Singing and Writing Plagues


The blankets they give the Indians only make them die -From “Antonio’s Song” by Michael Franks


Hidden in the cool, breezy, and languid jazz of Michael Franks’ bossa nova are the sad lessons of colonization and mass murder. The Europeans came to the New World; they brought with them new faiths, new politics and new viruses.

It was called “the Columbian Exchange,” referring to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas and “the exchange of diseases, ideas, food, crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World,” to borrow the words of Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian.

In their paper, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Volume 24, Number 2—Spring 2010) of Harvard, we learn about other sides of conquest and colonization. To be fair to the narrative, historian of economics would point out that colonization was not pure evil intention. For Nunn and Quian, the Columbian Exchange brought gains and losses: “European contact enabled the transmission of diseases to previously isolated communities, which caused devastation far exceeding that of even the Black Death in in fourteenth-century Europe. Europeans brought deadly viruses and bacteria, such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and cholera.” Unfortunately, the Native Americans, as histories would show, possessed no immunity against the new diseases.

The same paper would underscore the exchange trait in this point of history: “On their return home, European sailors brought syphilis to Europe.” We do not know how accurate the depiction of this exchange but syphilis would be the scourge that would alter the social fabric of Europe.

As this investigation would also prove, color-coding is not this century’s discovery. As early as the 1400s, diseases and plagues were already given tones and hues. The “Black Death” referred to is the recently resurrected “bubonic plague,” an affliction caused by infected fleas attacking small animals like the rodents.

The Columbian Exchange, by hindsight, does not look harmful anymore perhaps. But consider this: before the coming of the Europeans, Native Americans lived in an environment where there was no flu, no cholera, no typhus, no malaria, among the many other diseases that became the features of the health and sanitation landscape in the New World. Take note also that the same diseases would form the list of dreaded contagion identified with the underdeveloped world.

There was also the matter of depopulation. Quoting other sources, Nunn and Quian would write how it was estimated that more than 80–95 percent of the Native American population was wiped out within the first 100–150 years following the arrival of the Europeans in 1492. It was also documented that some fifty years following contact with Columbus and his crew, the native Taino population of the island of Hispanola (Hispaniola) – presently found in the Caribbean and part of the Greater Antilles – which had an estimated population between 60,000 and 8 million, was virtually extinct. Even Central Mexico’s population went down from under 15 million in 1519 to about 1.5 million a century later, to cite an example.

If there was Columbian Exchange, was there also a Magellanic Exchange?

Abuses of colonizers have formed the staple historical news from states conquered and dominated by outside forces. Depopulation, however, remains a vague area of specialization, with the theme viewed as less exciting than the battles involving arms and ideas. But when depopulation is talked about between the Americas and the other areas, it is usually about the level of immunity the natives have formed in relation to the invading bodies.

In a book, “Conquest and Pestilence in the Early Spanish Philippines,” written by Linda A. Newson, the author mentions Southeast Asia as part of the Eurasian disease pool. This means that as trading between Southeast Asian territories increased, Old World diseases spread to the neighboring countries. In the process, the Southeast Asian region and its inhabitants, including the Philippines, managed to develop immunity to some of these contagions.

As Newson puts it, “the lower level of depopulation in the early colonial Philippines compared to the Americas is often attributed to the its populations having acquired some immunity to Old World diseases, such as smallpox and measles, prior to Spanish arrival.”

Population density is also one of the factors to which is attributed the diminished spread of diseases like cholera and dysentery in pre- and Spanish Philippines. The fact that there are more than 7,000 islands in the archipelago makes the transmission of contamination difficult.

The level of development also had an impact on the spread of germs and viruses. In Newson’s study, it appears that water-borne enteric diseases like dysentery and typhoid fever came with the onset of agriculture and must have been present already in the region long before the arrival of the Spanish.

Newson also suggests that the presence of the words for worm infestations and severe diarrhea in early colonial Bikol, Visayan, Tagalog, and Ilokano dictionaries indicate their prevalence. There are also data that could help us understand what is happening now in our cities in the book, “Conquest and Pestilence in Early Spanish Philippines.” There was the dispersed settlement pattern in early Philippine societies that would have “limited the build-up of refuse and hence the contamination of food and water.” In the same book it says: “The Filipino habit of frequent washing would also have created more hygienic conditions that discouraged the spread of some infections.”

History can make odd events familiar. On June 28, 1913, Dr. A.P Goff, chief of San Lazaro Hospital Division and President of the Board of Medical Examiners for the Philippine Islands, reported of the return of bubonic plague to Manila after six years in 1912. The account of the American doctor sounds familiar even more now: “The way in which the disease entered Manila is not known certainly, but as there had been a good deal of plague in China for some time before June 1912, it is presumed that an infected rat came ashore from some boat from the mainland.”

History can indeed plague the present. And gifts as well as good intentions kill.