Europeans and Disease:
Allies in Conquering Continents
Chinese proverb claims that the rat is the most clever and strongest survivor
of all animals. The rat proved itself in the beginning of time when god held
a race for all of his animals; the rat was clever enough to hide in the ear
of a large beast, and at the last second he leapt out of the beast's ear and
crossed the finish line before the beast. Disease tells a similar history, in
which it has been able to spread itself through out the entire world, through
the naïve and unknowing help of humans and animals.
Earlier in history, Europe seemed to be an epicenter for disease. This was rooted
in the fact that the Europeans, more so than any other population, lived intimately
with their livestock. Farmers and the surrounding aggregate nations survived
harsh winters and hot summers where it was necessary to share indoor space with
animals. Additionally, they had excessive contact with them and little understanding
of what hubs of nastiness their fury friends were or what control centers for
disease they themselves would become. Humans have historically shown a deep
affinity for livestock and continue to do so, currently, in New Zealand there
are more sheep kept than there are people on the island. In fact, in some cases,
people seemed to have developed such a tenderness for their animals that they
resort to practicing bestiality. Several common human diseases are closely related
to animal diseases. Smallpox developed from cowpox and measles is closely related
to rinderpest (another bovine disease). But whether it is through cuddling,
milking or whipping our animals, we have managed to remain intimately involved
over the centuries; and disease has lovingly appreciated it by spreading itself
far and wide.
The populations of the American continents however, did not experience the same
spread of disease that the Europeans did. They kept almost no domestic animals.
Consequently, their immune systems had few antibodies developed to combat even
the weakest strings of disease. Also, they did not live in crowds the way that
Europeans did. Early in the middle ages the Europeans had not only settled and
become dependent on their agriculture and livestock, but they had developed
large cities like London where thousands of people lived in close quarters,
and had given little thought to the disposal of waste. Native Americans did
live in tribes but did not have permanent living quarters that compared to the
size of some of the European cities. In fact, most of the tribes that lived
in the Midwest were migratory, moving for the winter season. Their constant
movement, small numbers and lack of exposure to livestock made it difficult
for any crowd disease to develop or have a devastating impact on their population.
It is hypothesized however, that the Aztecs (who lived on the American continent)
were possibly wiped out by crowd disease, whether this included exposure to
Europeans or not is unclear, nothing can be known for sure.
Consequently, when the Europeans arrived in the America's, disease was their
greatest weapon. Smallpox in particular had devastating effects on the indigenous
people. Unfamiliar with the phenomenon of crowd diseases, the Native Americans
knew none of the tricks that the Europeans had been quickly learning, like containment.
During the Bubonic Plague which caused its first devastating outbreak in Europe
in 1346, houses were nailed shut with victims in them and parts of cities were
burned in an attempt to tame the ravaging disease.
Asia however, did not suffer the same fate that the Americas did. In fact, Asia
is the continent that gave Europe the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death. It was
spread by flees that hung onto rats that traveled from continent to continent
in cargo ships. The extensive trade between Asia and Europe allowed us to spread
almost all of our diseases over the spread of time, especially as the Silk Road
became more developed and traveled.
The Asians had a much better understanding of sanitation than the Europeans
during the Middle Ages. Asians bathed themselves on a regular basis and had
a fairly strong foundation and understanding or herbal medicines. Not only did
Europeans not bathe themselves on a regular basis, but they paid little attention
to their drinking water, giving cholera an open door to spread itself. An example
of poor sanitation directly resulting in death or illness is the hairstyle of
European women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Women used to wear
their hair on the top of their heads and then have wigs fitted over their hair,
occasionally women developed such horrendous lice infestations that their heads
became nests to other insects as well, including nats, which would sometimes
burrow into their scalp, lay eggs and kill them.
World trade routes were the solidifying factor for the spread or microbes. Once
Asia, Europe and North Africa had ban together they ultimately meshed their
worlds into one giant breeding ground for bacteria. Agriculture continued to
assist in the spread using animal and human feces as fertilizer. But at the
same time, developments in medicine and better sanitation, along with better
diets and eating habits, strengthened humans to fight the mass crowd diseases.
Europe however, was not only given the gift of disease. There were several strange
circumstances that allowed them to flourish throughout the world. First off,
they had more large mammals after the first ice age which they were able to
domesticate and use for Africa etc. But most importantly, they had a monotheistic
religion which allowed them to be self prophesized. Through this came the development
and burst of capitalism, for which nothing could be stopped. The greediness
and neediness that capitalism created allowed them to spread at any cost. And
travel they did, European's made an effort to conquer the world. They developed
an insatiable curiosity for the unknown, which extended far beyond the boundaries
of their own reality, both geographically and mentally.
Through human travel, the populations of humans have been heavily affected and
in turn have had effects on wild life and its surrounding environment. Disease,
however, is the main reason that travel has had such a devastating impact.
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Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 2/6/03