From Here to There: Transportation's Enabling of Plagues

Dante Fuoco

Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel and Clive Ponting in A Green History of the World both delve into the between disease and travel. While this connection may seem boring or inconsequential, both explain how the development of transportation, in fostering global communication and interconnectedness, allowed for major epidemics to greatly affect societies all across the world. With this in mind, they even discuss how these plagues had consequent cultural ramifications, such as the practical extinction of native people and the heightened dominance of Europeans.

In discussing all of these issues, it is important to focus briefly on Diamond’s claim that the shift from hunting-gathering societies to agricultural societies launched “crowd diseases” (Diamond 205). For one, Diamond argues that agriculture brings together a much higher density of people than hunting-gathering societies would. Additionally, farmers hardly led sanitary lifestyles. Hunter-gatherers had the advantage of moving away from waste, but, as Diamond sharply writes, farmers “live amid their own sewage, thus providing microbes with a short path from one person’s body into another person’s drinking water” (Diamond 205). In fact, many farmers gathered their feces and urine and used it as fertilizer (Diamond 205). In other words, the means through which they survived was also, ironically, the means through which they got sick and died.

What is more interesting, at least for the purposes of this paper, is how monumental increased transportation and communication was for the development of diseases. Diamond writes that a “bonanza for our microbes” was “the development of world trade routes which by Roman times effectively joined the populations of Europe, Asia, and North Africa into one giant breeding ground for microbes” (Diamond 205). Both he and Ponting use “the Plague of Antoninus” and the bubonic plague as examples to illustrate this point. In the Plague of Antoninus, the Roman Empire was hit with a disease, presumably smallpox, in 165 AD (Ponting 228; Diamond 206). Furthermore, China, after establishing more communication with India, suffered a similar outbreak of smallpox in 161-162 and 310-312 AD, with about 40 percent of the population dying (Ponting 228). Seeing as smallpox is thought to have originated in India, Diamond and Ponting argue that this Roman plague, which is noted for killing millions of people, could not have been possible if it were not for the increased trading contacts between Mediterranean area and south-east Asia.

The bubonic plague also unequivocally illustrates how increased transportation brought about the rise of diseases. After all, scholars agree that the bubonic plague spread through ships, which carried black rats with infected fleas (Ponting 228). Like smallpox, the bubonic plague is believed to have started in India and then, around the sixth century, spread to China in the sixth and seventh centuries (Ponting 228). Ponting stresses that better communication throughout Eurasia increased the spread of the bubonic plague during the fourteenth century. He writes that the Mongol empire, which “stretched from European Russia and the Near East to China” (Ponting 228) at its height, opened trade routes with central Asia. Consequently, rats with infected fleas spread to China, where there was an outbreak in 1331 AD. Furthermore, caravan routes spread the disease to Crimea in 1346 and then the Mediterranean (Ponting 229). The effects of the bubonic plague cannot be overstated. In killing about 90 percent of those infected and wiping out about a third of Europe, the plague—often referred to as the “Black Death”—was an epidemic in the truest sense of the word (Ponting 228). It is important, even, to think back to Diamond’s explanations of crowd diseases’ origins. After all, these infectious diseases were spreading to agricultural societies with crowded cities and unsanitary conditions; these diseases, then, would likely thrive within these environments. Though the bubonic plague is just one example that illustrates the connection between transportation and the spread of disease, it is nevertheless a strong one because of the massive devastation that it caused. People often look at increased trade and improved transportation as progressive steps forward. Seeing how this increased communication and contact caused massive death and shook societies, however, it is also important for one to resist this kind of blind glorification.

This point cannot be emphasized enough given the wave of epidemics that swept through hunting-gathering societies in the early Americas as a result of European expansion. As the Spanish conquistadores brought with them a desire to discover gold and proselytize those who they encountered, they also brought with them diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and influenza, all of which caused millions of deaths (Ponting 230). The spread of smallpox through European expansion in North America was quite a travesty. As many as 20 million Indians died after Columbus’s arrival, and the population decline in Native Americans is believed to be as much as 95 percent (Diamond 211). In Hispaniola alone, the population decreased from 8 million to zero from 1492 to 1535 (Diamond 213). While European explorers ruthlessly exploited and killed native people they discovered, it is interesting that the African slave trade, another example of Europe’s despicable exploitation and expropriation of non-European people, is noted for bringing more diseases to the Americas. With these statistics in mind, Diamond writes: “All those military histories glorifying great generals oversimplify the ego-deflating truth: the winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals and weapons, but were often merely those bearing the nastiest germs to transmit to their enemies” (197). It was through massive disease, which was made possible only by increased transportation and communication, that Europe became dominant. Seeing as increased transportation played such a pivotal technology in the decimation of early American societies, I do not think its importance can be overstated; if we ignore travel’s effects, we ignore the deaths that it enabled as well as the incredible effect it had on human history (just imagine if the Europeans were the ones who died, not the Native Americans).

So, why, in this period of travel and exploration, did diseases in the Americas not infect the Europeans? Obviously, Native Americans died because they had never been exposed to Europeans’ disease before (Diamond 211). But that does not explain why Europeans were not wiped out. As a way to answer this question, Diamond writes that the New World seemed to have fewer domesticated animals than Europe (Diamond 213). As Diamond illustrates earlier that crowd diseases were caused by close contact with domesticated animals (Diamond 206-213), he essentially argues that a lack of diversity in domesticated animals in the New World meant, logically, “crowd diseases” were not really able to develop (Diamond 213). (Both he and Ponting concede, however, that some believe syphilis originated in the Americas).

On a brief side note, Diamond is clearly endorsing Paul Ehrlich's belief in macroevolution, which is a philosophy that contends “trajectories of different human societies [are] driven by environmental factors rather than by social, economic, and political machinations” (Ehrlich 228). While I think Diamond’s point is intriguing, I am skeptical of his argument’s implications. In arguing that the New World’s lack of domesticated animals caused the lack of crowd diseases, it is almost as though he is taking necessary blame away from the colonizers. Certainly, many Native Americans’ deaths were inadvertent and, even, not understood at the time. But that is not to say that this systematic way of elimination was not celebrated or embraced by the Europeans. Consider, for instance, how Europeans and early Americans are noted to have advertently given “smallpox blankets” to many Indians (Mayor 56) as a quick and easy way to kill them. This is to no even mention the other reports of systematic genocide against non-Western, non-European people in several different locations at several different times. Furthermore, the issue that I find more vital in addressing is not that the Americas appear to have had less diverse animals, but, rather, that the Europeans had the audacity to claim other cultures’ lands for their own. (Europeans were able to do this, of course, because of improvements in technological power as well as their steady access to ships and ports). The scope of this paper cannot honestly address these issues, but this was a point I would feel uncomfortable without making.

So what does the connection between transportation and disease mean in today’s culture? There is no doubt that progress over the last few centuries in technology—from buggies to trains to jets—has made the world seem smaller. Hadley Roach, a student who took this class two years ago, aptly writes, “The rate at which any particular microbe can be transmitted from one part of the planet to another has, lethally, increased dramatically. Specifically, advances in air travel have made the world feel small and boundless—people, and the germs they carry, can reach any destination in a matter of hours” (Roach). Roach writes particularly about the link that is believed to be between the AIDS epidemic and travel. What I find interesting is that we are in many ways a “cleaner,” “healthier” world, but, at the same time, we are connected in a dangerous way. For example, people in the past 10 years have worried almost in a hysterical fashion that SARS and the H1N1 “epidemics” would quickly infect the entire world because of the frequency and speed of flying. Though our societies have moved well beyond the days of the bubonic plague, we are nevertheless still concerned over diseases and epidemics spreading from country to country, continent to continent.

In their respective works, Diamond and Ponting not only explicate the connection between travel and disease but also make it clear that this is a worthwhile connection to make. After all, increases in transportation over time have, in part, enabled the spread of massive plagues through a variety of cultures. We cannot forget that these epidemics, in their malignancy, have greatly changed the course of human history.


Diamond, Jared. “Chapter 11: Lethal gift of livestock.” Guns, Germs, and Steel. W.W. Norton & Co, 1997. Pp. 195-214.

Ehrlich, Paul. “Chapter 10: From Seeds to Civilizations.” Human natures: genes, cultures, and the human prospect. Island Press, 2000. Pp. 227-251.

Mayor, Adrienne. “The Nessus Shirt in the New World: Smallpox Blankets in History and Legend.” The Journal of American Folklore: Vol. 108, No. 427. Pp. 54-77.

Roach, Hadley. “Transporting Germs.”

Ponting, Clive. “Chapter 11: The Changing Face of Death.” Green History of the World. St. Martins Press, NYC, 1995. Pp. 224-239.

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last updated 3/7/10