Disease in the Atlantic World

David S. Jones

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online April 2011 | | DOI:
Disease in the Atlantic World

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History


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The advent of transatlantic exploration, colonization, and trade in the 15th and 16th centuries brought three distinct populations—Europeans, Africans, and Americans—into sustained close contact for the first time. The ensuing encounters transformed the face of the Atlantic World and the Americas. Disease played a central role in every aspect of this history. Europeans initially experienced high mortality in both Africa and the Americas. They had to learn how to adapt both their lives and these new environments. American Indians suffered appalling mortality, especially for the first century after contact. While some populations disappeared most others survived but did not recover to precontact population levels until the 20th century. More than ten million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas to work on European plantations. Although mortality remained high throughout two centuries of slavery, the descendants of these Africans form the majority of many American countries and a significant minority of many others. The historiography of disease in the Atlantic World has long focused on the theory of virgin-soil epidemics, which holds that since American Indians had long been separated from Old World populations, they lacked immunity to Old World pathogens and died, inevitably, in great numbers once these pathogens were introduced. Recently, however, this model has been replaced by analyses that reveal the links between biology, environment, and social context. Mortality was a contingent outcome that depended on the specific and local details of the colonial encounter. The toll taken by disease, whatever its intensity, had a substantial impact on the military, economic, political, and social history of the Atlantic World. It also shaped the emergence of scientific theories about race in the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result, the legacies of these diseases of encounter remain very active and visible today.

Article.  7532 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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