NEW WORLD DEFENDERS 1492: Exploring a Disease Free World

22D-Image Inca Army

Timothy RJ Eveland


Exploring a Disease Free World

If diseases like smallpox did not exist during the Columbian Exchange in 1494 CE, would there have been an indigenous state in South America powerful enough to defend the New World against Europeans? Before I attempt to answer this question, this paper will explore key conflicts in South and Central America from 1460 to 1700 CE. Because, after all, how can someone say which side could have won if they do not know general details about the American conflicts that happened between 1492 and 1700 CE?

Before the arrival of Columbus in 1492, half of the land in the New World was still populated by hunting and gathering communities (Bellwood, 2005). Only the South and Central Americas, California and below, were where most agricultural civilizations prevailed (Bellwood, 2005). Before Columbus arrived, two great empires, the Incas and the Aztecs, already ruled much of the Americas. The Aztecs ruled in Central America while the Incas ruled in South America near modern day Peru. Around the year 1460, the Incas conquered Huamanga, a community in modern day Columbia (Stern, 1993). South of Huamanga, however, the Incas faced violent resistance as they tried to conquer the Sora and Lucana peoples (Stern, 1993). Wars between Incas and smaller indigenous groups continued to occur in the Columbia region even after Columbus arrived in 1492 (Fernandez-Armesto, 2006).

On January 2, 1494, Columbus founded Le Isabela, the very first Spanish community in the New World, which was located on the island of Hispaniola in Central America (Mann, 2011). Columbus sailed away from Hispaniola on April 24, 1494 and left behind four hundred miners that, due to lack of food, kidnapped three ships and fled back to Spain (Mann, 2011). However, Le Isabela was still slightly populated by Spaniards and, in order to feed themselves, its settlers took to raiding Tiano storehouses which ultimately led to violent conflict between European Le Isabela settlers and the surrounding Tiano population (Mann, 2011). Columbus, after five months at sea, returned to Le Isabela and aided its settlers in the conflict (Mann, 2011). Hispaniola once had an estimated population of 60,000 to 8 million Tiano peoples; however, 50 years after Le Isabela was founded, the Tiano peoples became virtually extinct due to violence and disease (Nunn and Qian, 2010).

Once Hispaniola was conquered, the Spanish eventually moved to the South Americas where they encountered conflicts with the Inca empire (Stern, 1993). Since the Incas already had many enemies in the area, Spain strategically allied with Inca’s enemies in order to ultimately defeat the Inca empire (Stern, 1993). “…in 1532, … 168 conquistadors … swiftly defeated and captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa” (Stern, 1993). However, after Inca’s demise, neo-Incas in the Peru region continued to resist Spanish expansion and made the years from 1500 to 1560 very difficult for the Spaniards to expand (Stern, 1993).

During this time frame, separate cultural groups like Huamanga’s peoples had originally allied with the Spaniards in order to avoid being dominated by the expanding Inca and Aztec empires (Stern, 1993). By 1560, however, Spanish rule had forced the people of Huamanga to work under conditions similar as to when they worked for the Incan Emperor (Stern, 1993). Therefore, the people of Huamanga no longer sought to work with the Spaniards and once again allied with the neo-Incas (Stern, 1993). This reunification of native alliances was also caused by a wave of spiritual propaganda (Stern, 1993). To quote Steve J. Stern, author of Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest, “…events in the 1560s created a critical juncture of disillusion, resistance, and reassessment in once cooperative native societies” (1993).

All over South America, indigenous groups that once cooperated with the Spaniards started to show discontent towards the Spanish (Stern, 1993). In the 1560s, Christianized natives violently revolted and lapsed back into idolatry (Stern, 1993). Native groups that once fought each other for years had allied together to resist Spanish rule (Stern, 1993). This was mostly the result of work done by a community of natives known as the taquiongos (Stern, 1993). The taquiongos systematically warned the native societies of South America about a pan-Andean alliance of deities that would defeat the Christian god (Stern, 1993). Thousands of active participants in the Huamanga region rose up to support the taquiongos’ message (Stern, 1993). The taquiongos preached that the new diseases natives were facing were caused by angered deities who wanted to punish them for helping the Spanish (Stern, 1993). The rapid reawakening of idolatry threatened Spanish rule in the Peru region to the point where Spanish officials inaugurated an anti-idolatry campaign which lasted for three years and condemned about 8,000 natives (Stern, 1993). Over all, by the end of the 1560s, the idolatry awakening had ended (Stern, 1993). Even though some natives continued to revolt, the Hispanic-Catholic society dominated the Andean-pagan society in South America by a combination of politics, warfare, religion, and disease (Stern, 1993).

Now we know the key conflicts that inevitably brought the demise of complex native society in South America. But in order to answer whether or not natives could have defended the New World against foreign conquerors if disease did not play a role, we have to first know the extent of disease’s role in depopulating the Americas as well. The years 1460-1700 saw much death. We know that many people were killed by violent conflict, but did the spread of disease play the biggest role in this catastrophe? Nunn and Qian explain, “The uncertainty surrounding the exact magnitude of the depopulation of the Americas arises because we don’t know the extent to which disease may have depopulated the regions beyond the initial point of contact before literate European observers made physical contact with these populations” (2010). In other words, it is hard to say how many people actually died from disease. But after the 1560s, something more than violence was obviously taking its toll on native populations. For example, “Central Mexico’s population fell from just under 15 million in 1519 to approximately 1.5 million a century later” (Nunn and Qian, 2010). Could the Spanish really have killed that many people themselves? It is unlikely that the Spanish killed that many people because many communities were cooperatively providing labour for the Spanish and so there would be no reason to do so (Stern, 1993). Even if the Spanish did want to eliminate the entire native population, the staggering amount of native deaths that occurred, in a disease free world, would have been a difficult challenge for the smaller Spanish armies to accomplish. Therefore, it is safe to say that disease at least made it easier for Spanish troops to manipulate and conquer native complex societies.

To create your own opinion, take a look at this quote from Nunn and Qian and then ask yourself if the conquistadors could have defeated the neo-Incas by steel and politics alone: “It is estimated that upwards of 80–95 percent of the Native American population was decimated within the first 100–150 years following 1492” (2010).

With that said, I will also point out the fact that we can only guess whether or not the Incas could have defeated the Spanish in a disease free world; we cannot actually know it for sure. So since it is impossible to say whether or not the Spanish, without disease, could have conquered the natives to the extent to which they did, it is also impossible to say whether or not the natives, without disease to hinder them, could have banded together to overthrow the Spanish over time.

We may not be able to say for sure what the different outcome would have been in a disease free world, but the historical conflicts we broadly touched on earlier can lead us to create conclusions and opinions of what could have happened. Natives that lapsed back into idolatry during the 1560s could have generated a remarkable following if only disease did not wipe out whole populations. The Native Americans overwhelmingly outnumbered the Spanish in the 1560s and so if disease did not play its role they could have had the time to organize more thoroughly and raise armies to defend their shores against European reinforcements. Without disease, Spain would have needed to govern or fight a lot more in order to conquer the Americas to the same extent to which they did. Furthermore, neo-Aztecs and neo-Incas, if they still had populations of over ten million in the 1600s, could have allied together if they wished ti do so. Indeed, if tables had turned due to outnumbered Spaniards, Native Americans could have even used their seafaring abilities to channel the Pacific islands to reach Indonesia and Asia, or sail the Atlantic to get their revenge on Spain.

However, this is not nor may never be a disease free world. Europe never has to worry about an Incan invasion. Nor does China need to worry about Aztecs sailing across the sea to conquer Asian shores because history has already been written. But with that said, it is also factual to say that history would have been a lot different if native populations were already immune to Old World diseases, though no one can say for sure what the outcome would have been. Whether or not South America could have been defended properly without disease is a question of chance and opinion. What do you think? I think the important thing is to at least know our history. Our facts about past times may be altered and blurry, but, out of respect and desire for knowledge, I will never forget the New World defenders.

Work Cited

Bellwood, Peter. First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Society. Malden, USA: Blackwell,


Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. The Americas: A Hemispheric History. New York: Modern Library,


Mann, Charles. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. New York: Knopf, 2011

Nunn, Nathan and Nancy Qian. “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and

Ideas.” Journal of Economic Perspectives (2010): 163–188.

Stern, Steve J.  Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest. London: The

University of Wisconsin Press, 1982, 1993


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