Yellow Fever, Black Goddess: The Coevolution of People and Plagues

By Christopher Wills | Go to book overview
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9
Syphilis and the Faustian bargain

The time has come to turn the light on an existing condition touching the American fireside that will appall the average woman and girl.

Edward Bok, editorial, The Ladies' Home Journal, 1908

When Christopher Columbus returned to the island of Hispaniola on his third voyage on 3 August 1498, he found everything in confusion. He had left his brother Bartolomé there as viceroy in March 1496, and during the two and a half years of his absence Bartolomé had cruelly oppressed the Indians. There had also been a rebellion among the Spaniards themselves, led by Bartolomé's lieutenant Francisco Roldán, though Roldán quickly made peace when Columbus's advance vessels arrived. And to add to the gloom and depression of the occupying Spaniards, every third member of Bartolomé's little band was suffering from syphilis and an assortment of other diseases.

Hispaniola was anything but hospitable to the invading Europeans. On his very first voyage in 1492, Columbus had left some men behind on the island, in an attempt to establish a settlement. During his second voyage a year later he found this nascent colony gone, wiped out by the natives of the islands. There is no record of disease having played a role in the failure of this first attempt, though it may have done. When Columbus departed for Spain for the second time, still determined to found a permanent colony, he left behind a far larger number of men. They were better equipped to fight off the natives, though not the diseases. There is no doubt that illness, dissension and mismanagement, coupled with the growing rage of the native population, would have

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