The Columbian Apocalypse

This post is a continuation of the second part of my dissertation Unsettling Theology.

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“The ruins of the Haida village of Ninstints, abandoned after a smallpox epidemic in the 1880s. When George Vancouver first came to the Strait of Georgia, a 1782 smallpox epidemic had littered the area with abandoned, overgrown villages.” National Post

The next attempt to settle the Americas was that of Columbus.[1] Because of a miscalculation Columbus thought the earth was much smaller than it was, and so he believed that he had found a new route to the Orient when he arrived in the Bahamas in 1492. In his three further voyages of 1493, 1498, and 1502 he thoroughly explored the Caribbean and established colonies in Hispaniola, still thinking he was somewhere just east of Japan. Columbus captured a number of the Taino who lived on the island of Hispaniola, some of who were sexually and physically assaulted and transported back to Spain. Many of the Taino fought back against the Spanish settlements, destroying La Navidad established on Hispaniola in 1492. Subsequent settlements at Isabella and Santo Domingo enslaved some 400,000 of the Taino, whose rapidly died off. In order to work the farms in the new colonies the Spanish colonists brought slaves from Africa, starting in 1501. The Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico in 1519-21, and the Inca Empire of Peru in 1532. Over the following decades of the 16th century the Spanish extended their rule to cover the West Indies, Mexico, Central America, all of South America except for what became Brazil (which was settled by Portugal), and into Florida, New Mexico, and California.

The overriding rationale for the Spanish to colonize the Americas was financial. Columbus’s initial goal was to find a maritime route to East Asia that did not have to use the Silk Road and was well away from attacks by hostile Muslims, who sought to interpose themselves between Europe and “the Indies”. Although Columbus did not find that route, the Spanish sought and found among their New World conquests gold, silver, and jewels. Bases were required to control the indigenous peoples and slaves, and as the economy expanded to include sugar and other agricultural exports, more colonists came over seeking new opportunities for wealth. In many ways the colonists simply sought to replicate what they had known in the Iberian peninsula – a nation which had only recently been completely re-conquered from the infidels, where slavery was practiced, and where there was significant stratification in society.

Part of that replication involved the Christian faith, for the Reconquista was very much framed as the crusade of Christian monarchs against Moslem unbelievers. Already an expanding Christian state, Spain took advantage of its technological superiority in arms and trade to continue its expansion into the Americas. The justification for this expansion was framed in theological terms.

Before examining these theological justifications, it is important to note the single most profound effect of contact on the indigenous peoples – the introductions of diseases to peoples who had no immunity to smallpox, measles, influenza, and tuberculosis. Scholars argue about the mortality rates in the decades after contact; in 1966 Henry F. Dobyns calculated it to be as high as 95%, with something between 80 and 100 million dying.[2] While these numbers are disputed, what is clear is that even a conservative estimate assumes that tens of millions of people lived in the Americas, and that at least a third to a half of them died off as these diseases raced ahead of the conquistadors and settlers.[3]

In 1519, central Mexico had an Indian population estimated to have been 25 million. By 1523 only 17 million Indians survived; in 1548, only 6 million; in 1568, 3 million. By the early seventeenth century, the number of Indians of central Mexico scarcely reached 750,000; that is, only three percent of the population before the conquest . . . It is estimated that the Indian population of Peru fell from 9 million before Columbus to 1.3 million by 1570 . . . This demographic disaster is without parallel.[4]

The epidemics appeared to have spread through indigenous peoples at various places and times, and amongst the last to be severely hit were the nations on the Pacific North-West.  At what later became known as Holland Point, in Victoria BC[5] (the southern end of Vancouver Island), there was a large fortified village of the Songhees that had been occupied off and on for some 800 years. According to Grant Keddle, curator of Archaeology at the Royal British Columbia Museum, a smallpox epidemic appears to have hit in the 1780s, resulting in its abandonment, some sixty years before the colonist of the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived: “In the 1920s Saanich Chief Tommy Paul recalled the stories of the “great plague . . . six generations back”, where so many died there was “nobody to nurse the sick or bury the dead”.[6] In 1792 Captain George Vancouver explored Puget Sound in what is now the State of Washington.

He found a charnel house: deserted villages, abandoned fishing boats, human remain “promiscuously scattered about the beach, in great numbers.” Everything they saw suggested “that at no very remote period this country had been far more populous than at present.” The few suffering survivors, noted Second Lieutenant Peter Puget, were “most terribly pitied . . . indeed, many have lost their Eyes.”[7]

After the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia were established in 1849 another smallpox epidemic hit in 1862, during the Cariboo Gold Rush. “There are estimates that more than 30,000 of the approximately 50,000 people living in B.C. at the time died. First Nations believe there were many more, and the death toll much higher.”[8] At the northern end of Vancouver Island amongst the Kwakwaka’wakw people “epidemics caused an estimated population decline of up to 78 percent between the 1840s and 1881.”[9]

One cannot underestimate the upheaval that such mortality created, whether in the 16th century in Mexico or the 19th in British Columbia. It weakened the social structures in place, allowing the indigenous peoples to be more susceptible to conquest and removal. Cities, towns, and villages were abandoned as populations died off. Survivors from diverse peoples banded together, sometimes being adopted by the more powerful nation and given the names of families who had become extinct. Oral and cultural traditions that were handed on from one generation to another came to an abrupt end with so many sudden deaths. The traditions of the elders were called into question in the face of disease, and many chose to adopt what appeared to be the more powerful religious practices of the settlers. African slaves were imported to replace the indigenous people who were enslaved and died off; had the mortality not been so extreme the Atlantic slave trade would not have become so important to the colonization of the New World.

It is sometimes claimed that the settlers deliberately infected the indigenous peoples. There is only one fully documented example of such germ warfare, at Fort Pitt (later Pittsburgh) by the British in 1763, which involved the distribution of blankets and other goods infected by smallpox.[10] However, if it happened once it probably happened on other occasions. What is without doubt is that the colonizing authorities were not upset by the effects of disease, as the illnesses overwhelmed the indigenous peoples and made it easier to settle. In the case of the 1862 epidemic on Vancouver Island, while the principle of quarantine was well understood, colonial authorities nonetheless expelled infected indigenous peoples from Victoria and other settlements, thereby spreading the disease to the First Nations villages up island and beyond. As will be described later, some saw it as providential.

[1] His birth name in 1451 in Genoa was Christoforo Colombo, which was latinised as Christophorus Columbus, from which we get the English form Christopher Columbus. In Spain he was known as Cristóbal Colón. The South American nation of Colombia is named after him, as is the District of Columbia, Columbus, Ohio, and ten counties in the USA. The city and district of Colón in Panama is also named after him. In 1792 a ship named Columbia Rediva out of Boston sailed up a river on the west coast of North America, and the river was named after the ship; this then gave its name to the area, part of which became the colony and then province of British Columbia.

[2] Mann, 1491, p. 106.

[3] Mann, 1491, pp. 150-151.

[4] Thomas W. Berger, A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas since 1492 (Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 1999), pp. 28-29.

[5] This ancient village is some 600 metres from where this dissertation is being written.

[6] Grant Keddie, Songhees Pictorial: A History of the Songhees People as seen by Outsiders 1790 – 1912 (Victoria: Royal BC Museum, 2003), p. 16.

[7] Mann, 1491, p. 123.

[8] Dene Moore, “B.C. First Nations mark small pox anniversary” published in Metro News/Canadian Press, August 06 2012, accessed January 16, 2017.

[9] Leslie A. Robertson with the Kwagu’ł Gixsam Clan, Standing Up With Ga’axsta’las: Jane Constance Cook and the Politics of Memory, Church, and Custom (Vancouber: University of British Columbia Press, 2012), p. 121.

[10] Dixon, David, Never Come to Peace Again: Pontiac’s Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America (Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), pp. 152-155.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
This entry was posted in Canadian Issues, Unsettling Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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