Tuesday, 13 August 2013

How smallpox conquered an empire

On this day…………….492 years ago, the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, took Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City. Cortes was a commander of extraordinary energy and daring, and he captured the Aztec capital with just a few hundred Spaniards, though it is often forgotten that his army also included tens of thousands of Indians.

And he had a secret weapon more deadly than any of the arms his men deployed so ruthlessly – smallpox. The Aztecs had no resistance to this disease introduced from Europe.

In the crowded streets of the capital, it spread like wildfire. The victims who found themselves covered from head to foot with agonising sores, called it the ‘great rash’. They ‘died in heaps, like bedbugs’, wrote a missionary.

Among those who perished was the Aztecs’ leader, Cuitlahuac. Still they held out heroically for three months, and when the Spaniards finally entered Tenochtitlán, they found themselves walking on the corpses of those killed by smallpox. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

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