Pandemic, deadly diseases have played a major role in shaping our history. The Plague changed the map of Europe and had much to do with England’s political development. It ended England’s practice of feudal slavery and set England on the path to becoming a liberal democracy. The Plague came to an end in 17th century Britain, leaving smallpox as the most dreaded disease. Smallpox played a surprisingly important role in the Revolution for it almost devastated the Continental Army. Britain also used it as biological warfare to defeat the Continental Army’s attack on Canada but lost out to smallpox when it thwarted Britain’s plan to build an army from American slaves. On the flip side of that, African epidemic diseases of yellow fever and malaria played a central role in thwarting Britain’s Southern Campaign and causing Britain’s loss. How will the Wuhan Flu shape our future?
Our forebearers were no strangers to deadly, infectious diseases. Historically, the world’s Second Plague Pandemic, the rodent-borne Black Death, was the worst. With a lethality that approached 90% when in the pneumonic form, the plague began in the Orient. It traveled the Silk Road before being dispersed throughout Europe when the infected rats went aboard trading ships. In England, the plague arrived aboard a ship from France in 1348, then proceeded to devastate the nation. Almost 2 out of every 3 people then alive in England succumbed to the disease, and the mortality throughout Europe was not all that much less. In England:
Over the following decades the plague would return – on a national or a regional level – at intervals of five to 12 years, with gradually dwindling death tolls. Then, in the decades from 1430 to 1480, the disease returned in force. An outbreak in 1471 took as much as 10–15 percent of the population, while the death rate of the plague of 1479–80 could have been as high as 20 percent. From that point outbreaks became fewer and more manageable, due largely to conscious efforts by central and local governments – from the late 15th century onward – to curtail the disease. By the final decades of the 17th century, the Second Pandemic was over. One of its last occurrences in England was the famous Great Plague of London in 1665–66.
It was the “Great Fire of London” in 1666 that eradicated the disease from England. It killed off the plague-infested rats.
The effect of the Black Death of 1348 in England was profound. It set in motion the end of Feudalism, as serfs — slaves tied to the land in the feudal system — found that their labor had much more value than as simple serfs. They ran from their feudal condition in droves. British kings tried to resist, including brutally repressing the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, but the new economic realities and the ever-present threat of renewed violence saw feudalism vanish from England’s shores within a century. As the number of “freed men” exploded in England, so did their political importance. This was the time in which Parliament developed into its current form, with representation in a House of Commons that extended beyond the nobility. It set the stage for the development of liberal democracy, the political system colonists inherited and enacted in the United States.
Then there was smallpox, a viral disease that had a profound effect on the American colonies and the Revolution in several ways already mentioned. Smallpox probably originated in Egypt around 300 B.C. By the 18th century, the disease had a lethality rate of about 30% in Europe. The lethality would prove much higher for Africans and Indians who had no herd immunity. It was a debilitating disease that often laid out its victims for a month or more. Virtually all who survived it were left scarred, many horribly so. To quote Thomas B. Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, Vol IV (1855):
The smallpox was always present, filling the churchyards with corpses, tormenting with constant fears all whom it had stricken, leaving on those whose lives it spared the hideous traces of its power, turning the babe into a changeling at which the mother shuddered, and making the eyes and cheeks of the bighearted maiden objects of horror to the lover.
Smallpox too traveled the world along trade routes, eventually becoming an endemic disease throughout Europe. For over a millennium, it was always present in Europe, and it became a dreaded childhood disease. If you were born or lived in Europe, the odds were very high that you would be exposed to the disease during your lifetime, usually in childhood. As Charles Marie de la Condamine wrote in his 1773 book on smallpox, “[N]o man dared to count his children as his own until they had had the disease.”
In the New World, though, smallpox never became endemic. It was introduced by the first Europeans, and it thereafter had a home on this continent, but here, it would flare up in localized epidemics. By 1700, the British colonies in America were 90% agrarian and rural. Most colonists, unlike their European progenitors, were never exposed to smallpox. There were only a handful of major cities in the colonies — Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, and Charleston — and all were ports that constantly had to contend with disease, including smallpox, that would arrive aboard trading vessels coming from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean Islands. All developed a quarantine program of one sort or another.
In Charleston, by law beginning in 1704, all incoming vessels were required to anchor “under the guns” of Fort Johnson in Charleston Harbor where they would be inspected by a port physician for anyone carrying a disease, including smallpox. If any were found, the ship would be left at anchor in the harbor for ten days until it was reinspected. Still, every year or so, someone in the city would get smallpox. By law, such people were required to self-quarantine in their homes, notify the government, and place a white flag prominently outside of their home. The government placed armed guards outside the home to ensure by force of arms that no one in or out of the home broke the quarantine. This quarantine at the point of a musket was remarkably effective, as Charleston suffered only two major outbreaks of smallpox prior to the Revolution, one in 1738 and a second in 1760.
There were no effective treatments for smallpox known to the English until early in the 18th century, when Lady Mary Montagu, wife of a British diplomat, observed the practice of variolation in Turkey. Variolation was a crude form of inoculation whereby a patient would be cut by a physician, who would then introduce live smallpox material into the cut. The patient would suffer a smallpox infection, but it was usually comparatively quite mild. Only 1 in 20 died from variolation, rather than 1 in 3, and those that survived it often suffered far less scarring. Furthermore, anyone who once had smallpox, whether by variolation or the “common way,” thereafter had an immunity to the disease.
Variolation was quite controversial. One, there was still a significant chance of suffering a typical course of the disease and perishing, so that variolating was a roll of the dice. Ben Franklin was one of those who decided not to variolate a son, a decision he came to rue the rest of his life. As he wrote in his Memoirs:
In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted him bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example shewing that the regret may be the same either way, and therefore that the safer should be chosen.
Two, the people afflicted with smallpox by variolation could still infect others, and anyone catching the disease through person-to-person contact suffered a typical course of the disease. In other words, those who had been variolated still posed a threat to public health that many colonists considered unacceptable.
Charleston’s Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1760 is fascinating in that regard. On the one hand, most of the people in the town were well aware of variolation and demanded it. In a town of about 8,000 people, within a matter of a few weeks, over 6,000 of the inhabitants were variolated. Many of the richest in the town, however, felt themselves safer by self-isolating, and they were dead set against variolation. This latter group formed the majority of the legislature, so they voted to outlaw variolation in the town. The Acting Governor, William Bull, and Henry Laurens, a future President of the Continental Congress, both acted to slow-walk the legislation so that by the time it was finally signed into law, everyone who wanted to be variolated in Charleston had already done so. The variolation was largely successful, with only a few hundred people dying because of the illness.
Fast forward to 1774. King Louis XVth of France, who had reigned as an absolute monarch for sixty-four years, died from smallpox, bringing to the throne his grandson, Louis XVI. Louis XVth had lost several costly wars with Britain and seemingly had no appetite for another. His grandson, however, proved quite willing to support the Revolution in the American colonies from its inception, and in 1777, openly sided with the colonists. As much as it pains me to say it, French assistance was a determining factor in America winning the Revolution.
By 1775, Britain and her colonies were at war. The vast majority of men who formed the Continental Army were from small towns and rural areas. They had never had smallpox. Britain was in the process of sending over large numbers of troops, the vast majority of whom had had smallpox and were now immune. Inevitably, these British ships brought the live virus with them, setting off epidemics in the colonies wherever the British Army or Navy congregated and igniting an epidemic that spread among the Indians continent-wide. Elizabeth Fenn has written an excellent book on the topic, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.
That pandemic began in 1775, during the siege of Boston, when a smallpox epidemic ran rampant in occupied Boston. The British commander, General Gage, began sending smallpox infected civilians outside of Boston into the Continental lines. General Washington immediately put only troops who had immunity to smallpox on the front lines and had them escort these civilians into quarantine areas. Further, after much consideration, he ordered that all future enlistees had to be variolated before joining with the Continental Army, thus inaugurating America’s first mandatory inoculation program.
But at the same time that Washinton was ordering mass variolation, a significant portion of the Continental Army was invading Canada. By late 1775, Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery had captured Montreal and were laying siege to the last major city in Canada, Quebec. The British Commander sent variolated prostitutes out among the colonists, igniting a smallpox epidemic that tore through the Continental Army and rendered it combat ineffective. Ultimately, the British were able to stave off the siege of Quebec and drive the greatly weakened Continental Army out of Canada.
Yet another critical effect of the smallpox epidemic was its impact on British plans to raise an army of slaves in America to fight against the colonists. In 1775, the Royal Governor of Virginia, the slave owner Lord Dunmore, issued Dunmore’s Proclamation, promising freedom to the slaves of American Rebels (not Loyalists) who would join the British Army and take up arms to fight the colonists. Washington and many southern slave-owners, most of whom lived in a world where slaves lived in numbers equal to or greater then than whites, could do the math. Washington was horrified. Of Dunmore and his plan, Washington wrote:
“If that man is not crushed before spring, he will become the most formidable enemy America has; his strength will increase as a snowball by rolling; and faster, if some expedient cannot be hit upon, to convince the slaves and servants of the impotency of his designs.
Smallpox thwarted Dunmore’s plan. African blacks had little herd immunity to smallpox, and the vast majority of slaves in the colonies had never been exposed to the disease. When those who tried to take up Dunmore’s offer ran to the British lines, many were soon ill with smallpox, a disease that was even more lethal for them than for the white population. As a consequence, slaves, whom Washington feared could be decisive in the Revolution, were ineffective.
Lastly, the diseases that African slaves had brought to the New World, including malaria and yellow fever, were both endemic and, at times, epidemic in the southern colonies. British soldiers lacked any herd immunity to these diseases and proved quite susceptible when they invaded South Carolina in 1779. Throughout the Southern Campaign, as many as half of the British soldiers were ill and combat ineffective at any given time. What appeared to be the start of a British success proved, in the end, to be Britain’s undoing when General Cornwallis surrendered the remnants of his army to General Washington at Yorktown. Epidemic disease was one of the critical causes of that defeat.
Neither smallpox nor malaria nor yellow fever would ever again play such a central role in warfare, But during the Revolution, they ultimately contributed to the British defeat, thus radically shaping world history.
And today we are suffering through yet another significant pandemic. This one, though it will end up killing far fewer than died from, say, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 or SARS and MERS of more recent origin, will arguably have greater implications for our nation and our foreign policy. I think that because we’re seeing the first truly national reaction to a pandemic, this one virtually shutting down our nation for an extended period. What do you think will be the end result? How will it change our nation and the world? How will it affect history?