What Defeated the Mexica?

Posted on May 5, 2013


History of Aboriginal America 14.

Disease and the conquest of the Americas, pt. 1

When Cortés entered Tenochtitlan in 1521 with his 200,000 Aboriginal allies, he made acquaintance with the true conqueror of Mexico along that great city’s causeways.  He did not salute it.

smallpoxBodies lay along all the causeways in great piles, killed by a smallpox epidemic which had struck just before Cortés arrived.  The epidemic had laid low Tenochtitlan’s leader and had already reduced its population by a third.  Surprisingly, given the scale of the calamity which they were already experiencing—which might have pushed a less courageous people to a state of despairing indifference—along with the inevitable gaps in their command structure stemming from losing so many people so quickly, the city made a powerful defense.  Some estimates place the casualties of that slow, grinding destructive battle at 100,000 people.

In Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, historian Thomas Cahill suggests alternatively that Mexico fell victim to the rationality of the Spaniards, a rationality ultimately bestowed to them through the cultural heritage of the Ancient Greeks.  The evidence belies that idea (and the appropriateness of Cortés—whose education ended at age 16—standing in for Greco-European rationalism is unlikely in itself.)  Looking at the actual circumstances existing in Tenochtitlan in 1521 suggests that without “General Smallpox,” Cortés would have been routed.

And Cortés is far from the only Conquistador to benefit from the assistance of disease.  The Inka were ravaged and divided by plague before the Spanish had even encountered them (perhaps the same plague that brought down the Mexica.)  In fact, over and over again, the same story was told.  Plague entered a community and left it disorganized and divided, and the Spanish moved in to conquer the remnants, exploiting the depopulation, demoralization and division which disease had already wrought.

That story did not only benefit the Spanish.  When the Pilgrims landed in New England they were attempting to settle a territory which had been thickly populated by people only a few years before.  The Puritan’s first settlement was in fact on the site of the deserted village of Patuxet, a Wampanoag settlement which had only one known survivor, Tisquantum (a.k.a. “Squanto”), who’d been kidnapped and enslaved by Europeans and consequently was away when a still-unidentified plague had wiped out his people.  The pathetic half-starving Mayflower settlement was permitted to survive by the sachem Massasoit, the local ruler, who likely decided that he needed new allies given that the plague which had killed the vast majority of his people, the Wampanoag, had also left his inland neighbours and political rivals, the Narragansett, intact.  Thus plague permitted the Pilgrims to gain a foothold where many previous attempts at settlement in the Americas had failed.

How many Aboriginal people died from the introduced diseases?  That’s a question which relates to how many people were in the Americas in the first place, and that topic has been a matter of controversy for a long time, with undercounting scholars like Alfred Kroeber dominating the answer to that question at the beginning, while providing some the most notoriously low estimates.  However, modern scholarship has started to take into account the toll that diseases can take when attacking a population which has never encountered it before, called ‘virgin soil’ epidemics.  The Black Death was such a disease and it killed off a third of Europe in just a few years in the middle of the 14th century.

The Europeans brought to the Americas a whole squadron of diseases that the people of the Americas had never encountered before:  smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, influenza, cholera, typhus, typhoid, the bubonic plague, and even the common cold.  The worst of these ran through populations one on top of another, smallpox being the most destructive, shrinking the numbers with each pass.  Quite often the diseases ran ahead of the Europeans, devastating and destroying societies which Europeans had never seen—and, in some cases, because of the destruction was often so utter, would never see.

Berkeley researchers Sherburne F. Cook and Woodrow W. Borah researched the population collapse in central Mexico following the incursion of the Spanish.  Before the European arrival, they concluded, there were 25.2 million people living in the central Mexican plateau.  By 1523, 105 years after Cortés landed, there were only 700 thousand.  That’s a population contraction of at least 97%.

population loss chart central mexico

What would such a population loss be like?  Imagine a group of friends, colleagues, relatives—all the people who you deem as the most important to your life—70 in all including yourself, and think of what it would feel like if one after another smallpox, bubonic plague, typhus, cholera, etc., swept through your group.  Pick and choose.  Throw the dice to see what plague happens next.  And at the end, once the diseases have come and gone and come again and all is done, there remains only you and one other.  Everyone else is dead.

Imagine a comparable fate happening to everyone you and see and know, and have ever seen and known.

Now sit down at table with your remaining friend or relative and discuss, perhaps—irony being one of things still left to you—the role of Greek rationality (or European arms, or horses, or wheels, or Christianity) in bringing about your defeat.


See , Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Vintage Books, NY, 2006.