In 1492 Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage to the Americas which bought him fame and wealth, but death and disease to the natives. It also changed the Americas forever: they bought new plants and animals which created an ecological convulsion. In his new book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann writes about the destruction caused by the Columbian exchange. Listen to the interview on Public Radio in which he explains how it led to slavery (bringing in Africans who had immunity to malaria), ecological damage (by earth worms from ship’s ballast) and how Chinese slaves ended in Peru (due to bird droppings).
“All of the great diseases from smallpox to measles to influenza … [did not] exist in the Americas because they didn’t have any domesticated animals,” says Mann. “When the Europeans came over, it was as if all the deaths over the millennium caused by these diseases were compressed into 150 years in the Americas. The result was to wipe out between two-thirds and 90 percent of the people in the Americas. It was the worst demographic disaster in history.”
Early accounts and diaries mentioned the epidemics in their accounts of life in the 1500s and 1600s. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that modern historians realized the scale of the human death toll in the years following Columbus’ landing, says Mann.
“When you start adding up everything that we know, it becomes apparent that there was just an enormous catastrophe that took place,” says Mann. “These diseases exploded like chains of firecrackers across the landscape.”[In ‘1493,’ Columbus Shaped A World To Be]