The Century of Death

Europe - Revolutionary Impact – 1500-1650


            In a perfect world, revolutions would make life better for people.  In our world, this never happens.  At least not initially.  The French Revolution flirted with equality before putting its citizens through the guillotine and a bitterly fruitless series of continental wars.  The Industrial Revolution forced its participants to survive decades of urban squalor before reaping the benefits of an advanced economy.  And the Russian Revolution…well…let’s just say the twenty million people that perished probably would have preferred life just the way it was.

            But what about Europe’s little 16th century foray into the world of change?  What could possibly go wrong when people started meeting new neighbors and asking questions about their God?

            What could go wrong? 

            Well, where would you like me to begin?

            When Prince Henry and his Portuguese fleets first set out down the African coast, ushering in an era of exploration, the goal was spices.  Cheap, plentiful, little savory morsels of Eastern pleasure.  But when an eastern sea route was finally established and a couple continents were inadvertently discovered, what the world got was so much more cataclysmic than merely the exchange of some items that would end up in the spice cabinets of European nobility.

            In the Americas, life as the natives knew it ceased to exist.  Depending on which historian you ask, in 1500, when Columbus first arrived, the Americas were home to anywhere between 40 million and 100 million people.  Two centuries later, they were at five million.  Though the Black Plague was truly devastating and the Holocaust marked an era of unrestrained horror, the plight of the American indigenous populations has no equal.  Some call this loss of life a genocide, but that moniker seems to fit better when premeditated slaughter accompanies the carnage.  With the Americas, almost all of the death came from the silent killers of disease.

            The American continents, insulated from the germs that had bounced around Eurasia for millennia, were no match for the invasion of smallpox  Within a few decades of the first Spanish arrival, entire Caribbean island populations disappeared.  Those that survived were too weak to even put up resistance to the technologically superior Europeans who then stepped ashore.  Going back the other direction, syphilis infected the continent of Europe.  Although this disease took decades, not weeks, to destroy the bodies and minds of the infected, it did kill millions and eventually forced Europe to adopt strictly conservative (aka “monogamous”) sexual practices to limit its spread.

            The exchange between the Old and the New World of not only these diseases, but of goods, ideas and people, has become known as the Columbian Exchange or the Transatlantic Trade Route, and this route forever altered the civilizations on three continents.  Each region was...