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How The Americas Were Won: Pandemic Imperialism

Historian Jamon Jordan of the Black Scroll Network places the current pandemic in historical context. We should ALL take heed…


From 1492-1502, Christopher Columbus (Columbus was Italian, and his real name in Northern Italy was Cristoffa Corombo, while in the rest of Italy he would’ve been Cristoforo Colombo) made 4 voyages to the Caribbean. Along with bringing Catholicism, he also brought European conquest and slavery.

But that ain’t it.

The Spanish, who sent Columbus to the “Indies”, and were the overwhelming majority of those who came with Columbus on his 4 voyages, brought at least 30 diseases from Europe that the Carib, Arawak, Taino and other indigenous people of the Caribbean had no immunity against.

Smallpox, influenza, measles, bubonic plague.

You Name It.

The pandemic caused by these diseases killed over 200,000 people in the Caribbean – about 95% of the indigenous population by 1517.

The diseases made it easier for European conquest over the Caribbean. So the Spanish would take Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and more; the French would take Guadeloupe, Martinique, and San Domingue – which you know as Haiti; the Dutch would take Curaçao and Suriname; and the British would take over Barbados, the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Jamaica and more.

The Portuguese took over Brazil.

The disease pandemic of the Caribbean paved the way for the colonization of ALL OF the Americas.

In 1519, Hernán Cortés, a Spaniard goes to Mexico to conquer one of the most powerful empires in the world – the Aztecs.

Although he has powerful weapons – horses, guns and cannons – it is an outbreak of smallpox which weakens the Aztec army to such a level that Cortés is able to sweep into and conquer Tenochtitlan and topple Moctezuma II’s rule over Mexico.

In 1607, English settlers establish a colony in what they name Jamestown, in what is now the state of Virginia. These English colonists, like the earlier Columbus-led Spanish bring dozens of diseases to the Powhatan Confederacy – a union of indigenous people in the Virginia area.

By 1700, 75% of the Native peoples in Virginia died, including members of the once powerful Powhatan Chiefdom of more than 30 tribes, including the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Chickahominy.

Smallpox, introduced by the English settlers at Jamestown, then swept the Atlantic coast from Florida to Maine, and moves inland.

In 1620, when the Puritan Separatists arrive at Plimouth (Plymouth), they find a cleared land perfect for planting and settling.


Because British sailors have been here already and caused a smallpox epidemic among the Wampanoag and their village Patuxet, was wiped out.

The “Pilgrims” would declare that God cleared the land for them as a blessing.

During and after the Civil War, there was a smallpox epidemic, and as Black people died after becoming free, whites, including northerners, declared that Black people were dying because they were physically inferior and there should be little to no health care given to them because this is nature taking its course.

In 1918, during the major flu pandemic, 50 million people died worldwide. However, in the United States, Black people died at 3 times the rate of whites.


Black people were turned away from most clinics and hospitals because Black people were not allowed to be treated in white medical facilities.

If they were allowed, they were relegated to areas in the basement and received just enough care to be quarantined away from other people. If they didn’t get better on their own, they died there with almost no care from white doctors.

It was during this flu pandemic that Black doctors in Detroit founded the first 2 Black hospitals in the city – Mercy Hospital in 1917, founded by Drs. David and Daisy Northcross, and Dunbar Hospital, in 1918, founded by Dr. James Ames, and 30 other Black doctors.

One of the reasons why Detroit gained 2 Black hospitals within one year was because of the heightened level of illness in the Black community largely connected with the flu pandemic and the racist policies of the white medical community.

Dr. Ossian Sweet, after he, and his wife, siblings and friends win freedom after being charged with murder when they defended their home in 1925, lost his wife, his daughter, and his brother to tuberculosis. Because of the TB outbreak, Dr. Sweet would found a succession of TB hospitals, each one closing after being attacked by the federal IRS, or higher rate fees from insurance companies.

Dr. Sweet himself would be lost to suicide in 1960.

So, today as we deal with COVID-19, and we see the higher rates of death surging in the Black community, you should be very clear about the history of pandemics and race.

Black people and Indigenous People have been subjected to diseases from Columbus to Tuskegee, and they have also been discriminated by the white health care community which exacerbated their death rates.

Political leaders have used outbreaks as justification for segregation and marginalization of Black people and the poor throughout world history, ESPECIALLY in the United States.

Your eyes are not playing tricks on you when you see a hospital in predominantly Black Detroit have so many dead bodies that they stack them on top of one another and can’t find the corpses of people when the funeral home and families come to claim their loved ones.

It should be NO SURPRISE that Nazi-like racist reactionaries invade the state Capitol and connect their disdain for stay-at-home policies with their ideology of anti-Blackness.

Pandemics have historically been periods of heightened racism, where attacks on Black people and Indigenous people are magnified as well as a politically strengthened war against the poor in general.

During the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s-1990s, the LGBT community was further “other-ized” and Black people were too. The federal government even implemented a policy against Haiti and Haitian immigrants as an answer to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

And the continent of Africa has never really recovered from the AIDS pandemic.

Not even going to bring up Ebola.

There have already been numerous attacks and even killings of Asian-Americans as a racist response to the coronavirus. The president himself referred to it over and over as the “Chinese virus.”

So When folks post or attach the hashtag
#WeAreInThisTogether, and believe it to be true, that we are REALLY ALL IN THIS TOGETHER – they are either historically naive or intellectually dishonest.

Because this has never been the case and there is no American precedent for a health crisis to create unity between races.

At best, a form of unity across racial and class lines during a heath crisis pandemic is AN ASPIRATION.

It is something we may want TO WORK TOWARDS.

But be clear, a LOT OF PEOPLE do not want that, and there is no widespread history of this.

The legacy is something different, and Black folks, at best, need to find ways to work together, provide and support community groups that assist residents, transport goods and services, do what they can to help the medical facilities in their communities, and stay healthy.

The history – the legacy – the present-day reality IS – that there was not, is not and won’t be a cavalry of support from all sides of society and that Black folks are largely ON THEIR OWN.

Help is not coming.

And if it does come, it arrives late.

© Nadir Omowale