Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On surviving plagues and travelling to Yucatan

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 water:

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 Edition.]

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