[lit-ideas] On surviving plagues and travelling to Yucatan

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas " <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 11 May 2014 16:03:39 -0700

Cochran and Harpending write on page 162, “In Mexico, where Hernán Cortés
and his troops had made the Aztec emperor their puppet, the Aztecs rose
against them, killing Moctezuma II and two-thirds of the Spanish force in
the famous “Noche Triste.” The Aztecs probably would have utterly destroyed
the invaders, were it not for the smallpox epidemic under way at the same
time. The leader of the Aztec defense died in the epidemic, and Cortés and
his men conquered the Aztec Empire.  The 10,000 Year Explosion: How
Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

How were these Aztecs contaminated?  Bernal Diaz Del Castillo in his The
Conquest of New Spain wrote of how 110 of them (Cortez wasn’t with them at
this point) sailed away from Cuba in 1517 and up the coast of the mainland,
discovering Yucatan.  They needed to go ashore for water from time to time,
and those activities did not always go well.  Here is the first foray to get

As these Indians approached us in their canoes, we made signs of peace and
friendship, beckoning at the same time to them with our hands and cloaks to
come up to us that we might speak with them; for at that time there was
nobody amongst us who understood the language of Yucatan or Mexico. They now
came along side of us without evincing the least fear, and more than thirty
of them climbed on board of our principal ship. We gave them bacon and
cassave bread to eat, and presented each with a necklace of green glass
beads. After they had for some time minutely examined the ship, the chief,
who was a cazique, gave us to understand, by signs, that he wished to get
down again into his canoe and return home, but that he would come the next
day with many more canoes in order to take us on shore.  Del Castillo,
Bernal Diaz (2013-11-03). The Conquest of New Spain (Kindle Locations
400-405). Bybliotech. Kindle Edition.

The Indians ask where they came from and when they admit to coming from
where the sun rises the Indians decided to kill them.  “The cazique had no
sooner given the signal, than out rushed with terrible fury great numbers of
armed warriors, greeting us with such a shower of arrows, that fifteen of
our men were immediately wounded. These Indians were clad in a kind of
cuirass made of cotton, and armed with lances, shields, bows, and slings;
with each a tuft of feathers stuck on his head. As soon as they had let fly
their arrows, they rushed forward and attacked us man to man, setting
furiously to with their lances, which they held in both hands. When,
however, they began to feel the sharp edge of our swords, and saw what
destruction our crossbows and matchlocks made among them, they speedily
began to give way. Fifteen of their number lay dead on the field.  [Del
Castillo, Bernal Diaz (2013-11-03). The Conquest of New Spain (Kindle
Locations 422-427). Bybliotech. Kindle Edition.]

Bernal Diaz and his fellows didn’t learn their lesson and later on needing
more water answered the same question in the same way, that they came from
the direction in which the sun rises, and met with the same result.
Eventually so many of them were injured that they couldn’t man all their
boats.  They burned one, and headed back toward Havanah, but they needed
water and no longer had enough sound men to fight off the Indians long
enough to get it.  But eventually most of them got back to Havana.

But I noticed an interesting anecdote way back at the beginning of Bernal
Diaz’s narrative:  “In the year 1514 I departed from Castile in the suite of
Pedro Arias de Avila, who had just then been appointed governor of Terra
Firma. At sea we had sometimes bad and sometimes good weather, until we
arrived at Nombre Dios, where the plague was raging: of this we lost many of
our men, and most of us got terrible sores on our legs, and were otherwise
ill.”  [Del Castillo, Bernal Diaz (2013-11-03). The Conquest of New Spain
(Kindle Locations 347-349). Bybliotech. Kindle Edition.]

What was this plague and what caused the sores that Bernal Diaz and most of
the others had on their legs?  He writes initially of 1514 and it wasn’t
until 1517 that they had several battles with the Amerindians on the coast
of Yucatan, but that Diaz and the others were carriers of more than one
disease doesn’t seem a stretch.  

Cochran and Harpending write, “The European advantage in disease resistance
was particularly important because those early attempts at conquest and
colonization were marginal. Shipping men and equipment across the Atlantic
Ocean presented huge logistical difficulties. European military expeditions
to the New World were tiny and poorly supplied. The successes of the
conquistadors are reminiscent of ridiculous action movies in which one man
defeats a small army—and that’s a lot harder to do with an arquebus than an
Uzi. Early colonization efforts often teetered on the edge of disaster, as
when half the Pilgrims died in their first winter, or when most of the
settlers in Jamestown starved to death in the winter of 1609. Epidemic
disease didn’t just grease the skids for the initial conquests: It reduced
Amerindian populations and made later revolts far weaker than they would
have been otherwise. If they had not died of disease, the Amerindians would
have had time to copy and use many European military innovations in the
second or third round of fighting.  [pp. 164-165. Basic Books. Kindle


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