The COVID-AM blog is a partnership between the UMI 3157 iGLOBES and the Institut des Amériques, coordinated by François-Michel Le Tourneau, Deputy Director and Marion Magnan, researcher at the Institute. About the blog.


October 1, 2020

by Felipe Castro Gutiérrez, historian at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) 

and Guillaume Gaudin, Professor in history at the Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès (Framespa, UMR 5136) and representative of the Southwest branch of the Institut des Amériques.


 "God struck and punished this land, and those who lived there..." 

The desolation left behind by epidemics generates misery and suffering, but also leads to surprising economic and social changes.The typical example is the role of the Black Death at the end of the feudal system and the development of capitalism. In the New World, after 1492, they had major consequences with the quasi-disappearance of institutions, and the creation of new types of social relationships.

Conquistadors and tamames (indigenous porters) in the Codex Azcatitlan, 16th century, Bibliothèque nationale de France. (source Wikicommons)
Conquistadors and tamames (indigenous porters) in the Codex Azcatitlan, 16th century, Bibliothèque nationale de France. (source Wikicommons)

Historians were less interested in the cultural effects - on feelings, emotions, fears and anxieties caused by the bacterial and viral disasters. Though the situations are different between the various societies and the different centuries, continuities and similarities can be observed. Fear of the unknown illness, terror of an infection that can be everywhere, a breach in solidarities, distrust of strangers, doubts on the authorities' contradictory explanations, the advent of measures limiting freedom, use of therapeutic procedures considered pointless by science, worrying about a future previously thought to be known and predictable, cross all ages.


Of course, comparing the epidemics that hit New Spain in the 16th century with the Covid-19 pandemic has its limits: Mexico is currently going through a major and lasting crisis as other countries in Latin America, and the 16th century consists in an unprecedented rift in humanity's history. This article does however want to call to mind that epidemics brought by the Spaniards and their consequences constitute the matrix, or rather the ruins, on which was then shaped the new society.



The devastating effects of measles (source Wikicommons)
The devastating effects of measles (source Wikicommons)

The impact of the Spanish conquest of the Americas is in general considered as an arrival into "modernity". For the past twenty years, historians such as Serge Gruzinski interpret this event as the start of connections between all countries of the world and the first globalization. Even more recently, geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin proposed starting the Anthropocene with the Conquista. As a matter of fact, they have observed that the demographic collapse of the American continent is visible at the global level: the death of millions of inhabitants led to reforestation which made the rate of carbon in the atmosphere fall!


After a lot of research, specialists concede that the microbial impact was considerable, probably the deadliest in all of humanity's history: 90% of the indigenous population would have died. Mexico probably had 10 to 15 million people in 1519, and only 1 million in 1650. Smallpox arrived with the first expeditions (1519-1520), followed by measles (the "tepitonzahuatl") in 1531. The "cocoliztle", a hemorrhagic fever, had devastating effects in 1545 and again in 1576-1581, and spread to Guatemala and all the way to Peru. In 1596, at the century's end, a mix of measles, "tabardillo" (again typhus?) and mumps beat down on the region.




The texts of that time relate the devastating effects of the epidemics. Fray Toribio de Motolinía wrote "God struck and punished this land, and those who lived there...And in many places, it could be that the whole household died; and since we could not bury all the dead, in order to remedy the bad smells that came from the corpses, we demolished the house on top of them, and so their home became their tomb." Though we are not quite there, scenes seen in Guayaquil this Spring give a strange realism to this text.


The "geographic relationships" (a huge questionnaire on the state of the Latin-American territories) requested by Philippe II around 1580 also shows an apocalyptic panorama. The corregidor de Pinzándaro mentions the huge mortality rate, "to such an extent that the villages are empty, that the crops have been left unattended, and the cattle left in the fields without owners, which was really troubling."


Furthermore, epidemics were unpredictable, which increases anxiety for those who don't know whether they will be affected. Some besiege the plateau's temperate lands, but sometimes they strike hotter climate valley villages, like the coronavirus, which for a time we thought would spontaneously disappear in warmer climates before realizing this was not the case. The fact that Native people are affected disproportionately is evident to all, but no one understands the immunity mecanisms that are currently considered as responsable for these phenomena. Though we were able to identity more quickly the causes of "co-morbidity", Covid-19 similarly brings us to look into the segments of the population who are the most impacted, the apparent immunity of most children, etc.


Faced with the doubts and indecisions of the authorities, people try to explain the incomprehensible. In many cases, you just need to accept that divine plans are mysterious to mankind. Resignation and confession of mistakes are quite appreciated by the Franciscans. Mendieta states that the Natives accept the plague because of their own sins; and the good friar goes further to say that death is not a punishment for Natives, but divine grace because it takes them out of a bad and dangerous world, so they need not despair or doubt their faith...


These accounts are, of course, broadcasted by those who speak for the indigenous population. Other clues show that other attitudes could indicate the real spirit of the indigenous populations. The corregidor de Tiripetío, for example, mentions that "[the Natives], because they don't work, are letting themselves die of hunger; because they say that from this pestilence no one must be left; and they don't want to leave anything for the Spaniards to enjoy since they will not profit from it themselves..." One wonders whether the current reactions against the authorities were not also already present in those days, but not reported by the correspondants, all of them Spaniards.



Taqui Onqoy ("dancing sickness") (source Wikicommons)
Taqui Onqoy ("dancing sickness") (source Wikicommons)

Mendieta's previous comment is perhaps based on theological hypotheses, but his conclusion is quite accurate. In fact, when he says that the way in which the drastic decrease in the indigenous population seriously harmed the Spaniards themselves, he pointed out a truth. At the end of the 16th century, the epidemics were the reason for the demise of the conquistaors' feudal utopies, the decline of the encomienda, of the indigenous nobility and the pueblos' retreat to self-sufficiency.


The more noticeable effects were well estimated in those days. A corregidor mentions the high mortality rate, "to such an extent that the villages are empty, that the crops have been left unattended, and the cattle left in the fields without owners, which was really troubling." Others are less evident. For the local populations, their life force was broken (the "net torn", an expression from the Mexicas), and the social, economic and mental structures with it. To paraphrase the title of anthropologist Anna Tsing's recent book, chances of survival in the ruins of the conquest were thin: in the interstices of colonial society, founded on profound inequalities and on the exploitation of an indigenous workforce, survivors were able to navigate complex and changing paths and behaviors, what social sciences call agency. It was not a clean slate, but rather makeshift, adjustments for which the biological and cultural intermixtures are witnesses by example.


Of note, the authorities and the populations of 16th century Mexico were globally helpless before this series of "pestilences": the colonial brutalities of war, the forced displacements and deportations and the over-exploitation of the workforce considerably weakened the social body and structures, but then they knew nothing about viruses and how to protect themselves from them. So they looked for answers in religion, especially in the prophecies for the numerous disasters needed to be understood (the rapid invasion of the Spaniards who were not affected by the diseases, their seizing of lands, etc.) and search for a ray of hope. Nathan Wachtel's latest book, Paradis du Nouveau Monde, provides several examples: far in time such as the Taqui Onqoy ("dancing sickness") in the Andes in the 16th century, a "sect" whose preachers declared that the huaca (ancient divinities) defeated during the conquest would ressuscitate and exact vengeance; others closer such as the Ghost Dance, a messianic and prophetic movement calling for a revival of traditional customs and ceremonies and that is expressed with community dancing among the Cherokees and the Sioux. This "Dance of the Spirits" reminds us that the 1492 microbial impact is still on-going in the 19th and 20th centuries.


Contemporary societies seem to be a bit better armed to understand how the Coronavirus works and how to create solutions to contain the pandemic. However, many elements of the current situation echo the deadly epidemics of the past for which the Americas paid a heavy price. And existential questions, which have loomed in many countries because of the pandemic, also remind us of the ontological break that pre-Columbian societies experienced when they were faced with their potential extinction because of illnesses they knew nothing about.

Citations and references have been taken from the following books:

  • Acuña, René (ed.) Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI: Michoacán, México, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1987.
  • Lewis, Simon L. et Maslin, Mark A., The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018.
  • Mendieta, Gerónimo de, Historia eclesiástica indiana, Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 1999.
  • Motolinía, fray Toribio de, Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España, 7a ed., México, Porrúa, 2001.
  • Percheron, Nicole, “Colonización española y despoblación de las comunidades indígenas”, en Th. Calvo y G. López (coord.), Movimientos de población en el occidente de México, México, Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos – El Colegio de Michoacán, 1988, p. 147-148.
  • Wachtel, Nathan, Paradis du Nouveau Monde, Paris, Fayard, 2019.

For further reading:

  • Bernand, Carmen, Histoire des peuples d’Amérique, Paris, Fayard, 2019, interview with the author.
  • Boumediene Samir, La colonisation du savoir: une histoire des plantes médicinales du « Nouveau Monde » (1492-1750), Vaulx-en-Velin, Les éditions des mondes à faire, 2016.
  • Cook, Noble David, Born to die. Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998
  • Crosby, Alfred, The Columbian Exchange. Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Wesport, Londres, Praeger, 2003 [1972]. [A short interview with A. Crosby].
  • Denevan, William M. The Native population of the Americas in 1492, Madison, Londres, University of Wisconsin press, 1976.
  • Gruzinski Serge, Les quatre parties du monde : histoire d’une mondialisation, Paris, Éd. de la Martinière, 2004.
  • Malvido, Elsa y Carlos Viesca, “La epidemia de cocoliztli de 1576”, Historias, núm. 11, 1985.
  • Mann, Chales C., 1493. Comment la découverte de l’Amérique a transformé le monde, Paris, Albin Michel, 2013.

Felipe Castro Gutiérrez is a Historian at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He has worked on the ethnohistory and social history of colonial Mexico. He is the editor of the book Los oficios en las sociedades indianas (UNAM, 2020).


Guillaume Gaudin is a Professor in history at the Université Toulouse Jean-Jaurès (Framespa, UMR 5136) and representative of the Southwest branch of the Institut des Amériques. He recently co-edited "Que aya virrey en aquel reyno". Vencer la distancia en el imperio español (Polifemo, 2020) and manages the blog "Sucesos de Filipinas" and the research project "Vencer la distancia. Actores y prácticas del gobierno de los imperios español y portugués".