As I write, the contest for explanation is well under way—Donald Trump is to blame, or Barack Obama, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or China, or the U.S. military’s biowarfare experiments, or Bill Gates. Nobody has yet invoked eight-legged worms. But in our age of social media, the engines of rumor, prejudice, and superstition may have even greater power than they did in the era of the Black Death.
Christopher Columbus’s journey to the Americas set off the worst demographic catastrophe in history. The indigenous societies of the Americas had few communicable diseases—no smallpox, no measles, no cholera, no typhoid, no malaria, no bubonic plague. When Europeans imported these diseases into the Western Hemisphere, it was as if all the suffering and death these ailments had caused in Europe during the previous millennia were compressed into about 150 years.
From March 2002: Charles C. Mann on the year 1491
Somewhere between two-thirds and nine-tenths of the people in the Americas died. Many later European settlers, like my umpteen-great-grandparents, believed they were coming to a vacant wilderness. But the land was not empty; it had been emptied—a world of loss encompassed in a shift of tense.
Absent the diseases, it is difficult to imagine how small groups of poorly equipped Europeans at the end of very long supply chains could have survived and even thrived in the alien ecosystems of the Americas. “I fully support banning travel from Europe to prevent the spread of infectious disease,” the Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle remarked after President Trump announced his plan to do this. “I just think it’s 528 years too late.”
For Native Americans, the epidemic era lasted for centuries, as did its repercussions. Isolated Hawaii had almost no bacterial or viral disease until 1778, when the islands were “discovered” by Captain James Cook. Islanders learned the cruel facts of contagion so rapidly that by 1806, local leaders were refusing to allow European ships to dock if they had sick people on board. Nonetheless, Hawaii’s king and queen traveled from their clean islands to London, that cesspool of disease, arriving in May 1824. By July they were dead—measles.
Kamehameha II and Kamāmalu had gone to Britain to negotiate an alliance against the United States, which they correctly believed had designs on their nation. Their deaths scuttled the talks, and their successor, 12-year-old King Kamehameha III, could not resume them. The results changed the islands’ political destiny. Undeterred by the British navy, the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898. Historians have seldom noted the connection between measles and the presidency of Barack Obama.
As a rule, epidemics create what researchers call a “U-shaped curve” of mortality—high death rates among the very young and very old, lower rates among working-age adults. (The 1918 flu was an exception; a disproportionate number of 20-somethings perished.) For Native peoples, the U-shaped curve was as devastating as the sheer loss of life. As an indigenous archaeologist once put it to me, the epidemics simultaneously robbed his nation of its future and its past: the former, by killing all the children; the latter, by killing all the elders, who were its storehouses of wisdom and experience.