traveling follies

susan eberhard

Transcontinental movement has played an instrumental role in the development of human history. Crossing the globe in search of riches and brighter prospects, humans have left a deep mark on the environment owing to their penchant for travel. In more recent centuries, the mode of travel itself is credited with long-lasting negative impacts such as global warming and water pollution; these effects wreak havoc on the natural world, decimating animal populations and decreasing the quality of human life. However, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was not so much the mode of travel itself as the very consequence of human movement that instigated large-scale destruction. Societies that arose and flourished in complete seclusion and on different corners of the globe abruptly found themselves in immediate contact through the travel innovations and impulses that developed during that era. Europeans made their first appearance in the Near East, and then in the Far East. Finally, they stumbled upon the Americas and the Pacific Ocean. This unprecedented exposure created a wealth of problems, foremost of which is the propagation of disease that spread from the relatively immune Europeans to the defenseless and unsuspecting natives, who died in the hundreds of millions. In this way, human travel had a profound and devastating effect upon the entirety of the natural environment, leaving massive quantities of causalities in its wake.

The Europeans, in their agriculturally-based and urban societies, practically bred disease in their close and constant contact with domesticated livestock and one another. Agrarian societies fostered sustained proximity to animal populations, offering germs an open gateway between species, frequent opportunities for transmission. Hunter-gatherer societies simply did not keep domesticated animals, and they did not have the settled population densities of agricultural societies, which could be on average ten to a hundred times as large (Diamond 205). Farmers tended to live in their own sewage; they fertilized their fields with it, and thus, it was an easy jaunt for germs into another’s water supply. Nomads left their feces behind as they broke camp. Rodents were attracted to the activities of farmers, adding an extra dimension to experience of disease. In the cities, the even greater closely-packed populations combined with decreased quality of sanitary living conditions to create a state of continuous exposure to harmful microbes. Trade routes spanning Europe since Roman times were conducive to the spread of germs cross-continentally (Diamond 205). Exempt from these contributing factors and existing for a time outside the pervasive network of European trade agenda, hunter-gatherer groups remained untouched by injurious disease. Thus, they subsisted relatively unmolested by germ activity as compared to the Europeans, who were lambasted daily and served as carriers for the microbes.

Mercantilism and expansionism were on the rise, and Europeans could not resist the allure of overseas riches; they jumped in their vessels, taking their germs with them. They conducted their frequent travels under the auspices of religion. However, it was unquestionably clear that travel during this era was a commercial venture. They effectively combined the ideals and goals of religion and trade to further their business schedule; according to the pessimistic sixteenth century diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, “’for the expeditions (to the Indies and the Antipodes) religion supplied the pretext and gold the motive” (Cipolla 133). Europeans were drawn overseas by a number of attractive economic prospects. The spice trade, of course, was a general lure. King Francois I of France rudely yet accurately termed Portuguese King Manoel “le roi epicier” (Cipolla 135), and the rulers of England and Spain could be similarly denoted. Other commodities such as copper, saltpeter, porcelain and silk were also of interest, and were found in the same regions as the spices, the trade routes through the Indian Ocean and China. Through the efforts of Atlantic Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the gunned ship reached a state of high utility, and it allowed the Europeans their rapid and complete pre-eminence. The vessel was a “compact device that allowed a relatively small crew to master unparalleled masses of inanimate energy for movement and destruction” (Cipolla 137). Consequently, the Europeans were an unstoppable commercial force, masters of the oceanic domain; they used this power to venture as far as possible, exposing themselves to entirely new cultures, and exposing the new cultures to their diseases.

As European greed pushed them farther overseas, natives suffered as a significant and devastating consequence. The Americas were isolated from Eurasia and Africa until the tail end of the fifteenth century, when the Spanish conquistadors made contact with the New World. Smallpox manifested in the first epidemic since the European invasion, reaching Hispaniola in 1518 and Mexico in 1520. It was brought by the relief expeditions meant to aid Cortes’ siege of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Just five years later, it spread to the Incan empire; on the whole, it ravaged these populations with no natural immunity, killing millions. Following smallpox was “an outbreak of measles in 1530-1531, typhus in 1546 and influenza in 1558-1559” (Ponting 230), all of which further decimated an already-traumatized population. There is no way to pinpoint exactly the numbers affected, as approximations of population before the Spanish conquest fluctuate, but the most accurate information suggest that in the center point of the Aztec empire, the Mexican valley, the population fell from “about twenty-five million just before the conquest to six million by the mid-sixteenth century and to about one million in 1600” (Ponting 230). Disease toppled the once-flourishing and powerful Aztec empire, leaving it in scattered ruins.

The Old World germs were unleashed on the American Indian population, a tragic consequence of human travel. The Indians had “neither immunity nor genetic resistance” (Diamond 211-212), and died in droves. Widespread fatalities took place across the continent, wherever Indians were exposed to the travels of Europeans. When Columbus arrived in Hispaniola in 1492, the population was eight million. By 1535, there was no one left. This pattern repeated universally wherever the Old World collided with the New. The Europeans were driven by deep-seated greed to span the continent in search of trade, but they brought with them a hidden malevolence that they unleashed unknowingly and in force, massacring entire civilizations as they sailed past.


Works Cited

Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilogue from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.

Diamond, Jared, "Ch. 11: Lethal gift of livestock," in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" W.W. Norton & Co, 1997, ISBN 0-393-03891-2, pp. 195-214

Ponting, Clive. Ch.11 from "A Green History of the World," St. Martins Press, NYC, 1991, pp. 224-239.



Susan Eberhard

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last updated 5/12/06