European expansion into the New World precipitated a massive depopulation of the original inhabitants of the Americas. In his influential work, The Columbian Exchange (1972), Alfred W. Crosby explored the biological factors underlying this decline, particularly exploring the role of disease as an accompaniment to imperialism. In subsequent decades, Crosby’s thesis has been debated by historians of medicine, empire, and the environment—as well as modern epidemiologists—all of whom have sought to explain the impact of European diseases on the ‘virgin soil populations’ of the Americas. Through a review of these approaches, we will compare current medical understandings of the ‘Columbian Exchange’ with historical perspectives on indigenous and European health. In the process, we’ll consider how decisive a role diseases such as smallpox played in shaping imperial history.
-To what extent is it possible to estimate the impact of imperial epidemics on indigenous populations?
-How did Europeans explain native susceptibility to disease?
-Why has smallpox been portrayed as a ‘weapon’ of imperialism in the Americas?
-How useful are modern medical theories (eg. about immunity) in explaining historical events such as the conquest of the Americas? Is this approach anachronistic?
Pratik Chakrabarti, Medicine and Empire, 1600-1960 (Basingstoke, 2014), pp.73-78.
*Francis Brooks, ‘The Impact of Disease’ in George Raduzens (ed.), Technology, Disease and Colonial Conquests, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden, 2001), pp.127-166 [e-book]
**Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, 1972), esp. 'Ch. 2: Conquistador y Pestilencia', pp. 35-63 [extracts]
*N.Nunn and N. Qian, ‘The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 24 (2010), pp.163-88. [e-journal]
**M. Livi-Bacci, ‘The Depopulation of Hispanic America after the Conquest’, Population and Development Review 32 (2004), 199-232. [e-journal]
*W. H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York, 1976), 'Ch. V: Transoceanic Exchanges, 1500-1700', pp.208-241 [e-book]
David Cook Noble, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 (Cambridge, 1998)
Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe (900-1900) (Cambridge, 1986), especially 'Ch. 9: Ills', pp.195-216 [e-book]
____________, The Columbian Voyages, the Columbian Exchange, and their Historians (Washington, 1987) [e-book]
____________, ‘Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America’ William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 33 (1976), 289-299. [e-journal]
David S. Jones, ‘Death, Uncertainty, and Rhetoric’ in Catherine M. Cameron, Paul Kelton, and Alan C. Swedlund (eds.), Beyond Germs: Native Depopulation in North America, pp.16-49
Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1491-1715 (Lincoln, 2007)
Kenneth F. Kiple and Stephen V. Beck, The Biological Consequences of the European Expansion, 1450-1800 (Aldershot, 1997).
Stephen J. Kunitz, Disease and Social Diversity: The European Impact on the Health of Non-Europeans (Oxford, 1994)
W.G. Lovell, ‘Heavy Shadows and Black Night: Disease and Depopulation in Colonial Spanish America,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82 (1992), 426-443. [e-journal]
David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York, 1992)
Sheldon Watts, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (New Haven, 1997), esp. chapter 3: Smallpox in the New World and in the Old: From Holocaust to Eradication, 1518-1977’, pp.84-121, and ‘Ch. 6: Yellow Fever, Malaria and Development: Atlantic Africa and the New World, 1647-1928, pp.213-268.