Smallpox in Mexico

Historical Context:
In 1519, on a voyage to the New World, Hernan Cortés and his crewmembers reached Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Hernan Cortés was a Spanish explorer who conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521. Francisico de Baguia, an African
Conquistador Hernan Cortés
slave aboard Cortés’s ship became ill during the long voyage to the New World. Francisico was ill with Smallpox, a disease that nearly wiped out the entire population of the New World. This population decline helped Cortés capture the Aztec Empire, due to the lack of people to put up a fight.

Disease Description:
Smallpox is a deadly and highly contagious disease that kills about one-third of its victims. A victim of Smallpox does not exhibit symptoms until seven to seventeen days after contracting the disease. The first symptoms include a low-grade fever, fatigue, head and body aches and vomiting. This period is called the prodrome phase and it can last for four days.

After the prodrome phase, the victim will exhibit small red bumps on the tongue and in the mouth. These bumps develop into sores and spread over the entire body. All of the sores fill with thick fluid and depress in the middle. These sores are very painful and uncomfortable. During this stage, the victim is most contagious. The sores become pustules, which victims have stated feel like ‘a BB pellet under their skin.’ These pustules form to scabs and eventually return to the original red-bumped rash. After a week most of the scabs fall off, leaving scars on the victim. When all of the scabs have fallen off, the person is no longer contagious.

Example of smallpox on a young boy

"Variola virus is a double-stranded DNA virus that causes smallpox. Because the virus only infects humans, smallpox was able to be eradicated. Transmission of Variola can happen in one of several ways, including face-to-face contact, direct contact with contaminated objects, or through the air. Because of the hazards associated with exposure to this virus, scientists have not studied it fully."
- MedTV: Health Information Brought to Life

Hernan Cortes capturing the Aztec Empire with the help of Smallpox.

Conquistadors and Settlers
In 1520, Spanish settlers and conquistadors traveled from the island known as Hispaniola to Mexico and in their travels they took deadly diseases with them such as smallpox. The Columbian exchange, a trade route from Europe to the New World, made this transfer of the disease possible. With the arrival of
Montezuma II: Aztec Emperor
settlers and smallpox in Mexico, Hernan Cortés and his Spanish Conquistadors had began exploring Mexico where they discovered Native American settlements such as the highly developed Aztec Empire.

Conquest of the Aztec Empire

After leaving Cuba in 1519, Cortés and his crew anchored off of the coast of Mexico which was discovered a year earlier by the Spanish explorer de Córdoba. With 600 crewmembers and horses, Cortés made his way towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Along this journey, Cortés became allies with the Tlaxcalans who are enemies with the Aztecs. By November of 1519, Cortés and his crew had reached the capital and met the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma.

After initial greeting, the Aztecs became very fond of Cortés and considered him a God-king. Fearing this fondness would not last; Cortés captured Montezuma and held him ransom for gold and jewels. By June 1520, the Aztecs drove out Cortés and his crewmembers. A year after his retreat, Cortes
Hernan Cortés and his men fighting the Aztecs
returned and with a deadly weapon. In the summer of 1521, Cortés re-attacked the Aztec Empire. This time he had the advantage of numbers. Many of the Aztecs had fallen ill or died from smallpox, which was brought over by a slave aboard Cortés’s ship. With numbers and health on his side, Cortés was able to recapture the Aztec Empire. Tribute estimates that "the Aztec population in 1518 was 30 million, and by 1568, there was only three million left." Smallpox and other various factors contributed to this severe population decline of the Aztecs. The death tolls and ill-population helped Cortés capture the Aztec Empire which he failed to do before the virgin population was infected.

Smallpox Impact
In the end it was said that in this epidemic of smallpox that about 25% of the people in the great empire died because of smallpox alone. This fact shows how big of a factor the disease played in the conquest of the Aztec Empire.
The Aztecs lost both regular citizens in great numbers as well as their leader Montezuma, which was a huge reason why Cortés and his army was able to take over the Aztec Empire with not a lot of problems. Tragically, even after the empire was under Spanish control, natives continued to die from smallpox because of their lack of immunity to the disease. It is said that if the Spanish did not bring smallpox with them to the Aztec people, that the Aztecs would have kept control of most of Mexico, and history would have been completely different.

Aztec drawing of smallpox
There was no sickness; they had no aching bones; they had then no high fever; they had no smallpox; they had no burning chest; they had no abdominal pain; they had then no consumption; they had no headache. At that time the course of humanity was orderly. The foreigners made it otherwise.
-Native Survivor
American Colonies p. 57