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ANSWERED on Thu 11 Dec 2008 - 4:36 am UTC by byrd

Question: Diseases, Colonialism and Indigenous Peoples

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 9 Dec 2008 22:42 UTCTue 9 Dec 2008 - 10:42 pm UTC 

Whenever Europeans colonised a new land, virulent diseases such as smallpox were never far behind. Because the natives had no natural immunity, they suffered greatly and in some areas were wiped out.

What I'd like to know is: were there also diseases prevalent amongst the indigenous peoples to which the Europeans had no immunity? If not, why not? And if there were such diseases, why was there not widespread death and suffering when these diseases made it into the European population?




 11 Dec 2008 04:36 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 4:36 am UTC 

Hello Ribuck,

While it is true that European explorers and colonists introduced diseases into native populations, smallpox perhaps being the best known example, the native peoples were not, as often supposed, living in some utopian world where disease and death from it were unknown. Suzanne Austin Alchon in her 1995 paper entitled, "The Great Killers in Precolumbian America A Hemispheric Perspective" wrote" While the idea of a New World paradise, free of disease, hunger, and violence, has provided comfort to many over the centuries, the evidence does not support this fantasy."

And research shows that fantasy it does indeed appear to be. In fact, history and current scholarship rather shows that the spread of disease from one place and people to another has been going on for a very long time, did not begin with the European explorers in the era of conquest and colonization, and in fact these explorers themselves not only also fell victim to various diseases endemic to the place they sought to explore and/or colonize, but brought diseases back with them where they did cause widespread suffering and death among European populations.

Marc S. Micozzi, Ph.D., M.D. writes, "The European exploration of Africa, concomitant with that of the Americas, set up somewhat of a "triangle trade" of people and diseases brought back and forth between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. One popular view of the effects of European contact is that it brought a series of devastating new disease epidemics that led to relentless declines in population size among Native Americans."

However he then goes on to say, "A more recent view we have developed of the effects of European contact on Native American populations shows gradual declines in population size over time, rather than catastrophic mortality patterns. These population changes may be partially explained by the resurgence of endemic diseases, those diseases which may have been present among Native American populations prior to European contact."

"Historic reports also provide evidence for the presence of numerous diseases in the New World.  Health status in the New World prior to European contact was probably influenced by several diseases .... Many of these diseases could have originally been brought to the New World with the prehistoric arrival of peoples from Asia across the "cold barrier" of Siberia and the Bering Strait to Alaska and thence through the New World." And the European explorers in turn contracted these native illnesses an became sick and sometimes died.

One of these diseases was American trypanosomiasis, (Chagas Disease or Sleeping Sickness), as well as virulent tropical diseases endemic to Africa and parts of Asia that constituted significant barriers to exploration and colonization.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_trypanosomiasis

Another was Leishmaniasis, a zootic (transmitted to humans by animals) disease. "...it was considered probable that leishmaniasis had been taken to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadores and by inhabitants of the Mediterranean littoral. Now, however, the discovery of widespread leishmaniasis in wild rodents in vast uninhabited areas of South and Central America has again caused views on the origin of the infection to change."

Other diseases were endemic to other areas and also infected the European explorers, though did not generally return with them to Europe. This was due to a variety of reasons, probably the main one being they were parasitic diseases caused by organisms that did not thrive in the European climate.

One example is Guinea Worm disease, found since historical times in Africa, India and parts of Asia but largely unknown in Europe. It "is caused by the large female of the nematode Dracunculus medinensis, which emerges painfully and slowly from the skin, usually on the lower limbs. The disease can infect animals, and sustainable animal cycles occur in North America and Central Asia but do not act as reservoirs of human infection. The disease is endemic across the Sahel belt of Africa from Mauritania to Ethiopia, having been eliminated from Asia and some African countries." "In historical times infection occurred in Algeria, Egypt (162), Gambia, Guinea Conakry, Iraq, Brazil, and the West Indies (163) but died out spontaneously in those countries and was eliminated from Uzbekistan in 1932 and from southern Iran in 1972."


In general, disease was considered a hazard of exploration. One writer says that during the 18th century, "British soldiers were dropping like flies in various parts of the Empire" due to disease.

Another writes that "... large numbers of Europeans in India died of exotic diseases' for which they were not prepared." "They dealt with cholera, malaria, plague ... syphillis, tuberculosis, typhus, and the  like."

And "West Africa was once known as the white mans graveyard because Europeans had no natural immunity to local diseases and parasites."

"Two other factors that discouraged European involvement were African diseases such as malaria and yellow fever that were deadly to Europeans"

Andre Engels from the University of Technology in Netherlands has compiled a list of European explorers and missionaries who lost their lives on their voyages: http://www.win.tue.nl/~engels/discovery/death.html They included those who died from diseases endemic to the areas they went to explore:

  Alvaro de Mendaña de Nehra (Santa Cruz, 1595), Fevers, malaria.

  Jacques Mahu (Atlantic, 1598), Fevers, off the coast of Africa.

  Henry Nicholls (Guinea, 1805), Malaria

  Walter Oudney (Senegal, 1824), Tropical fever.  http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/africa/denham/denham.html

  Hugh Clapperton (Sokoto, Nigeria, 1827), Malaria, dysentery.

  James Richardson (Kukawa, northeast Nigeria, 1852?), Fever, probably malaria.

  James Lemaire (Mauritius, 1617), fever

And then there were diseases that had previously been thought to have been carried to or from various places by the European explorers, but which research now shows were likely there all along, with occurrences and epidemics arising periodically, including some that happened to occur coincidentally with the arrival of the Europeans, but not necessarily introduced by them. Some of these include tuberculosis, typhus, influenza, plague, and even dengue fever.

For example, "dengue was first reported, almost simultaneously as an epidemic, in Asia, North America, and Africa in the late eighteenth century. In 1779, dengue was first described in Cairo, Egypt and in Jakarta, Indonesia. In 1780, a major epidemic of dengue occurred in Philadelphia...In addition, during this period, sailing vessels were the only means to transport the virus and the vector mosquito, hence, there were decades between major epidemics."

Some explorers who died of these more widespread or global diseases include: 

  Nicolas Baudin (Port Louis, Mauritius, 1803), Died of tuberculosis on the way home from Australia.

  Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalski (Karakol, Central Asia, 1888), Typhus.

Still other explorers died of unknown illnesses that may or may not have been global illnesses, or European or endemic to some area of exploration. Among them are (all but the last from Engels' list):

  Afonso de Albuquerque (Goa, India, 1515), Died of an illness while his ship, coming back from    Hormuz, was in the port of Goa.

  Hernando de Soto (near Natchez, Mississippi, 1542), Fever.    

  Saint Francis Xavier (Shangchuan Island, China, 1552), Fever.   http://www.sspxasia.com/Newsletters/2002/Oct-Dec/Death_of_St_Francis_Xavier.htm

  Francis Drake (off Panama, 1596), Dysentery.

  Jacques Marquette (Illinois, 1675), Dysentery.

  Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Cairo, Egypt, 1817), Dysentery.   

  James Lemaire (Mauritius, 1617), fever


And yes, European explorers did bring back some of these diseases with them. And there was widespread suffering when they made it into the European population. There are several notable examples of diseases that returned with the travelers and spread among the European population with dire and tragic consequences. One was syphillis, a disease endemic to the Americas, a feared and virulent disease even today, a scourge that caused untold suffering and death wherever it was introduced.

"Debate about the origins of syphilis has continued for nearly 500 years ... One hypothesis assumes a New World origin, and holds that sailors who accompanied Columbus and other explorers brought the disease back to Europe ... Syphilis, it seems, developed in the New World from yaws, perhaps 1,600 years ago, and was waiting for Columbus and his crew. The Rothschilds are now examining skeletal collections from the Bahamas to look for evidence of syphilis nearer to Columbus' landfall."

Another such transferred disease was malaria, endemic to Africa, but quickly spread and now found worldwide, controllable to some degree with modern drugs but still largely incurable, and still causing much suffering. "From its origin in the West and Central Africa, malaria spread all across the globe to become the worst killer disease ever suffered by mankind."

Yellow Fever is another scourge, often thought to have originated in Africa but actually "The first account of a sickness that can definitely be recognised as yellow fever occurred in Guadeloupe and in Yukatan in 1648."  The first African connection came from an "account (1792) of fever aboard the vessel off the coast of Senegal in 1768 is usually accepted as the first in which we can definitely recognise yellow fever in Africa. No clinical description of the fever was given, but the evidence for its being yellow fever was its occurrence first in men who had been ashore, and its apparent propagation aboard ship. The first clinical report on yellow fever was published by Schotte in 1782 on the “Synochus Atrabiliosa” in Senegal in 1778."

This illness was picked up and spread worldwide by European explorers and slave traders. "The massive number of slaves brought to the West Indies by European colonists caused outbreaks of yellow fever , and shipborne yellow fever outbreaks occurred on the North American mainland, in Havana (Cuba),and in Panama."
These explorers also carried the disease back to Europe. "Known today as an exclusively tropical disease, yellow fever appeared in Europe in several outbreaks during the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1828, several ports in the south of Spain were affected. Each time, several thousands of deaths were registered."


So to sum up, while the European explorers of the preceding centuries carried with them diseases which tragically afflicted many of the peoples with whom they came in contact, this was not a one-sided situation. Rather, these explorers also became infected, sick and died from diseases endemic to the areas they sought to explore, convert and colonize, and in some cases carried these "new" diseases back to Europe, where they spread throughout the unprepared populations with devastating effects.

I hope the information provided is helpful. If anything isn't clear or you need further assistance, please post a Request for Clarification and I'll be glad to respond.




David Sarokin 


 11 Dec 2008 05:02 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 5:02 am UTC 

Very interesting question, and an equally interesting perspective in Byrd's answer.

For anyone with a further interest in this topic, I highly recommend "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond.  The book asks why Europe was able to conquer the New World, and not the other way around.  As suggested by the "germs" part of the title, disease was a big factor.

As I remember his thesis (and it's been a while!), really deadly germ diseases like smallpox and plague required two things to take hold:  big animal agriculture, and dense (urban) human populations.   Since both these conditions existed in Europe, deadly diseases could thrive, and be transferred to the new world, but not the reverse (Indians had no large, highly dense populations, and no herds of big farm animals).

In a nutshell, diseases have their own ecology.  If a disease was deadly enough to kill off a small tribal population, it would self destruct, as there would be no more transmission routes. Smallpox couldn't thrive in a naturally sparse human population.  It needed the large, dense populations of Paris and London to really take root.

Or something like that.  Read the book!  ;-)




 11 Dec 2008 07:05 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 7:05 am UTC 


My younger daughter recently spent 5 weeks in the wilds of South Africa on a voluntary animal-related project and she had to have all kinds of medical prepartions beforehand, anti-malaria for one.

She also armed herself with mosquito repellant.

Clearly, we are now better able to face the health hazards than the early explorers, missionaries and the like.

As you would expect, Wiki has a list:


And there was also The Great Plague of London 1665-1666 which appeared to have some foreign origin:


And let's not forget the inappropriately named Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918:


The risks had became so well known by 1899 that the London School of Tropical Medicine was opened:




Phil Answerfinder 


 11 Dec 2008 10:18 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 10:18 am UTC 

This sentence from 'Health conditions before Columbus: paleopathology of native North Americans' appears to summarise it. "New World indigenous disease was mostly of the chronic and episodic kind, Old World diseases were largely acute and epidemic."




 11 Dec 2008 10:44 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 10:44 am UTC 

That's exactly the information I was looking for, and in far more depth than I ever expected. Presented very clearly too. Astonishingly good answer.

Thanks byrd!




 11 Dec 2008 12:05 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 12:05 pm UTC 

And don't forget AIDS/HIV in modern times:




 11 Dec 2008 13:11 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 1:11 pm UTC 

I suspect that AIDS/HIV was caused by engineers from our so-called Developed Countries.

Years ago, I was appalled to discover that DDT was packed around water supply pipes in Africa - to prevent insects from damaging the pipes.

Of course, pipes break for all kinds of other reasons and then ... DDT gets into the water supplies. Then WATCH OUT!

Well that's my theory.





 11 Dec 2008 13:12 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 1:12 pm UTC 

I should have said UNDERGROUND water pipes.




 11 Dec 2008 13:43 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 1:43 pm UTC 

You're most welcome, Ribuck. I'm very glad you were pleased. And thank you in turn for the kind words.

Best wishes,




 11 Dec 2008 20:43 UTCThu 11 Dec 2008 - 8:43 pm UTC 


Ingesting DDT is definitely bad, but I don't see the connection to AIDS.

These sites suggest that the banning of DDT to fight malaria was indirectly detrimental to those suffering from AIDS:



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