spanish men marrying the healthy indigeneous women–and reducing the supply of mates for the indigenous men. The indigenous genetic component of the population just crashed, in particular the male genetic side. By the middle of the 17th century the population of central Mexico, once home to millions, was down to a few hundred thousand. That is a mortality and population reduction that is higher, much higher, than the death toll of the Black Plague even. And when the Spanish began exploring the gulf coast, they came across empty settlements and scattered bones. The Plains Indian cultures we think of as having been there forever in the American Midwest were actually in large part the remnants of a much larger and more urbanized civilization. Our own Indian wars, like that of Mexico, were merely mopping up (it’s forgotten, by the way, that the Mexican government was engaged in a much bloodier war with the Apache for much longer than the US government. Mexico had inherited Spain’s Indian policy and it could be quite brutal.) The tribes here fought like hell and inflicted far more casualties than they took, but their populations were small and eventually they were doomed to lose.
My wife and in-laws are all tribal (Sioux and Oneida). In fact my wife and her siblings are the first in her family line not born on a reservation. She is descended from the very few survivors of the waves of disease that swept her ancestors three centuries ago. She never gets sick. Not even colds. She has the most extraordinary immune system. Apparently that is why her ancestors survived when nearly everyone around them died.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if nine out of every ten people you knew was suddenly dead. It’s a lot like what happened to European Jewry, actually, who died at a similar rate between 1941 and 1945. And what could have happened to all of us had nuclear war happened. Scary, scary stuff.
Sorry to drone on here.