Indian slavery poses a fundamental demographic puzzle. The first Europeans in the New World found a thriving archipelago: islands large and small covered by lush vegetation, teeming with insects and birds, and alive with humans. The Caribbean was “a beehive of people” wrote Bartolomé de Las Casas, the most well known of the region’s early chroniclers, who accompanied several expeditions of discovery. “As we saw with our own eyes,” he added, “all of these islands were densely populated with natives called Indians.” The people who greeted Columbus were indeed plentiful. Modern scholars have proposed wildly varying population estimates for the Caribbean, ranging from one hundred thousand to ten million. But while the initial population is debatable, no one doubts the cataclysmic collapse that followed. By the 1550s, a mere sixty years, or two generations, after contact, the Natives so memorably described by Columbus as “affectionate and without malice” and having “very straight legs and no bellies” had ceased to exist as a people, and many Caribbean islands became eerie uninhabited paradises.
As every schoolchild knows, epidemic disease was a major reason for this devastation. Europeans introduced pathogens to which the Natives had little or no resistance, triggering “virgin soil” epidemics. It was like “dropping lighted matches into tinder,” wrote Alfred W. Crosby in his pioneering work on the depopulation of early America. Measles,
malaria, yellow fever, influenza, and above all smallpox ravaged the indigenous population in deadly bouts that spread across the islands. Surely some Indians succumbed in pitched battles against the white intruders, who, after all, possessed superior steel weapons and unmatched mobility with their horses. But by far the Spaniards’ most devastating weapon was germs.
And yet there is a profound disconnection between this biological explanation and what sixteenth-century Europeans reported. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, who arrived in the New World in 1502, averred that greed was the reason Christians “murdered on such a vast scale,” killing “anyone and everyone who has shown the slightest sign of resistance,” and subjecting “all males to the harshest and most iniquitous and brutal slavery that man has ever devised for oppressing his fellow-men, treating them, in fact, worse than animals.” It is true that Las Casas was a passionate defender of Indian rights and therefore had every reason to dwell on Spanish brutality. But we do not have to take his word for it. Early chroniclers, crown officials, and settlers all understood the extinction of the Indians as a result of warfare, enslavement, famine, and overwork, as well as disease. King Ferdinand of Spain—no Indian champion and probably the most well-informed individual of that era—believed that so many Natives died in the early years because, lacking beasts of burden, the Spaniards “had forced the Indians to carry excessive loads until they broke them down.”
Early sources do not mention smallpox until 1518, a full twenty-six years after Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean. This was no oversight. Sixteenth-century Spaniards were quite familiar with smallpox’s symptoms and lived in constant fear of diseases of any kind. They were keenly aware, for example, that having sex with Indian women could cause el mal de las búas (literally, “the illness of the pustules,” or syphilis), which afflicted several of Columbus’s mariners and spread throughout Italy and Spain immediately on their return. As early as 1493, colonists in the Caribbean also reported an illness that affected both Indians and Spaniards and was characterized by high fevers, body aches, and prostration—clinical signs that point perhaps to swine flu. Influenza is usually benign, although it is capable of mutating into deadlier forms resulting in pandemics. The famous “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918, which wreaked havoc around the world, is only one example. Early Caribbean sources do not describe an influenza pandemic, but merely an influenza-like disease of some concern. There is no mention of smallpox or any other clear episode of mass death among the Natives until a quarter of a century after Columbus’s first voyage. Of course, it is impossible to rule out entirely the possibility of major outbreaks that went unreported, but the documentation suggests that the worst epidemics did not affect the New World immediately.
The late arrival of smallpox actually makes perfect sense. Smallpox was endemic in the Old World, which means that the overwhelming majority of Europeans were exposed to the virus in childhood, resulting in one of two outcomes: death or recovery and lifelong immunity. Thus the likelihood of a ship carrying an infected passenger was low. And even if this were to happen, the voyage from Spain to the Caribbean in the sixteenth century lasted five or six weeks, a sufficiently long time in which any infected person would die along the way or become immune (and no longer contagious). There were only two ways for the virus to survive such a long passage. One was for a vessel to carry both a person already infected and a susceptible host who contracted the illness en route and lived long enough to disembark in the Caribbean. The odds of this happening were minuscule—around two percent according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by the demographer Massimo Livi Bacci. The second possibility was that an infected passenger left behind the live virus in scabs that fell off his body. Since smallpox has now been eliminated from the face of the earth except in some labs, no one really knows how long the virus could have survived outside the body under the conditions of a sixteenth-century sailing vessel. But even if the virus had remained active aboard a Spanish ship that reached the New World, it would still have had to find its way into a suitable host. In short, far from strange, a delayed onset of smallpox in the New World is precisely what we would expect.
Well before smallpox was first detected in the Caribbean, the Native islanders found themselves on a path to extinction. “La Isla Española,” the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was the first home of Europeans in the New World. It is a very large landmass, about the size of South Carolina, which at the time of contact was dotted with as many as five or six hundred Indian villages—an extreme dispersion that would have militated against the spread of disease. Typically, these were small settlements of a few extended families, except for a handful of communities that had a thousand people or more—no Aztec or Inca cities, but substantial villages nonetheless. Friar Las Casas put Española’s total population at “more than three million,” but given the island’s carrying capacity, the archaeological remains, and early Spanish population counts, a more realistic number would be perhaps two or three hundred thousand. By 1508, however, that figure had fallen to 60,000; by 1514 it stood at merely 26,000, according to a fairly comprehensive census (no longer guesswork); and by 1517 the number had plunged to just 11,000. In other words, one year before Europeans began reporting smallpox, Española’s Indian population had dwindled to five percent or less of what it had been in 1492. Clearly, the Native islanders were well on their way to a total demographic collapse when smallpox appeared to deliver the coup de grace.