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The role of smallpox in the conquest of Mexico by Spain

Summary:
I have known this story of role of Small pox in conquest of Mexico by Spaniards. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel discusses this story and have seen in some other books as well, Anantha Nageswaran points to the extract from the ‘Introduction’ of ‘Plagues and Peoples’ by the late historian William H. McNeill, published in 1976. The extraordinary story of the conquest of Mexico ( soon to be followed by Pizarro’s no less amazing conquest of the Inca empire in South America) was really only part of a larger puzzle. Relatively few Spaniards ever were able to cross the ocean to the New World, yet they succeeded in impressing  their culture on an enormously larger number of Amerindians. The inherent attraction of European civilization and some undeniable- technical  superiorities the

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I have known this story of role of Small pox in conquest of Mexico by Spaniards. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel discusses this story and have seen in some other books as well,

Anantha Nageswaran points to the extract from the ‘Introduction’ of ‘Plagues and Peoples’ by the late historian William H. McNeill, published in 1976.

The extraordinary story of the conquest of Mexico ( soon to be followed by Pizarro’s no less amazing conquest of the Inca empire in South America) was really only part of a larger puzzle. Relatively few Spaniards ever were able to cross the ocean to the New World, yet they succeeded in impressing  their culture on an enormously larger number of Amerindians. The inherent attraction of European civilization and some undeniable- technical  superiorities the Spaniards had at their command do not seem enough to explain wholesale apostasy from older Indian patterns of life and belief.

Why, for instance, did the old religions of Mexico and Peru disappear so utterly? Why did villagers not remain loyal to deities and rituals that had brought fertility to their fields from time immemorial? The exhortation of Christian missionaries and the intrinsic appeal of Christian faith and worship seem insufficient to explain what happened, even though, in the eyes of the missionaries themselves, the truth of Christianity was SO evident that their success in converting millions of Indians to the faith seemed to need no explanation. 

A casual remark in one of the accounts of Cortez’s conquest-I no longer can tell where I saw it-suggested an answer to such questions, and my new hypothesis gathered plausibility and significance as I mulled it over and reflected on its implications afterward. For on the night when the Aztecs drove Cortez and his men out of Mexico City, killing many of them, an epidemic of smallpox was raging in the city. The man who had organized the assault on the Spaniards was among those who died on that noche trista, as the Spaniards later called it. The paralyzing effect of a lethal epidemic goes far to explain why the Aztecs did not pursue the defeated and demoralized Spaniards, giving them time and opportunity to rest and regroup, gather Indian allies and set siege to the city, and so achieve their eventual victory.

Ananth’s Blog Gold Standard is again on the list of top 100 economics blogs. Congrats Ananth!

Amol Agrawal
I am currently pursuing my PhD in economics. I have work-ex of nearly 10 years with most of those years spent figuring economic research in Mumbai’s financial sector.

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