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Smallpox, salmonella and sacrifice

Stephen Mortlock looks back at the history of the Aztec civilisation, the diseases that struck and the treatments that were created.

The year is 1519; a Spanish fleet of 11 ships and 500 men has landed on the Mexican coast at Yucatan, under the command of Hernán (also known as Hernando) Cortés. He was ready to overpower and subdue the native population. Cortés was born in 1485 in Medellín, Spain, the only son of noble, though not wealthy, parents. He was fascinated with tales of Christopher Columbus’ New World explorations. At the age of 26, he joined Diego Velasquez’s expedition to conquer Cuba. The young Cortés was hungry for more power and greater thrills. He convinced Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, to let him lead an expedition to Mexico, only discovered the previous year. And although Velasquez cancelled the voyage at the last minute, Cortés set sail for Mexico anyway.

Ultimately the iron swords, “fire weapons” (probably a harquebus, which was a type of early musket), military strategy and war horses of the Spanish overpowered any resistance. It was not only weapons and bodies that clashed but  two different cultures. Cortés was determined to convert the local people to Christianity. While in Cozumel, he was astounded to learn of the gruesome rituals, including human sacrifice of the natives to their many gods. He and his men removed and destroyed the pagan idols, and replaced them with crosses and figures of the Virgin Mary. After a few months in Yucatan, Cortés headed west as he had heard of the Aztecs and knew that they, and their leader Montezuma II, were the primary force in Mexico. After more battles, defeats and betrayals, the Spanish had subjugated the Aztec people. Finally, a smallpox epidemic completed the conquest. Smallpox, which was brought in by Spanish soldiers, killed at least half of the native population. This infectious disease, a non-fatal viral infection of childhood for Europeans, was a fatal illness for the American natives since their immune system had not been previously exposed to this new virus.

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Image Credit | Alamy


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