Did the Spaniards of 1540 understand biological warfare? The use of attack dogs, who often wore their own suit of armor, is documented (la monteria infernal, or the hellish hunt, was the conquistadors’ sport of siccing Mastiffs on Native men, women, and children). But did they perceive how extensively European disease would decimate the Indian population?
From 1519 to about 1920, the continent of North America suffered a cataclismic loss of human life via the variola virus. It has been estimated that three-and-a-half million Aztec (Nahua Indians) died, along with countless other Native Americans.
Initially, smallpox symptoms include fever and aches that last from two to four days. The most contagious period follows, during which time a rash emerges in the mouth. These sores break open and spread down the throat. The rash moves across the face and extremities, but its distribution is not confined to those areas. As the red spots grow, the bumps fill with opaque liquid with a center depression (characteristic of smallpox). Some forms are more severe than others, (variola major, variola minor) but every form is agonizing, scarring, and can be fatal.
It has been suggested that officials in the USA government purposely ordered its army to distribute blankets infested with the smallpox virus to Indians. As frequently as this theory emerges, it has never been proven. The evidence we do have, however, does appear to abet the crime.
Generally speaking, smallpox is transmitted by prolonged contact from one person to another — although it can be spread by contaminated objects. Armed with that information, as always I encourage further investigation so that your opinion is evenly based (I suggest you begin with the Siege of Fort Pitt, and Pontiac’s War).
More Lethal than a Bullet
Germ warfare has a lengthy history that goes back to antiquity. Almost as soon as the first recorded word, we learn of parasitic fungus being dumped into drinking water systems. Poisoned arrows and spear tips are other obvious culprits. And if those aren’t bad enough, it gets worse.
In the Middle Ages, victims of bubonic plague were turned into weapons as their infected corpses and excrement were catapulted over castle walls. Although the mess splattered its vile sickness across stone floors, one thing is clear. The ingenuity to create weapons of mass destruction is as old as the caveman’s culling of fire.
Are You Smarter than a Conquistador?
While Spanish conquistadors did furnish the New World with an ample supply of variola virus, its spread was unlikely premeditated. On the other hand, while Mastiffs, as all animals are immune from smallpox, both dog and disease were able to be and often were lethal.
“Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs.” Jonathan Edwards, American theologian involved in the First Great Awakening, 1703 – 1758, cause of death: smallpox