Re: pox mangi fratris

Damien Broderick (
Sat, 27 Dec 1997 12:21:17 +0000

At 08:37 AM 12/26/97 -0800, Brian wrote:

>Smallpox may have been the most useful weapon of biological warfare
>in world history. European colonists repeatedly took advantage of
>the special susceptibility of the Amerindian population,
>deliberately spreading the deadly virus among Indians [...]

>"According to historian Williams McNeill, Cortez's capture of
>Mexico City with just a small army of exhausted Spanish irregulars
>under his command was possible only because the Europeans had
>unknowingly spread smallpox

I gained the impression from Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL that
this kind of bacteriological warfare was largely inadvertent, despite the
occasional egregious salting of contaminated blankets, etc. Even without
such criminal incidents, I suspect the microorganisms would have done their
work anyway. Diamond notes of deaths in the Mississippi Valley: `Eurasian
germs, spreading in advance, did everything. When Hernando de Soto became
the first European conquistador to march through the southeastern US, in
1540, he came across Indian town sites abandoned two years earlier because
the inhabitants had died in epidemics... transmitted from coastal Indians
infected [unintentionally] by Spaniards visiting the coast... For the New
World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two
following Columbus's arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95
percent' (down from perhaps as many as 20 million). (p. 211) This
astounding holocaust was mostly due to the inevitable microbiological
ecology transition, which as the first part of the quote demonstrates was
bound to happen with or without malign human intervention. We are less
potent than we imagine, even in our powers for ill.

Damien Broderick