When a Virus Changed History

History Resources for Children

Gripped as we all are, in an extraordinary crisis – fearful and yet hopeful – I am reminded of an episode when a Virus changed the course of History.

The year is 1521. The setting is the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador has set out to conquer large part of the Americas for the King of Spain. The country is ruled by the Aztecs. Their king Montezuma is a formidable leader and wants to protect his land and his people from the invaders.

Cortés tries to convince many of the native tribes to betray their leader and come over to his side. He knows he must employ other means to win the fight, as the Spanish are greatly outnumbered.

They have already suffered heavy casualties and Cortés has lost nearly a third of his men. The Spaniards have been forced to retreat to the coast. If the Aztecs pressed further, he would have no choice but to get his men into the waiting ships and leave America.

The Spaniards needed a miracle. And a miracle it was indeed.

One of the slaves in the camp of the Spaniards had been infected by smallpox – a virulent disease that had existed in Europe for a while, becoming endemic among its people. However the smallpox virus was new to the Native Americans who did not have the immunity to fight it.

That night, the virus was transmitted from the European camp to the Aztecs and one after another, many of the Native Americans soldiers died of smallpox.

An oil painting of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards

Gradually it spread beyond the warriors. Area after area succumbed to the infection. In some places half the population was wiped out. From kings and leaders to farmers and children – the virus spared nobody.

The disease spread from town to town and it was followed by famine as few people remained to till the soil. Three million natives were killed, estimated to be about one 3rd of the entire population.

The Aztecs thought the disease was supernatural, a kind of curse as it was only killing them and not the Europeans (who had grown immune to it). Their interpretation of this event was that they were being punished by angry gods and that the Spanish God was superior to the Aztec Gods.

This paved the way for the local people who had survived, to give up their own faith and Gods and adopt Christianity as their religion. There were mass conversions to Christianity and as we see even today, America is for the most part White Caucasian and Christian. Hard to believe this was all a fallout of a virus huh?

The grimmest examples of germs’ role in history come from the European conquest of the Americas that began with Columbus’s voyage of 1492. Numerous as were the native American victims of the murderous Spanish Conquistadors, they were far outnumbered by the victims of murderous Spanish microbes.   

Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel

Added to the virulence of the virus, was the legend of Quetzlcoatl, the native God of the Aztecs who was predicted to arrive from the east and destroy their empire. To the natives, Cortés perhaps appeared to be the living manifestation of that legend as he had arrived from the East in ships with sails that the natives had not seen before. Also, he looked different from them – was fair skinned, had a beard, rode on a horse, spoke a different language. These factors added to striking fear into their hearts.

The legend of Queszelcoatl, the Aztec God, accentuated the problem for the Native Americans and worked to the advantage of the Spaniards

All in all, the smallpox virus aided the decimation of Native American populations by the Europeans.


It is said that caking the face with make-up, originated in Europe as a way to cover up the scars, rash and lesions caused by smallpox upon one’s face. So those who love make-up, well, you have a virus to thank!

Ripple effect of the virus

As a consequence of the decimation of the native population, the Europeans found that they did not have labourers to work at the farms and mines. Slavery and the slave trade, by which huge numbers of people were brought in from Africa into America in inhuman conditions to serve their white masters, was a corollary of the vanishing of the Native American population.

To think that all of this was made possible because of a virus – the vulnerability of one set of people to the virus and the immunity of another set people to the same virus – is quite unbelievable and yet it is true.

Later, the Europeans adopted this technique to completely conquer the Americas. They realised that smallpox was spread by direct or indirect body contact. The Europeans coming into the Americas, wiped out the Native American hosts by sending them gifts of blankets that had been previously used by smallpox patients.

Just like the Trojan horse, the blankets were a lethal gift. Hundreds and thousands of Native Americans, who had never encountered the smallpox virus before died like flies, paving the way for the European conquest of Mexico and the rest of America.

The earliest hint of smallpox is said to be found in the lesions of Egyptian mummies – most famously that of Ramses V.
Lessons for us?

I do not like to add a moralistic spin to what I write. I do however seek that readers, particularly children, can take away from a history lesson, more than just information about an event.

So, what are the lessons we can draw?

Firstly, that this is not the first time humans have found themselves helpless victims of a deadly virus.

Second, while conspiracy theories about the use of a virus as biological warfare abound, history demonstrates that it is quite possible and has been done before.

Third – Just as we don’t blame all Spaniards and white men for this reprehensible act, blaming every Chinese person and every Chinese-looking person, is uncalled for.

Four- while superstitions and belief may no doubt provide mental relief in tough times, placing sole reliance on a supernatural force and throwing caution and reason to the wind, only add to the gravity of the problem and do not help in solving it.

As an addendum and perhaps most importantly – the smallpox virus which killed nearly 300 million people in the 20th century alone, nearly three times more than all the wars in that century, has been successfully eradicated. So tough times though these are, they will not last!

Here’s reaching out to all readers to be hopeful – follow precautions and abide by directions of the authorities while you’re at it – and stay safe!



    • mallikaravikumar
      March 26, 2020 - 12:27 am ·

      Thank you so much Lalitha. Such inputs from readers are the best boost to keep at it 🙂

  • Trupti Shelar
    March 26, 2020 - 7:42 am ·

    This is such a wonderful work in such difficult times. I have been loving your work since long. Keep it up and thank you for sharing

    • mallikaravikumar
      March 27, 2020 - 12:13 pm ·

      Thank you Trupti. Feels great to hear such feedback. Hope to keep at it and not disappoint my readers 🙂 Thank you and take care

  • Arwa
    March 27, 2020 - 7:02 pm ·

    What a great insight into the history of virus. Beautifully put up. Amazing read. Please keep up the good work. We all enjoyed reading it.

    • mallikaravikumar
      March 27, 2020 - 7:55 pm ·

      Thank you Arwa. So sweet of you to leave this comment. I am glad you liked the post and your encouragement means a lot!

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