The virus that changed the world 500 years ago
Atawallpa Oviedo Freire
500 years ago, together with the European conquerors, various viruses, such as smallpox and measles, reached Abya Yala (Amerindia), which according to most scholars killed around 55 million people across the continent. Now, with the coronavirus we can imagine the magnitude of such ethnocide. Only the few who became immunized survived – as happened in Eurasia with these same viruses and with many others.
A group of scientists from University College London (United Kingdom) led by Alexander Koch, in their article published in Quaternary Science Reviews, point out that the population existing in America before the first contact with Europeans in 1492 was around 60 million people (approximately 10% of the world population). They then analyzed how those numbers changed in the following decades due to the devastation caused by introduced diseases (smallpox, measles, etc.), wars, slavery and social collapse, concluding that the population fell to just 5 or 6 million in a hundred year period.
It was these viruses that decimated and defeated indigenous peoples, which the European conquerors took advantage of to «take over» America. This «take over» meant taking possession of all their wealth and taking it to Europe, which allowed them to build modernity and capitalism. If this had not happened with the virus, which eliminated almost all of the Native Americans, capitalism would never have arisen in Europe and perhaps in no other part of the world. Or, if in spite of the virus, Amerindia had not had immense wealth, the rebirth of Europe would not have been possible either, which was very poor after the 1000 years of gloom that covered the entire Middle Ages, and if they had not found the riches of Amerindia it would have surely spread to the present day. Well … with what resources could they have risen? There is no doubt that it was thanks to the riches of the Amerindian peoples that they were able to reach their splendor and then rule the world, from this viral situation.
The world changed with the invasion of America and as a consequence of the smallpox virus. It was this virus that defeated Amerindian communitarianism, producing a «viral revolution» from which the European monarchies took advantage to turn 180 degrees and make the modernity that gave rise to capitalism emerge. Which, throughout these 500 years has almost completely destroyed indigenous cultures and their millennial communal-type system, which created so much wealth. As we know, while in Europe famine, disease and crime raged; Amerindia was very rich, almost disease free and crime free.
If this virus had not been able to conquer Amerindia, which, in a period of 100 years -from 1492 to 1593 when the complete conquest of what is now Argentina ended-, lost between 80 or 90% of its population, how could they have achieved this with 60 million Amerindians?, but it was possible with the barely 6 million who survived scattered on a huge continent, despite the small number of Europeans. It is worth noting that the virus is added to the brutality of the conqueror, but no matter how cruel or «rambos» they had been, without the virus that easily exterminated millions, without the need to use any war weapon and without having any economic resource to dispense, it would have been impossible.
Those who speak of the “black legend” usually only focus on the harmful action of each one of the conquerors and, the defenders of the “pink legend”, emphasize how fierce and intelligent the “civilizers” were; when the defining issue was the virus: the main deadly weapon of the Europeans. It was the virus that conquered Amerindia and destroyed it, to mount European monarchies on its ashes, taking advantage of it and turning the world around with the creation of dark capitalism.
If today, everyone is frightened and paralyzed by the coronavirus, how would the Amerindian peoples have been faced with a strange foreigner who was carrying something unidentifiable that killed them with his mere presence or, in most cases, without even knowing the conquerors personally, since viruses spread faster than their diffusers. They may have asked themselves, what powers do these men have to kill us so easily. All of which made them surrender before such a powerful enemy, because the most dangerous thing was neither the intelligence nor the pride of the conqueror but the death that came with him, and that later, when they were identified, were called the «white diseases». The sophisticated weapons, horses, armor and everything else they brought were only a complement to bring about the subjugation of the few surviving Amerindians.
The smallpox virus in Amerindia did not need to isolate and individualize the population. It spread easily and killed many communities in one fell swoop. In capitalism, the virus acts in a way and in community societies -which are unprotected from these evils- it becomes a mass murder, something that Europeans knew because they lived through this and knew what was happening to Amerindians. They even did it intentionally, “One of the most tragic episodes, considered a precursor to biological warfare, took place at Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) in 1763, when British troops, led by Marshal Jeffrey Amherst, distributed to the Indians blankets impregnated with the virus.”
So Byung Chul Han is wrong when he says that “The virus will not defeat capitalism. The viral revolution will not happen. No virus is capable of making revolution. The virus isolates and individualizes us. It does not generate any strong collective sentiment. In some way, each cares only for his own survival. The solidarity consisting in keeping mutual distances is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of a different, more peaceful, and just society. We cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus. Let’s hope that after the virus comes a human revolution. It is WE, PEOPLE endowed with REASON, who have to radically rethink and restrict destructive capitalism, and also our unlimited and destructive mobility, to save us, to save the climate and our beautiful planet.”
On the other hand, it was REASON that built «destructive capitalism» through the annulment of the sensible, the emotion, of affections, of the feminine, by a «Dark Reason» that has in its essence an unlimited and destructive mobility. We agree with Alain Touraine, when he says that what is fundamental now is “the collapse of reason at the center of the personality and the recomposition of the affects around reason and communication, a caring society.»
Certainly, the destroyer is not the human being as such but the men of capitalism. Many claim to blame the climate crisis and the coronavirus on humans in particular, thereby leaving the system free of liability. It is heard from many that the human being is a predator by nature and that it is good that the coronavirus kills us because we are potential killers. The neoliberal discourse, which passes on the problem or the triumph to the individual as such, has been accentuated so that the majority of the world population bow their heads and a few individuals take power and «world government», arguing that the human being in himself is dangerous and needs or has to be watched and controlled. With this, the full establishment of the cloister society, which we have explained in our last book entitled with the same name.
Surely, at this point in the reading, our contradictors will be wanting to crumble our theory and they will be saying that smallpox did not kill so many or that this virus was not the one that allowed the conquerors to triumph over the native populations. However, what they cannot deny is that modernity arose after the invasion of Amerindia and from its wealth, without which nothing would have changed from the 1,000 years that Europe already lived in misery.
If you doubt that the virus killed so many people in Amerindia, then, let’s remember what it did in Eurasia, where these viruses produced similar situations of death, suffering, and economic bankruptcy. Since the first outbreaks appeared in the Tigris and Euphrates basins, in Mesopotamia in the 5th century BC, in the first cities that emerged in the world and that concentrated a large population; passing through the Roman empire that between the year 165-180 killed 5 million people; until the 19th century, when in Europe it killed 400,000 people; it is estimated that in this entire 2,500-year period, 300 million people were killed by smallpox. In fact, it was only eradicated in 1980.
According to scientists Màrius Belles, physicist and teacher of Secondary and High School, and Daniel Arbós, biologist and scientific journalist, in his publication “14 ways to destroy humanity” (Next Door Publishers), to date, the most lethal virus has been the ‘Variola virus’ causing smallpox, which has not caused outbreaks so concentrated in time «but its survival over the centuries has catapulted it to be the number one killer, calculating that it has killed 300 million humans, apart from leaving numerous people with marked skin.
On the other hand, scholars from Amerindia have only referred to smallpox and measles, but the black plague also affected indigenous people, as some Europeans carried it, since in the 14th century, that is, 100 years before they reached America, between 75 and 200 million people were affected and died, representing 30 to 50% of the population of Europe. So it is not unreasonable to think that 55 million Amerindians died 500 years ago, that they were susceptible and defenseless to viruses, and not only to smallpox and measles, but also to the plague and other viruses.
What’s more, the third wave of the black plague lasted more than a century (1855-1959) and spread to the five continents, killing more indigenous people and other inhabitants. The pandemic left about 12 million dead across Eurasia, mainly in India. Therefore, if the third plague spread throughout the world and lasted 100 years, it is obvious that it also came to Amerindia 500 years ago with the conquerors, also causing great damage to the original populations.
So, if there were 90% of deaths in Amerindia, this also psychologically decimated those who survived so many different viruses that were eliminated, in addition to the greed virus with which the conquerors arrived. All of which made it easier for them to take away the immense wealth that Amerindia possessed and that after 200 years of affectation of the black plague, they could overcome, leaving Amerindia in misery until today.
Viruses continue to act and eliminate current populations. The peoples of the Amazon, who were colonized a little over 100 years ago, have also been affected by different viruses. All of them brought by civilization and that affected them enormously. If this happens today, how would it have been 500 years ago. Amerindians are very healthy populations that do not carry dangerous viruses and whose contact presents no risk to anyone who contacts them. If smallpox or coronavirus were to reach the current «peoples in voluntary isolation» who live totally remote from civilization, they would be easily annihilated. Contrary to those peoples who have already experienced other epidemics and who are more immune, as is being seen with the asymptomatic with the coronavirus.
In January 2018, the British media outlet «The Guardian» leaked information from the Peruvian Ministry of Health that it had evidence that the Nahua people -one of the peoples in voluntary isolation in that country-, were seriously intoxicated with mercury used by the oil and mining companies that operate in their territory. The Nahua were unable to counteract respiratory infections and half of their population died. These communities went deep into the jungles many years ago, escaping from missionaries, rubber bands or intertribal wars. The Nahua had their first contact with the world of «whites» in the 1980s, resulting in the death of 50% of their population from respiratory diseases and infections that their immune systems could not resist. If it were not for The Guardian, this reality would not be known until now because those in government or the powerful of Peru are not interested in that becoming known. «They are only Indians», for 500 years the story has been the same.
Before and now, indigenous populations are the most vulnerable since Amerindia does not report plagues. Some have claimed that syphilis comes from Amerindia, when it was introduced to Europe in the 15th century by Charles VI’s French troops after their return from fighting in Italy. Thus, Amerindians have not developed antibodies to become immune, as occurred between Europeans and Asians. Even in this aspect, the American Indians and the Africans are in unfavorable conditions of protection against the biological and technological weapons of Eurasia, the ones that built them in the last 3000 years at the cost of much sacrifice by their peoples.
Why have these deadly viruses not developed in Amerindia? Simple: for their community lifestyle, sustainable, sensitive, respectful of other living beings. Just as all the peoples of the world were until before the emergence of patriarchy in Mesopotamia, which created the city system and the overcrowding of the population, giving rise to the first and most deadly virus of all: smallpox.
What the coronavirus teaches us is that we must return to the countryside, to a life complementary to nature. We have to abandon the cities, especially the metropolises, which are the germinators of many ills and where the center of consumerist, predatory, stressful, cloistered life is. In this way, to meet again and in other conditions with Mother Earth, which now thanks to confinement is greening and her own harmony is rediscovered.