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Disease: the First product of Globalization 1000 AD

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The Micmac of what is now Newfoundland, Canada were probably the first of the many peoples of the western hemisphere to see the boats from Skania (at the southern tip of what is now Sweden) arrive near their shores about one thousand years before the present. The Skanians continued to show up on the Micmac shores for decades and then they were gone.  The northern Atlantic currents allowed for occasional visits by the peoples who would be viking and fishing in what eventually would be known as Iceland, and then Greenland and in the "new found land" of the far west. These were the descendants of the early travelers from northern Europe who only sporadically visited and settled for short times.

For the nations of the western hemisphere, the first visits from the "norse lands" proved to be disastrous.  While there was little actual intercourse between the visiting fishers and the people on the land, the "germs of Europe" had landed. Unbeknown to either the Micmac or the Skanians, deadly diseases that would eventually consume a hemisphere had been  left in the communities to spread along trade routes to the south and to the interior.

The cod fishing fleets of what would become Norway, France, Portugal and England traveled the month-long sail across the sea to take millions of fish from the rich shores of Newfoundland and the "banks" to the south as far as the Wampanoag and Narragansett of what would become Massachusetts. Such fishing was intense for its time for more than five hundred years until the early 1600s when colonization of North America's Atlantic coast began in earnest. Driven by a produce "more valuable than gold" for the wealth earned in Europe, the cod fishery drove the expansion of northern Europe and eventually stimulated boat building by the Basque of Iberic Peninsula (eventually to be known as Spain).

The Basque were superb boat builders and seafarers (and remain so today). They were whalers and fishermen of long experience--possessing great knowledge about the ocean to the west. New ships worthy of long hauls across the Atlantic Ocean were built and became in the 1400s the foundation for what would become the means for the Genoan, Don Cristóval Colon (Christopher Columbus in the United States) to travel from Spain to the land of the Taino Nation in the western hemisphere. Basque knowledge combined with Skanian, English, Breton, and Irish knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean developed over five hundred years proved to be essential to Don Colon and his proposal to the new Queen and King of Spain in 1491 for a journey to brasil and the spice islands.

Before Don Colon set foot in Taino territory in 1492, the diseases that would eventually kill millions of people throughout the western hemisphere had already been planted and replanted in what would become known as New England. When Don Colon stood on the shores of the Taino nation it is fairly clear he had no idea that bacteria and viruses carried by his predecessors and now his own shipmates would deal a death blow to so many peoples in the vibrant and hugely populated western hemisphere (some estimates suggest a collective hemispheric population of 90,000,000 to 110,000,000). The western hemisphere was populated by hundreds of large cities (some with populations of 500,000 and more) dwarfed Europe's cities and, indeed, the European populations.  Nations from the tip of what is now called South America to the far north of what is called North America now engaged in trade and migrations north and south.

The Huadenosaunee and Wampanoag confederations had been seriously damaged by introduced diseases in the years before initial settlements from England. The Taino were also damaged by introduced diseases from Don Colon's visits.  The most striking fact is that these diseases traveled like wild fire from one nation to the other by way of the trade routes long established and functioning in the western hemisphere.

Disease was the first product of globalization beginning a little more than one thousand years before the present. After disease came rape, slavery and finally wars to the nations of the western hemisphere. Lief Erikson is one name attached to the first European visits and Cabot and Don Colon. The search for fish wealth, spices and gold wealth introduced deadly diseases like influenza, chicken pox, measles, and malaria in to the lands of the Micmac, Taino, the Maya, the Inkas, and eventually the Apache, Shoshone, Dakota and then the Cowlitz, Skagit, and the Squamish of the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

Whole communities would die in a matter of days after the deadly infections were introduced by carriers who traded between nations carrying their goods on their backs, in canoes, on dog pulling travoi, and on Llamas. Before the Europeans even arrived in most places in the hemisphere, death by disease had already arrived.

After sustaining enormous losses (sometimes half of a population and other times as much as 90% of a population would die) whole nations were sometimes left to wander--leaving their cities and dropping their cultivation of maize, potatoes, tomatoes, manioc, squash, beans, chilis and thousands of other plant and animal products that provided sustenance to millions. When the Europeans began to come in greater numbers and settle in the western hemisphere, they were in many instances faced with nations only beginning to recover from former losses. And then with new settlers came new diseases.  The effects of disease globalization continued for generation after generation.

The first round of globalization beginning so long ago was followed by another phase in the 1500s. That produced more disease. And now a new phase of globalization has struck that covets the lands and resources of the Fourth World in a way never before experienced. What diseases will come of this new pariah?

(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies

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One Comment

  1. Laurie Garrett — Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations — has answered this in her alarming book, Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. As a Pulitzer award-winner, Ms. Garrett documents how global institutions and markets have collaborated in bringing about a plague of microbes due largely to criminality in politics, something to which no one on earth is any longer immune.

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