Cook book

Illness and the Conquest of the Americas

In his book, Born to Die, Cook explores the role the disease played in the European conquest of the Americas. Cook argues that contrary to the black legend, so popular in colonial times and since, Old World diseases were immensely more successful than Spanish cruelty and atrocities in conquering and subjugating the indigenous peoples of the Americas. .

While not denying that there were atrocities committed by Spaniards, Cook insists that the deaths of so many natives cannot be attributed exclusively to atrocities, as “there were too few Spaniards for killing the millions who would have died” (Cook 9). Cook also points out that indigenous peoples died wherever they came into contact with Europeans, whether Portuguese, English, French or Dutch. The popularity of the Black Death was due, in large part, to what was happening in Europe at the time. It was the period of the Spanish Armada and the Inquisition. Other nations used the black legend to justify taking action against the Spaniards “in Europe or in their overseas territories” (Cook 8).

Cook begins his discussion where first contact was made: the island of Hispaniola. Fifty years after contact, the natives were “virtually extinct” (Cook 16). According to Cook, this extinction of the peoples of the Caribbean “established a pattern that repeated itself over and over again” in the Americas (Cook 16). Cook goes into great detail in later chapters, tracing the spread of disease across the Latin American continent and North America. Many diseases afflicted indigenous peoples who had no immunity to them; smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, bubonic plaque, yellow fever and malaria spread rapidly among indigenous peoples across continents. These epidemics were usually intensified by malnutrition and lack of medicine, and they were most often followed by pestilence, famine and starvation. It derives its evidence regarding disease outbreaks primarily through letters from missionaries and crown officials to the King of Spain.

Cook also refutes the accuracy of the black legend by insisting that the Spaniards did not commit the indiscriminate slaughter of entire native populations. Indeed, it was in the interests of the Spaniards to protect the natives, as they needed the labor of the natives in the fields and mines. Cook argues that the Spaniards took steps to protect the natives. They established quarantines to limit the spread of disease, but rarely succeeded. The Spaniards also established laws to protect the natives from abuse by their employers or overseers, of which the natives took full advantage to seek justice in the Spanish courts. These measures were taken to protect the economic interests of the Spaniards, no doubt, but they were taken, which disproves the fact that the Spaniards were indiscriminately murdering entire populations.

Unlike the Spaniards who tried to prevent the spread of the disease, the English in the New England region of North America deliberately encouraged it. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Puritans of New England deliberately and knowingly gave the native people “blankets infected with the smallpox virus” (Cook 213). Their motivation for these actions was to cleanse the land of people who they believed opposed their establishment of “the city of God on a hill” (Cook 213).

Cook argues that “the natural flow of epidemics followed the normal trade and communication channels between groups of peoples” (Cook 209). This would explain how some communities fell victim to Old World diseases even before they came into contact with Europeans. This would also explain how many communities were not simultaneously affected by diseases, but in many cases it was years later before epidemics appeared among their peoples.

Cook’s most compelling evidence to refute the black legend comes from his assertion that it was not in the best economic interests of the Spaniards to wipe out entire communities of indigenous peoples from the region. The Spaniards needed their labor and, moreover, sincerely desired to convert them to Christianity. The laws passed by the Spaniards to protect the natives from cruelty and exploitation, and the establishment of quarantines, further testify that the black legend is fundamentally false.

Cook offers compelling evidence in support of his rebuttal of the Dark Legend, but the manner in which he presents the evidence is, on the whole, rather rambling and confusing. Its tendency to lump together many different epidemics in different regions and at different times invariably compels the reader to constantly search for the particular time and place.

His writing style is more like a collection of statistics, except for chapter two, which was quite lively and interesting. The reason it is more interesting is that Cook provides personal information about the responses of the natives (e.g. fleeing to escape infection) and the effects of epidemics (e.g. the power struggle between Atahualpa and his brother Huascar after the former Inca ruler succumbed to illness).
Although the text is dry and difficult to follow, it is very beneficial in disproving the common belief of the black legend. Although I have long known that disease played a role in the conquest of the Americas, I also believed that the black legend was the main factor that brought about the conquest (this belief was so strong that my personal name for Columbus Day is Mass Murder Day). While I continue to believe that European cruelties were excessive, I now see that disease, spread by plague and malnutrition, was the cause of the majority of deaths in the Americas.

Cook, Noble David. Born to Die: Illness and Conquest of the New World, 1492-1650. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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