Columbus and Old World diseases

By [email protected]

Editor:

In an editorial about Columbus and the effects of his voyages on the New and Old Worlds, Andrew Kirk concedes that Columbus brought smallpox to the Americas, but he proceeds to claim that “American Indian venereal diseases are still ravaging the world.” His clear implication is that both Europeans and Amerindians suffered comparably from diseases to which they had not been exposed before 1492.

However, syphilis is the only disease that was absent from the Old World prior to 1492 and the subsequent “Columbian Exchange” between the hemispheres. No one would argue that the effects of syphilis on Europeans were insignificant. But by contrast, Europeans and the Africans they enslaved brought amoebic dysentery, the bubonic plague, chicken pox, cholera, diphtheria, German measles, influenza, jaundice, malaria, measles, meningitis, mumps, tonsillitis, trachoma, typhus, and whooping cough to the Americas, along with smallpox.

My point is not to join those who vilify Columbus. The past, like the present, was made up of fallible human beings, and attempts to cast historical figures as villains and heroes in a dramatic narrative are generally unhelpful to our understanding of history. I raise the issue of Old World diseases solely for the sake of historical accuracy, which Kirk misrepresents when he equates “American Indian venereal diseases” with the staggering list of maladies to which Amerindians were exposed by Columbus and those who followed him to the New World; maladies which resulted in overwhelming Amerindian fatalities. In this aspect of the colonization process, the peoples of America physically suffered disproportionately more than the peoples of the Old World.

Spencer Kenneth WallSophomore, English(History Minor)