Influx of disease in the Caribbean

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First European contact in 1492 started an influx of disease into the Caribbean. Diseases originating in Europe and Africa came to North America for the first time, resulting in demographic and sociopolitical changes. The indigenous Caribbeans had little immunity to the predominantly European diseases, resulting in significant loss of life and contributing to their enslavement and exploitation. Enslaved Africans were brought to replace the dwindling indigenous population, solidifying the position of disease in triangular trade.

Infectious disease[edit]

Before European contact, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean are thought to have lived with infrequent epidemic diseases, brought about by limited contact between tribes.[1] This left them socially and biologically unprepared when Christopher Columbus and his crew introduced several infectious diseases, including smallpox, whooping cough, and measles.[1] The European diseases spread from the carriers to the indigenous populations, who had no immunity, leading to more serious cases and higher mortality.[2] Because the indigenous societies were not used to the diseases as European nations were at the time, there was no system in place to care for the sick.[3]

Smallpox is among the most notable of diseases in the Columbian exchange due to the high number of deaths and impact on life for indigenous societies.[2] Smallpox first broke out in the Americas on the island of Hispaniola shortly after Columbus's first voyage.[2] The disease was carried by Christopher Columbus and his crew from Europe, where it had been endemic for over seven hundred years.[2] Like the other diseases introduced in the time period, the Europeans were familiar with the treatment of the disease and had some natural immunity, which reduced mortality and facilitated quicker recovery.[2] The Taino people, who inhabited Hispaniola, had no natural smallpox immunity and were unfamiliar with treating epidemic disease.[2] The Taino population before European contact is estimated to have been between 60,000 to 8 million people, and the entire nation was virtually extinct 50 years after contact, which has primarily been attributed to the diseases.[1]

After contact, social disruption and epidemic diseases[4] led to a decline in the Amerindian population.[5] Because the indigenous societies, including the Tainos, were unfamiliar with the diseases, they were not prepared to deal with the social consequences.[3] The high number of people incapacitated by the disease disrupted the normal cycles of agriculture and hunting that sustained the native populations.[3] This led to increased dependence on the Europeans, and reduced capacity to resist the European invasion.[3] The eventual enslavement of the Taino people by the Europeans compounded the effects of the epidemics in the downfall of indigenous societies.[1]

Impact of the transatlantic slave trade[edit]

As the population of enslaved indigenous peoples fell due to disease and abuse, the Spanish began to import enslaved workers from Africa in 1505.[6] Until 1800 the population rose as slaves arrived from West Africa.[7] Because there was already an established European colonial presence in Africa at the time, the enslaved people were less vulnerable to disease than the Taino people on Hispanola.[8] However, they came carrying their own diseases, including malaria.[9] At the time, malaria was endemic in both Europe and Africa, though more prevalent in Africa.[9] The climate of the Caribbean was hospitable to mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, which acts as a vector for the disease and allowed it to spread.[10] Many of the African-born enslaved people had genetic protections against malaria that indigenous enslaved people did not.[8] As malaria, smallpox and other diseases spread the indigenous population continued to fall, which increased the motivation for the Spanish to continue to import more enslaved workers from Africa.[8] This enslaved people worked in mining and agriculture, driving the development of triangular trade.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Nunn, Nathan; Qian, Nancy (May 2010). "The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas". Journal of Economic Perspectives. 24 (2): 163–188. doi:10.1257/jep.24.2.163. ISSN 0895-3309.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Smallpox Devastates Indigenous Populations." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Edited by Thomas Riggs. Gale, Farmington, MI, USA, 2015,
  3. ^ a b c d Schroeder, Michael. "Epidemics in the Americas, 1450–1750." World History: A Comprehensive Reference Set. Edited by Facts on File,. Facts On File, New York, NY, USA, 2016,
  4. ^ Byrne, Joseph Patrick (2008). Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues: A-M. ABC-CLIO. p. 413. ISBN 978-0-313-34102-1.
  5. ^ Engerman, p. 486
  6. ^ Keller, Claire; Burstein, Stanley M.; Loewen, James W. (February 1996). "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong". The History Teacher. 29 (2): 249. doi:10.2307/494748. ISSN 0018-2745. JSTOR 494748.
  7. ^ The Sugar Revolutions and Slavery, U.S. Library of Congress
  8. ^ a b c d Esposito, Elena (2015). "Side effects of immunities : the African slave trade". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ a b Klein, Herbert S.; Engerman, Stanley L.; Haines, Robin; Shlomowitz, Ralph (January 2001). "Transoceanic Mortality: The Slave Trade in Comparative Perspective" (PDF). The William and Mary Quarterly. 58 (1): 93–117. doi:10.2307/2674420. JSTOR 2674420. PMID 18629973. S2CID 7096696. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 27, 2020.
  10. ^ Rutman, Darrett B.; Rutman, Anita H. (January 1976). "Of Agues and Fevers: Malaria in the Early Chesapeake". The William and Mary Quarterly. 33 (1): 31–60. doi:10.2307/1921692. JSTOR 1921692. PMID 11633589.


  • Engerman, Stanley L. "A Population History of the Caribbean", pp. 483–528 in A Population History of North America Michael R. Haines and Richard Hall Steckel (Eds.), Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-521-49666-7.