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(en) Canada, Collectif Emma Goldman - Epidemics, conquest and genocide in the Americas (fr, it, pt)[machine translation]
Sun, 12 Jul 2020 08:59:04 +0300
"The Tainos, in the past, were not afraid of death - but that death escapes them. It is too much like a collective punishment to be lived
serenely. At first, the sick were watched over by their parents and friends. But as the dead number in the tens of thousands, bodies in a
more or less advanced state of decomposition are everywhere - in the fields, in the caves, in the woods - and are not even buried any more.
The Taino body is nothing but waste. An unnamed body, piled up in a mass grave. An unnamed death. All these deaths break family ties, mow
down the religious political elite, plunge Taino society into collective oblivion [...]. The New World has turned into a slaughterhouse.»
---- Lissell Quiroz, "Epidemics, Conquest and Genocide in the Americas" in Decolonial Perspectives by Abya Yala, 23/0320. Link to the
original, here: http://decolonial.hypotheses.org/1677 .
March 11, 2020. WHO declares that the Covid-19 outbreak constitutes a pandemic. In all corners of the world, exceptional measures are taken
to try to contain the spread of the disease. Since then, many countries have established states of health emergency including the closing of
borders, the confinement of populations and the suspension of air and sea links.
Pandemics are not a phenomenon of the 21st century, they have existed since ancient centuries. Europe has thus known several plague
pandemics since Antiquity, the best known being the black plague which raged on the continent between 1346 and 1353. It would have killed 25
million people (between 25% and 50% of the European population) . Europeans did not remain passive in the face of this long and devastating
epidemic. The first measure taken was to follow the hippocratic or "electuary of the three adverbs" adage, namely Cito, longe, tarde, that
is to say "(Go) fast, (go) far, (come back) late". In other words, containment was already the preferred means of escaping - especially
for the wealthy categories - from contagion. The trauma of the plague remained in people's minds for centuries, especially since it became
endemic on the continent. City closures and containment were common during these health crises.
The demographic bleeding of the Americas
However, arrived in 1492 in the Americas, Europeans will ignore this traumatic experience. It is now agreed to attribute to the epidemics of
the turn of the 15th to the 16th century, the almost exclusive responsibility for the demographic disaster suffered by the Americas at that
time. Although there is no certainty as to the number of deaths caused by the pandemic during the Conquista that followed the Reconquista ,
this argument is accepted on both sides of the Atlantic. On the one hand, it makes it possible to exempt the Spaniards on the one hand from
responsibility for the crimes committed at that time, while on the other hand, it gives meaning to the brutal fall of the rich and powerful
If precise quantitative data on the period are lacking, we can be sure that this episode represented a massacre for the people of Abya Yala.
According to the figures provided by the chroniclers as well as the estimates elaborated by researchers, the population of the Americas
experienced a vertiginous fall at the time of the invasion and the conquest. Different hypotheses place the initial population between 20
and 150 million inhabitants. A certain consensus has been established around 100 million inhabitants. Fifty years later, the continent
had lost between 80% and 90% of its total population.
Regional and local approaches help refine these general considerations. Massimo Livi Bacci estimates that around 300,000 people lived in
Ayiti (renamed Hispaniola during the conquest) in 1492. In 1514, there were only 26,000, a fall of more than 90% of the pre-Columbian
For its part, the Peruvian historian Julio Villanueva Sotomayor places the population of Tawantinsuyu at 15 million inhabitants in the
period before its collapse. Noble David Cook estimates it 9 million. In any case, it was no more than 600,000 people in 1620. This
means that in the space of 88 years, Peruvian territory would have lost between 93% and 96% of its population from the pre-conquest .
As for Mexico, the study by S. Cook and W. Borah, considers that the Meso-American population would have passed from 25 million in 1518 to
one million in 1605, that is to say a decrease of 96% of the population. Never before has any other continent experienced such a
demographic slaughter. Add to this the fact that this decline was not, due to the violence of colonization, contained until four centuries
later, in the 20th century. Mexico, for example, did not find the number of inhabitants of the 15th century until the 1960s (see graph below).
Graphic produced by the author using data from: Mercedes Alcañiz, "Cambios demográficos en la sociedad global", Papeles de población , vol.
14 No. 57, Toluca Jul / Sep 2008, p. 227-255.
An overestimated epidemiological shock
This disaster is due to a combination of factors. It is very likely that the viruses transported by the conquistadors decimated many regions
at the time of the invasion. The infectious agents imported into the Americas were very virulent, as in the case of measles, typhus or
smallpox (see graph below).
Graphic developed by the author from various data.
However, the Aboriginals quickly understood what was happening to them as evidenced by certain illustrations, notably that of the Florence
Codex compiled between 1558 and 1577 (see illustration below). They knew in particular that the contagion was by oral route. The original
peoples and in particular the Aztecs, had sanitary habits which testify to a high degree of cleanliness. Thus each district of Tenochtitlan
had public baths with spring water led by aqueducts. The Mexicas groomed almost daily and cleaned themselves with soap. The Florentine codex
also alludes to the use of deodorants and products to freshen the breath and clean the teeth.
This high degree of healthiness - as well as the balance in which the region lived at that time - must have prevented, at first, the spread
of epidemics. Livi Bacci notes that in Ayiti there was no epidemic listed in the sources before 1518, when the population of the island had
already been decimated. In addition, the organisms which survived the epidemics create an immunization which normally decreases the human
losses in the face of later virulent attacks. Those cells which did not die, therefore became, under normal conditions of life, more
resistant to viruses. However, in Abya Yala, we observe a contrary phenomenon: depopulation and demographic stagnation continue over several
centuries. Bacteriological shock cannot therefore alone explain this long-term phenomenon.
The ferocity of conquest
And these causes were multiple and are all intertwined. As the Argentinian historian Carlos Sempat Assadourian points out, epidemics are not
the main cause of the hecatomb, they are part of a dynamic set of exactions, violence and destructuring of pre-Columbian societies:
"[...]The demographic destruction results from the greed and the wars started by the Spaniards between 1530 and 1550. All the sources of the
observers can be gathered in only one label: a state of permanent war, which includes not only the losses caused by the great battles but
also those produced by an infinity of punitive attacks, the struggles between the own ethnic groups, the destruction of hydraulic systems,
the scourge of hunger, the increase in mortality from endemic diseases, etc."
The epidemics are part of this global context of the establishment of a colonial system in the Americas. It was the colonial system that was
the real producer of the demographic bleeding, of which illnesses were only one element among others. Viruses have even served as a weapon
of conquest because there has never been any containment during this period. The conquistadors moved freely from one territory to another,
knowing full well that they were carrying viruses against which the Aboriginals were not immune.
The Hispanic colonial regime did the rest. To be able to exploit mineral resources, Christopher Columbus instituted a per capita colonial
tax (called encomienda ) according to which every three months, each Indigenous person had to give him a certain amount of gold or
cotton. The encomienda was a mandatory Aboriginal tax system that involved forced displacement of people to the mines. Formally
established by the Crown in 1503, it is legally akin to medieval serfdom. The conquistadors received the right to divide the "Indians" into
encomiendas where encomenderoswere responsible for collecting tribute. The native tax - made up of precious metals, textiles, food, animals
- was collected by the cacique (chief) of the community who was to give it to the encomendero . In effect, the system instituted aboriginal
serfdom. The Church was a major support and evangelism served to better control the uprooted and acculturated indigenous workforce. The
ncomienda and evangelization deeply destructured the societies of Abya Yala. Aboriginal people were forcibly displaced and forced to settle
where the Spaniards wanted, especially near the mines which arose from nothing new cities like Potosi, founded in 1545.
"Que el encomendero le hace ahorcar al cacique principal don Juan Cayanchire", Guamán Poma de Ayala (ca. 1535-ca. 1616), Nueva crónica y
buen gobierno (1600)
Community, family and collective life was completely turned upside down and ultimately wiped out in all the conquered and colonized American
regions. A third of indigenous men spent months, sometimes a dozen, in the mines, exploited and weakened by overwork and lack of
food.Added to this is the ill-treatment, separation from family and community, fear, loss of bearings. Women suffer in addition, sexual
assault and the provision of their bodies for the conquistadors as recorded in a report sent by Dominicans to the Minister of Charles I
(future Charles V), in 1519:
"Each of them[the foremen of the mines]made it a habit to sleep with the Indian women who depended on him, if they liked him, whether they
were married or young girls. While the foreman remained in the hut or the hut with the Indian, he sent the husband to extract gold in the
mines; and in the evening, when the unfortunate returned, not only would he beat or whip him because he had not brought in enough gold, but
also, more often than not, he tied his feet and hands and threw him under bed like a dog, before lying down, just above, with his wife. "
Indigenous women were therefore, as Lorena Cabnal, a Mayan xinca feminist, conceptualizes, the first territory of conquest. Under these
conditions, the Aboriginal mortality rate could only increase during the decades following the invasion and the conquest, while the birth
rate also fell. The establishment of colonization in Hispanic America was therefore not the result of an "encounter" but of a brutal and
generalized destruction of entire societies on a scale never before known. This is the reason why we can speak of genocide.
Genocide never recognized as such
"Settlement colonialism contains violence or the threat of violence. People do not give up their land, their resources, their children and
their future without fighting, and their resistance provokes the violence of the settlers. Using the force required by its expansionist
designs, a colonial regime institutionalizes violence. The conflict between settlers and natives was therefore not the product of cultural
differences or misunderstandings, and the colonized were not as violent as the colonizers. Euro-American colonialism and capitalist
globalization had genocidal tendencies from the start. "
A colonial enterprise which thus destroys entire societies and millions of people in the space of a few decades cannot be described as
"discovery" or "encounter". The conquistadors and Christopher Columbus in the first place, knowingly set up a system of exploitation of
which they saw immediately the consequences on the populations. The 50 years following the conquest were a period of death and suffering of
all kinds for the peoples from Abya Yala. Julio Villanueva Sotomayor estimates that, in the Andes, between 1532 and 1620, more than 450
people perished daily and more than 165,000 annually. To see in the disaster that contact with violent excesses and a fortiori the
result of the virulence of epidemics is at best ignorance,
"This massacre[the destruction of the indigenous population of the Americas]has often been erased in several countries on the American
continent. Very different currents, animated by opposite ideological motivations, contributed to erase not the destruction of the American
Indians but the atrocities which accompanied it. There is a writing of this history which makes pass the extermination of approximately 70
million human beings like the profits and losses of a process where there was not only bad. "
The invasion and conquest of Abya Yala constituted genocide, an epistemicide and an ecocide. The unsanitary conditions of the cities spread
over the entire territory of the Americas. The introduction of animals such as horses, cows, sheep, goats, dogs and even rabbits, often
presented as a European contribution, dismantled the Amerindian ecosystem. As Alfred W. Crosby points out, the importation of large European
animals destroyed more than it enriched the native territories.The cattle fed on fruits used for local consumption, while the excrement
polluted the seeds which were then found scattered everywhere. The same goes for the cultivation of sugar cane, the introduction of which in
the West Indies and Brazil destroyed the tropical forest as well as the forest fauna.
Thus, in the space of five decades, European colonization wiped out an entire continent. The consequences of this colonial wound are still
not closed, even if the peoples of the Americas have resisted, and continue to do so, to the different forms of coloniality. Faced with this
massacre, the resistance was very strong and the descendants of these peoples today retain endurance but also the flame of hope. As Lorena
Cabnal says: "I recover joy without losing indignation in a vital act of emancipation. "
1. Paula Anacaona, 1492, Anacaona the Caribbean insurgent , Anacaona Editions, p. 112
2.Jean Vitaux, History of the plague , PUF, 2010, p. 138
3. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Counter-history of the United States , Wildproject, 2018, p. 77
4. Massimo Livi Bacci, "Las múltiples causas de la catástrofe: consideraciones teóricas y empíricas", Revista de Indias , 2003, vol. LXIII,
n ° 227, p. 31-48, p. 43
5. Julio Villanueva Sotomayor, El Perú en los tiempos antiguos , 2001, Lima: Empresa Periodística Nacional SAC
6. Noble David Cook, La catástrofe demográfica andina , Perú 1520-1620, Lima: Fondo Editorial de la PUCP, 2010, p. 20
7. Sherburne F. Cook, Woodrow Borah, Essays in Population History: Mexico and the Caribbean , Berkeley, LA, London: Univ. of California
8. Livi Bacci, op. cit. , p. 44
9. Carlos Sempat Assadourian, "La crisis demográfica del siglo XVI y la transición del Tawantinsuyu al sistema mercantil colonial", in
Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz (ed.), Población y mano de obra en América Latina , Madrid: Alianza Americana, 1995, p. 69-93, p. 74
10. Livi Bacci, op. cit ., p. 45.
11. Livi Bacci, op. cit. , p. 44
12. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America. The question of the other , Seuil, 1982, p. 145-146 13.Lorena Cabnal: "Recupero la alegría sin
perder la indignación, como un acto emancipatorio y vital", Píkara Magazine , 11/13/19 , URL: https://www.pikaramagazine.com/2019/11/
14. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Counter-History of the United States , Wildproject, 2018, p. 40
15. Villanueva Sotomayor, op. cit .
16. Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe, La ferocity blanche , Albin Michel, 2001, p. 36-37.
17. Alfred W. Crosby, Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 , Westport, Greenwood Press, 1972, p. 98-99.
by Collectif Emma Goldman
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