"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Spanish attitudes on Smallpox in the Americas

It was claimed to me (in a thread on a mischievous article which tried to mislead people into thinking Europeans conducted genocide in the Americas but actually talking about the impact of smallpox and other diseases) that:

"The Spanish believed it was god cleansing the land for them, a sign that the Americas was for them to conquer, they thus pushed forward and brought the disease into contact with more Natives, effectively using the diseases as a biological WMD (which they wrongly attributed to god helping them out). While they did not spread the diseases knowingly, they did "knowingly" went forward with the belief that god will cleanse the land for them, using god bringing the plague as their main weapon. Thus genocide."

When I asked for a source, I got stupid glib snark in return.

Fortunately, unlike that person, I actually had sources so I knew he was talking rubbish:

“It has pleased Our Lord to bestow a pestilence of smallpox among the said Indians, and it does not cease. From it have died and continue to die to the present almost a third of the said Indians. And Your Highness must know that all that is possible has been done, and continues to be done, to cure them."

--- Letter from the Jeronymite friars Luis de Figueroa and Alonso de Santo Domingo to Charles V

Given that the friars tried to cure them, this certainly does not support his claim.

"The first plague was an epidemic of smallpox. It broke out in this manner. Hernando Cortes was Captain and Governor at the time when Captain Panf‌ilo de Narvaez landed here. On one of his ships came a Negro stricken with smallpox, a disease that was unknown in this land. New Spain was very thickly populated at this time. When the smallpox began to infect the Indians, there was so much sickness and pestilence among them in all the land that in most provinces more than half of the people died, whereas in others the number was somewhat smaller. The Indians did not know the remedy against smallpox. Besides, they were accustomed, the healthy and the sick, to bathe frequently; and, because they did not cease doing this, they died like f‌lies. Many succumbed also to hunger because, all taking sick at the same time, they were unable to assist one another. There was no one to give them bread or anything else. In many places it happened that all of the same household died. Since it was impossible to bury all the dead in order to remove the offensive odor that came from the corpses, their houses were thrown over them and thus their house became their sepulcher. The Indians called this sickness the great leprosy because the pocks, being so large, covered the Indians in such a way that they resembled lepers. Today, on some of the persons who survived the sickness this is quite apparent from the marks they bear; they are full of pockmarks."

--- History of the Indians of New Spain / Toribio Motolinía (1541/1543)

Motolinía's account is certainly not triumphal.

"Las Casas lamented the disappearance of the island Taino, writing that the epidemic left no more than 1,000 “of the immensity of peoples that this island held, and that we have seen with our own eyes.” The Dominican friar also described the terribly quick death that came to those who, feverish, bathed in the rivers. The Spaniards, when they realized the devastation being caused by massive deaths, attempted to find an effective cure for the ill. Bartolomé de las Casas admonished that really “they should have begun it many years earlier.”"

--- Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 / Noble David Cook

Evidently Las Casas disapproved of the effect that smallpox had on the natives and given that the Spanish tried to cure the natives, this does not comport with his claims.

"This war cost Diego Velazquez a great deal of money, Panf‌ilo de Narvaez his eye, and the Indians many dead, who died, not of wounds, but of disease. It happened that among the men of Narvaez was a Negro sick with the smallpox, and he infected the household in Cempoala where he was quartered; and it spread from one Indian to another, and they, being so numerous and eating and sleeping together, quickly infected the whole country. In most houses all the occupants died, for, since it was their custom to bathe as a cure for all diseases, they bathed for the smallpox and were struck down. They had the custom, or vice, of taking cold baths after hot ones, so a man sick with the smallpox only escaped by a miracle. Those who did survive, having scratched themselves, were left in such a condition that they frightened the others with the many deep pock-marks on their faces, hands, and bodies. And then came famine, not because of a want of bread, but of meal, for the women do nothing but grind maize between two stones and bake it. The women, then, fell sick of the smallpox, bread failed, and many died of hunger. The corpses stank so horribly that no one would bury them; the streets were f‌illed with them; and it is even said that the off‌icials, in order to remedy this situation, pulled the houses down to cover the corpses. The Indians called this sickness huitzalzuatl, meaning the “great leprosy”, and later counted the years from it, as from some famous event. It seems to me that this was how they were repaid for the bubas [syphilis] which they gave our men."

--- Cortes: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary / Francisco Lopez De Gomara

The very most you can accuse Gomara of is ironic amusement at one of the probably lesser known elements of the Columbian Exchange - syphilis.

"Let us now return to Narvaez and a black man whom he brought covered with smallpox, and a very black affair it was for New Spain, for it was owing to him that the whole country was stricken and f‌illed with it, from which there was a great mortality, for according to what the Indians said they had never had such a disease, and, as they did not understand it, they bathed very often, and on that account a great number of them died; so that dark as was the lot of Narvaez, still blacker was the death of so many persons who were not Christians."

--- The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico 1517-1521 / Bernal Diaz Del Castillo

Here, we can see that Diaz was actually upset that so many non-Christians were dying of smallpox. Presumably because they hadn't yet converted to Christianity, but the fact remains that he didn't see smallpox as an instrument of God, but as something unfortunate.

Some of the contemporary Spanish sources do note that the natives were weak, but this is very different from seeing smallpox as a divine aid to their conquest.
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