Capsule Review

Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650; Numbers From Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate

In This Review

Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650
By Noble David Cook
Cambridge University Press, 1998 240 pp. $15.95 Purchase
Numbers From Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate
By David P. Henige
University Of Oklahoma Press, 1998 544 pp. $47.95 Purchase

The Columbus quincentennial in 1992 unleashed an outpouring of revisionist texts that quickly turned the former hero into a "great Satan" -- the European who began the process of violent dispossession and destruction of the indigenous populations. Cook represents the recent corrective to this trend, arguing that the disaster was not a deliberate plot of the Spanish but a deadly result of Old World bacteria infecting new, vulnerable populations. For the first time ever, indigenous Americans suffered deadly Eurasian sicknesses in wave after wave of smallpox, measles, typhus, plague, influenza, malaria, and yellow fever. Pandemics ultimately wiped out entire peoples, while those who survived were too weak to resist European domination. Cook concludes that disease, not war, was primarily responsible for the rapid expansion of the Spanish empire. Although he is coy when it comes to numbers, he has produced a notable and well-written counterargument to some of the virulently anti-Spanish texts of the early 1990s.

Henige tackles a related topic: how scholars have constructed estimates of the pre-Columbian populations of the western hemisphere. His book will not be popular among his colleagues; Henige takes no prisoners in his powerful deconstruction of many cherished fables. The famous "Berkeley School" of demography, which claimed that the population of American Indians was 20 times greater than previous estimates, is one of his most notable targets. Henige argues that such high estimates are based on meager and often unfounded data. His marvelous demonstration of the use and abuse of data in history shows how subjective the extrapolation of numbers can be, however sophisticated the arithmetic.

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