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Curtin, Philip D.; Lovejoy, Paul E. / Africans in bondage: studies in slavery and the slave trade : essays in honor of Philip D. Curtin on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of African Studies at the University of Wisconsin

Henige, David
Chapter 1: When did smallpox reach the New World (and why does it matter)?,   pp. [11]-26 PDF (5.3 MB)

Page [11]

David Henige
I.      To kill an error is a good a service as, and sometimes
even better than, establishing a new truth or fact.1
The question of the course, character, and magnitude of
the epidemiological impact of the discovery of the New World
has serious historical implications.2 Not only did the spread
of diseases in the Americas help shape the Spanish conquest and
is significant in terms of the history of Amerindian adaptation
to colonialism, but the decline of Amerindian population in
tropical areas has long been recognized as a major reason why
African slave labor was introduced into the Americas as early
as it was. Granted the close connection between the decline in
Amerindian population and the development of the trans-Atlantic
slave trade, its chronology remains unclear. When exactly and
under what circumstances did Amerindian population decline?
Beginning with Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange (1972),
the discussion has crystallized around two themes: the history
of disease generally or of specific diseases, on the one hand,
and the role of newly-introduced infectious diseases in depop-
ulating the New World, on the other hand.    Many scholars have
assumed that there were many millions of Amerindians at the
time of first contact and have argued that virulent epidemics
of smallpox, typhoid, measles, influenza, and other diseases
repeatedly struck the defenseless Indians, in most cases
spreading faster than the movement of Europeans themselves,
escalating to pandemics, and depopulating wide areas before the
Europeans had the chance to estimate the numbers of people in
them, let alone try to do anything about the spread of such
diseases (Wright 1981: 22-23; Jennings 1975: 21-31; Dobyns
In this context, a discussion of the date at which small-
pox, the most lethal of the new diseases, first appeared in the
New World is significant beyond the event itself. It is the
purpose of this chapter to review this issue briefly by

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