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Beyond Germs: In Search of a Nuanced Narrative
In his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, scientist Jared Diamond tells the story of “Old World” diseases and their devastating effect on the “virgin soil” of the pre-Columbian new world. In brief, the story goes like so: Europeans come to America and with them brought animal-sourced crowd diseases such as smallpox, measles and yellow fever. Because the Europeans lived with domestic animals, and thus the various crowd diseases, for thousands of years they were effectively immune from their most devastating effects. However, the same could not be said of America’s native populations - for whom the diseases were new, hence the term “virgin soil”. Amerindians, apparently, lacked immunity as a result of the absence of beasts of burden in the New World. Because of their lack of immunity, epidemics were common and, as a result, widespread Aboriginal depopulation ensued throughout America from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego, or so historians and scientists like Diamond claim. The result of such rapid and thorough depopulation was a “clearing of the way” for European colonialism and Western domination. This story is not a new one. The work of Henry Dobyns, Alfred Crosby, and William McNeill, in addition to Jared Diamond, has brought the 500-year-old theory back to the center of the historiography of the New World in recent decades. But does this claim tell the whole story? Does a germ-centered narrative of European conquest actually hold up, especially against more rigorous contemporarily-informed analysis? Did disease, in fact or in fiction, conquer America before the sword could even be unsheathed?
In this paper, I will examine both the theory of “virgin soil” epidemics, as well as those that complicate it. In doing so I will look at a broad range of scholarship spanning multiple geographical sites, numerous Amerindian tribes, as well as various colonial powers - England, France, and Spain. Although a concentration of attention will be placed on the Spanish conquests, the aim is to extract a generalized “macro view” of the germ-centered narrative of European conquest, rather than to examine any one battle, tribe or oppressor. As a result of my investigation, I will dissent from the growing popularity of the theory of “germ-dominated colonization” and offer a broader, more complex, understanding of how widespread depopulation of America’s aboriginals, and the ensuing European hegemony, might have more realistically unfolded. Ultimately, the reason behind the success of European colonialism is likely not to be the neat dramatic stuff of a “major PBS television special” but rather, in Livi-Bacci’s words, “The unsettling normality of conquest” (“Return to Hispaniola” 51).
Those who believe firmly in the virgin soil epidemics as a major or even decisive factor in the depopulation of the aborigines in colonial America, such as Dobyns, Crosby, McNeill and Diamond, essentially believe in the scenario (or some variation) as outlined above in the introduction. Yet, they do vary in degree as to how significant of a factor germs actually were. To be clear, none contend that germs were the only cause of either depopulation or colonial success. Crosby, for example, alludes to this in his title, Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America, note his use of the term “a factor”. Crosby oscillates in this work, often on the same page, between rather grand statements such as, “... the initial appearance of these diseases is as certain to have set off deadly epidemics as dropping a lighted match into tinder is certain to cause fires” (290), to rather less committed comments as, “...aboriginal history in British America occurred beyond the range of direct observation by literate witnesses” (290). Essentially, Crosby is, in fact, suggesting that virgin soil epidemics were just a single, albeit decisively important, factor. He notes that such epidemics could have been either or both successive and/or simultaneous - either scenario carrying potentially drastic consequences. Crosby cites various “documented” cases such as how in the 1630s smallpox, potentially the most fatal of the Indian killers “whipsawed back and forth through the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes region, eliminating half the people of the Huron and Iroquois confederations” (290). Although, he also concedes that such accounts are “often colored by emotion” (291). Nonetheless, Crosby subscribes to the theory of virgin soil epidemics as both a cause of native population decline and European imperial success. He broadens the view of this theory, however, past that of more passionate adherents (McNeill and Diamond) to investigate contributing factors such as how native societies and individuals reacted to the threat of epidemic deaths, the availability and approach of treatment, as well as complications which arise from treatment (293, 294).
In the end, Crosby’s position might be best summed up as recognizing that, in his opinion, “Old World diseases were the chief determinants in the demographic histories of particular tribes for the 100 to 150 years after each tribe’s first full exposure to them” (292). But, notes Crosby, other factors aside from disease, “were also responsible for depressing their population levels [...] warfare, murder, dispossession, and interbreeding” (292). Yet, despite his open-minded approach, I still situate Crosby in the pro-virgin-soil camp as he, quite decisively, advances an argument that disease was both a “significant factor” and that, in light of such, Europeans were, largely, innocent bystanders in relation to much of the aboriginal depopulation experienced after their arrival in the Americas - a position that is becoming increasingly difficult to support. This claim is made especially egregious, in my opinion, by Crosby’s allusion to aboriginal “self-destruction” as a response to disease (298). Although, perhaps not completely baseless, it is, again, portrayed from a European-centric understanding of Amerindians and their culture suggesting that, again, their depopulation was, essentially, by way of their own hand - a claim much more easily refuted today. Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that natives took measures into “their own hands” to escape ravaging epidemics, but they also, in doing so, sought to escape brutal colonial subjugation and slavery. In addition, their “self-destructive” response was highly complex and bound up with their religious and worldviews (Cook 7, 8). In other words, such a claim does not stand well in the absence of the harsh effects of European colonialism as a contributing factor.
When it comes to scholars such as McNeill and Diamond, things become a lot less manifold. Both authors seem assured by the destructive effects that disease must certainly have had on the Amerindians in the New World and how this surely resulted in “significantly” enabling the ensuing European hegemony. Pointing to the classic virgin soil scenario (which effectively claims that Europeans experienced no new diseases in the New World) McNeill asserts, “...the abrupt confrontation with the long array of infections that European and African populations had encountered piecemeal across some four thousand years of civilized history provoked massive demographic disaster among Amerindians” (176). Although McNeill does acknowledge some complicating factors to the basic theory that disease wiped out Amerindian populations, he nevertheless takes advantage of countless leaps and bounds in logic to construct his basic premise. Fundamentally, McNeill claims that because population densities were high enough, especially in places like Mexico and Peru, to sustain crowd diseases and, given that no such diseases have been detected prior to Euro-Asian-African contact, the reason must be that they lacked the domesticated animals needed to establish such an epidemiological history (177, 178).
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