Infectious Disease in the New World

The arrival of Europeans and Africans on the new continent was associated with a sharp decline in the number of Native Americans. The main reason for this was the pathogens that the invaders brought with them and to which the inhabitants of America did not have resistance (Crosby, 1991, p. 123). After the beginning of the active conquest of the continent by Europeans, Native American peoples faced a demographic collapse, and their population “fell by ninety percent or so in the first postconquest century” (Crosby, 1991, p. 124). However, epidemics were not only the cause of the near-extinction of the Native American peoples, but also the transformation of slavery.

In particular, the shortage of labor due to the declining population of the Indians forced the Europeans to increase the transatlantic slave trade. Thus, the number of Africans in the New World increased rapidly to make up for the lack of manpower to work on the plantations (Crosby, 1991, p. 128). However, the poor living conditions and diseases brought to the Americas by the Europeans shortened the lifespan of the slaves, resulting in a higher death rate compared to the birth rate.

In the late eighteenth-nineteenth century, Europeans began to actively move to the inland of the American continent, which allowed them to experience a population explosion. This was due to the need to develop new lands, the resistance of Europeans to most deadly diseases, good diet and medicine (Crosby, 1991, p. 129). Population growth due to the victory over epidemics, the elimination of hunger and improved hygiene in Europe led to the need to export people to the New World (Crosby, 1991, p. 132). Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, Europeans migrated by the millions to the Americas, resulting in new demographic changes. If during the period of active transatlantic slave trade African Americans comprised the majority of the population, now their proportion has been significantly reduced.

I found Cosby’s arguments compelling as they explain all the major stages of the colonization of the Americas by Europeans and the current demographic composition of the continents. The greatest surprise for me was how fast and drastic the downsizing of the native American peoples was. The information presented in the article is relatable to the modern world, as it explains demographic proportions that are present on the continents.


Crosby, A. W. (1991). Infectious disease and the demography of the Atlantic peoples. Journal of World History, 2(2), 119-133.

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