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Yellow Fever in the Americas

Simon Harcourt-Smith describes how the Americas were plagued by Yellow Fever, borne by mosquitoes from the seventeenth century until the early twentieth.

The imaginative European, hearing fabulous reports of the new-found world, without braving the hazards of the Atlantic, might well have been excused for fancying that in their search for Cathay the conquistadores had stumbled into a Garden of Eden with hardly a serpent to trouble it.

Here, surely, was a continent teeming not only with gold, silver and emeralds, but also with luscious fruits that went in no need of tending, behind shores littered with ambergris, and cleansed by the gentlest of zephyrs. As for disease, was there not here a new untainted world?

As late as the mid-seventeenth century, Andrew Marvell, hymning the ‘remote Bermudas’, could only envisage a brand-new Paradise that offered mankind a brand-new Elysium.

Of course, in those days knowledge travelled at a snail’s pace.

Only a few knew how the Mayan records abounded in accounts of the ‘xexok’ or ‘blood vomit’ that periodically ravaged the coast of Yucatan, or how of the 1,500 Europeans who had landed with Columbus on the island of Hispaniola in 1493, only some 300 remained alive nine years later.

It must be remembered, however, that Spain at the time abounded in adventurers who had been toughened in the Moorish and Italian campaigns. The Spanish Government felt little inclination to discourage with tales of plague such trouble-makers from seeking their fortunes across the ocean.

So, not too much stress was laid upon the hazards of mortality that inexorably thinned the ranks of those who sailed into the New World.

At a distance of several centuries, and in the absence of precise records, it is not easy to define with any certainty the whole gamut of diseases that plagued the conquistadores and the colonists during the early centuries after Columbus’ landfall - particularly in the Caribbean.

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