Measles and Small Pox as an Allied Army of the Conquistadors of America


Translated by Theresa M. Betz


The year was 1520. Cortes had already entered the capital
of the Aztec empire and imprisoned Moctezuma when he received
notice of the arrival of Narvaez at the port of Veracruz, with
express orders to apprehend him.

Cortes left for Veracruz accompanied by a few men and
soundly defeated Narvaez in just a few hours. When he returned
victorious to Tenochtitlan, he discovered that the Aztecs were
readied for combat. Pedro de Alvarado, who had stayed behind in
Mexico as commander-in-chief during Cortes's absence, had
uncovered a secret insurrection under the guise of a fiesta and
proceeded to massacre women, old people, and warriors dressed in
festive costume, as well as a large number of children in the
streets of the great city.

The massacre infuriated the Aztecs, who could not retaliate
because the Spaniards held their ruler Moctezuma prisoner.
Nevertheless, Hernan Cortes never imagined that the "Noche
Triste" was fast approaching, a night during which he would
suffer his greatest defeat and find his army on the verge of
extermination. But a natural element turned out to be Cortes's
principal deadly weapon, an element that was much more effective
than his cannons, horses, and crossbows. Smallpox and measles
epidemics joined the conquering army and laid waste to the great
Aztec empire.

Some historians think these diseases were not endemic to the
Aztec world and therefore Aztec doctors did not know of any type
of treatment, so the epidemics spread rapidly throughout the
Americas. The first data offered by the chroniclers situate
these illnesses--at least in respect to the continent--in the
capital of the great empire, Tenochtitlan.

In the darkness of the "Noche Triste," while Cortes wept
beneath the historic tree, the Aztecs gathered bodies by the
thousands which were scattered through forests and over plains.
They had won their first great victory over the powerful
invaders, but the apocalyptic panorama, so costly in lives,
allowed for no type of celebration. There were many Spanish
soldiers among the thousands of warriors fallen in battle. There
was also a man who was neither Aztec nor Spanish, a person who
passed into history name unknown and who was nonetheless perhaps
one of the most powerful forces that helped secure the conquest
of the New World, even though he himself never knew it.

The Aztec warriors had abandoned their weapons, had even
decided not to pursue Cortes's very decimated army, in order to
recover their dead, but there were still more surprises in store
for them. In the darkness of the late afternoon, a warrior
discovered a strange being who was dying. His black skin was a
rarity as unknown to the Aztecs as the very whiteness of the
Spaniards. The black man had been brought by Narvaez, probably
from Cuba or Haiti, and was on the brink of death, not from
battle wounds but from the virulence of an illness that caused
bleeding from the nose, much coughing, inflammation of the throat
and nose, and small and large ulcers all over his body.

The Aztec warrior who found him spread the news about the
existence of that strange being, and it is surmised that many
curious people came to see with their own eyes the color of that
strange skin. That nameless black man unintentionally
contributed one of the greatest weapons of the conquistadors, and
in a short time the Aztec capital and surrounding areas were
suffering the rigors of a great epidemic. Thus was their
situation when Cortes and his soldiers had recovered from their
wounds and prepared the counterattack, helped by the
Tlaxcaltecas.

The chronicles of Columbus already speak of various
contagious communities afflicted by smallpox in 1507, in the
recently discovered islands and later in Haiti in 1517, which
makes credible the hypothesis of the black man as transmitter of
the disease.

Five years later, smallpox was also wreaking havoc among the
Incas in what is now Peru and Ecuador, although it has not been
possible to determine if the contagious disease came from the
Aztec world or if it was brought by people who traveled with
Pizarro. Some chronicle note that in 1525, when the Extremenian
conquistador was making a trip through those lands, he found the
village of Tumluz half destroyed, "because of a great pestilence
that happened to them." The hypotheses point with greater
insistence toward the possibility that the illness came from
Mexico, since it is known that over the course of those five
years the epidemics destroyed the Mayas and Guatemaltecos,
implying a shifting towards the south that could well have
reached the Incas by means of traders.

There are some researchers who affirm that it wasn't
smallpox that devastated the Aztec people but measles, and they
support their theories with the Memorial de Tecpan Atitlan, which
explains the symptoms of the sickness that produced the epidemic.
These researchers affirm that the nasal hemorrhage, angina, and
bronchial pneumonia can be complications of smallpox, but the
symptoms don't form an obligatory part of the clinical picture,
as in the case of measles.

With respect to the chroniclers' continuous mentions of
smallpox, the same researchers referred to above say that the
chroniclers, when speaking about epidemics of smallpox, were
referring to the illness with a generic name, lacking medical
knowledge. Another of their arguments, though perhaps weaker, is
that in a great smallpox epidemic the survivors are left marked
on the skin, and often blind, but no chronicler nor indigenous
codex tells of groups of people with scarred skin or who were
blind. This makes one think that the survivors of the epidemics
survived measles and not smallpox. To end this series of
arguments, it can be added that in 1532 Pedro de Alvarado sent a
letter to Carlos V, dated September 1st, in which he says: "In
all of New Spain there came a pestilence over the natives that
they call measles."

Archaeological specimens dating from before the conquest
have been found with human figures that show traces on the
figures' faces of something similar to the pits left by smallpox,
although these sculptural testimonies don't show anything
concrete either. It is known that in pre-Cortes America there
was an illness that caused swelling and inflammation on the body
and face, and that even some Spaniards caught the disease, but it
hasn't been proven that that illness left pock marks, though some
speculate that the marks on these figures represent that
mysterious disease.

At any rate, we can't reject the possibility that smallpox
might have been known in America and that it cyclically caused
damage. What is certain is that measles was unknown, but the
Aztecs must have suffered epidemics of one or the other
illnesses. Thus the discussion comes down to which illness the
Aztecs were suffering from when they were defeated by Cortes and
his allies. That it might have been either smallpox or measles
is pecata minuta, compared with the results it produced in favor
of the fistful of men that dared to confront the great Aztec
empire.

When Cortes and his men regained their strength and
reorganized their army, they constructed ships in order to attack
the capital of the New World from the great lake Texcoco. This
attack was a determining factor in the definitive victory and
capture of the sacred city and the other allied capitals that
formed the "One World." The small work boats of the Indians and
their fragile war canoes were easily sunk by the Spanish ships
and the cities were cruelly bombarded until they were destroyed,
due to the refusal of the Aztecs to surrender.

The Aztecs, victims of panic, confronted the cannon balls
with their lances and arrows, while afflicted with nasal
hemorrhages, angina, inflammation of the throat, and small ulcers
on their faces that had already begun to enlarge. Though it is
certain that the true conquest was yet to take place after the
capital was seized, it can't be denied that these epidemics were
an important ally to the army of the conquerors of America.

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