Another October 12th passes and the internet forums are once again discussing whether there was genocide in the Americas or not. A popular trend in the United States has been to accuse Christopher Columbus himself of being a genocide, an accusation that has not only caused division among Hispanic communities but also among Italian Americans and Native Americans.
It is undeniable that the conquest was a brutal process that transformed both American and European societies and whose protagonists are guilty of crimes that are horrendous in the eyes of a 21st-century person.
Unfortunately for Spain’s detractors, the conquerors were a product of their time, a violent world where nation-states were forged at the edge of the sword. While the Spanish conquest was taking place in America, the Turks were taking over North Africa by cannonading its population, the Tokugawa shogunate was establishing itself in Japan, plundering entire cities, and nomads from Iran were conquering India with blood and fire, establishing the Mughal empire.
Even in the Americas itself the Aztecs led flower wars to capture thousands of people and offer them in sacrifice, while the Incas subjugated entire villages to be vassals of their empire.
This resentment that many indigenous peoples had for the other dominant tribes led many to support the Spanish during the conquest and to be active combatants within the conquering armies. Historians estimate that less than 5 % of Cortés’ army was Spanish, just to give a dimension of the role of the indigenous people in the conquest.
The crown, with the resources that a medieval state could have, tried to protect the Indians with the establishment of the new laws of the Indies, where we read decrees such as:
That no Indian be taken to the pearl fishery against his will, under penalty of death to whoever infringed this provision. That all the encomiendas and Indians held by the visorreyes or governors or their lieutenants or any of our officers of justice or of our treasury, prelates, houses of religion, hospitals, confraternities or other similar ones, be taken away. That the excessive repartimientos should be moderated, and that what was taken away should be given for the sustenance of the first conquerors.
This is not to say that the Conquest was not terrible for those who lived through it and that such things are undesirable for any society, but to qualify it as genocide by comparing it to events such as the Holocaust is simply not real. There was never a plan conceived by the Spanish crown, nor the authorities in America to systematically exterminate the indigenous people.
The role of pandemics in the Spanish Conquest
What is even more incredible is that after living through a pandemic, it is still necessary to explain that diseases could wreak havoc in a population with no natural immunity and where there were no health systems, public hospitals or mass vaccination.
When the Spaniards arrived, they did so with their horses, dogs, pigs, chickens and farm animals, while the indigenous people had only a few domestic animals such as the llama in Peru, and ducks and turkeys in the case of the Aztecs.
This permanent contact with domestic animals allowed the Europeans to develop an immunity not only against the diseases they carried, but also against diseases carried by their parasites such as fleas, typhus and bubonic plague.
The bubonic plague, in particular, caused two major ravages during the 6th and 14th centuries in Europe, killing between one-third to one-half of the population. For their part, indigenous societies themselves were susceptible to plagues, as is theorized to have occurred during the collapse of the Mayan civilization in the 10th century.
Many historians believe that Cortés’ conquest of Tenochtitlán would not have been possible without the outbreak of smallpox that devastated the Aztec city before and after its siege. Smallpox would only be one of the first plagues to strike unfortunate Mexico. At least four more would follow during the 16th century.
Having practically no domestic animals, as well as no contact with other continents, the indigenous people did not have the immunological defenses that Europeans had developed centuries earlier.
In 1531 there was an intense outbreak of measles, ten years later there would be an outbreak of tabardillo and typhus. In 1545 a fever accompanied by intense colic known among the Nahuatl population as cocoliztli spread throughout the country. Finally in 1576, the mysterious fever would once again strike the ailing country and kill up to 80 % of the population of Mexico City.
Although the demographic decline of the indigenous population of the Americas between the 16th and 17th centuries is often used to accuse the conquerors of genocide, this figure is completely taken out of context if the number of plagues suffered by the indigenous people is omitted.
This process, where two worlds separated by hundreds of thousands of years meet, could not be otherwise. However traumatic the story may be for its protagonists, it is still part of us. To infantilize it by painting a narrative of good guys and bad guys is in a way to detract from our own achievements and how far we have come in establishing effective health systems, human rights and the establishment of liberal democracies.