Friday, May 1, 2020

Epidemics in Colonial Mexico

Portrayal of Epidemic Colonial Mexico

Although feels like it, Covid19 is not the first pandemic the world has ever known. Everyone has heard of the Black Death and Spanish Flu of 1917-8, but there were also major epidemics in the New World, far before any of us were born.

Epidemics and Population Collapse in Colonial Mexico

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in 1619, its population is estimated to have been between 15-30 million.  One hundred years later, in 1620, it was less than two million.  The indigenous population had the Spanish to thank for this huge reduction in population.  The Spanish had superior firepower, but it was the smallpox that they had brought with them that facilitated their conquest of the native peoples.  It is estimated that 5-8 million people died in the smallpox epidemic.

Depiction of Smallpox Epidemic in Colonial Mexico

Smallpox was what is know as a Virgin Soil epidemic, referring to an imported pathogen to which a population has no natural immunity.  The indigenous people were devastated by smallpox, a disease to which the Spanish largely had immunity.  

Depiction of Cocoliztli Epidemic

Smallpox was not the only disease decimating the indigenous population in the early 
years.  A completely new disease appeared seemingly from nowhere mid-16th century. From 1545-76, there were a series of epidemics of a hemorrhagic fever that took 7-17 million lives. This disease was characterized by a high fever, headache and bleeding from the nose. Victims turned yellow from jaundice, and blood ran from their ears and noses. They had hallucinations and agonizing convulsions. They died in days. Aztecs called it the cocoliztli, meaning pestilence in the local Nahuatl language.

Colonial writers mention rodents and rodent-borne disease in relation to this epidemic.  But, a recent DNA study of victims' teeth suggest that a bacteria, salmonella enterica, (not the everyday kind of salmonella that causes food poisoning) may possibly have been the culprit.  

There is no certainty about where this pathogen originated. Some scientists judge it must have sprung up on its own in Mexico because the epidemics began in the highlands, away from the coastal areas with the greatest Spanish presence.  Others suggest that this bacteria was brought by the settlers or their livestock.  It is not possible, as with Smallpox, to absolutely implicate the Spanish in cocoliztli, although the possibility cannot be ruled-out. 

The most devastating years of the Cocoliztli epidemic were 1567-8 when more than two million people died.  The Spanish viceroy was forced to write off taxes and duties which were not possible to collect.  I rather doubt that this type of thing will be a part of the covid19 pandemic.

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