Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History

Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker

Week 4.  Colonies

excerpts from
The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca (1542)
by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca (1490-1557)

...After a very short time, out of eighty men who had come there in our two parties only fifteen remained alive.

Then the natives fell sick from the stomach, so that one-half of them died also, and they, believing we had killed them, and holding it to be certain, they agreed among themselves to kill those of us who survived.

But when they came to execute it an Indian who kept me told them not to believe we were the cause of their dying, for if we had so much power we would not have suffered so many of our own people to perish without being able to remedy it ourselves.  He also told them there remained but very few of us, and none of them did any harm or injury, so that the best was to let us alone.  It pleased Our Lord they should listen to his advice and counsel and give up their idea.

To this island we gave the name of the Island of Ill-Fate....

On the island I have spoken of they wanted to make medicine men of us without any examination or asking for our diplomas, because they cure diseases by breathing on the sick, and with that breath and their hands they drive the ailment away.  So they summoned us to do the same in order to be at least of some use.  We laughed, taking it for a jest, and said that we did not understand how to cure.

Thereupon they withheld our food to compel us to do what they wanted.  Seeing our obstinacy, an Indian told me that I did not know what I said by claiming that what he knew was useless, because stones and things growing out in the field have their virtues, and he, with a heated stone, placing it on the stomach, could cure and take away pain, so that we, who were wiser men, surely had greater power and virtue.

At last we found ourselves in such stress as to have to do it, without risking any punishment.  Their manner of curing is as follows:  When one is ill they call in a medicine man, and after they are well again not only do they give him all they have, but even things they strive to obtain from their relatives.  All the medicine man does is to make a few cuts where the pain is located and then suck the skin around the incisions.  They cauterize with fire, thinking it very effective, and I found it to be so by my own experience.  Then they breathe on the spot where the pain is and believe that with this the disease goes away.

The way we treated the sick was to make over them the sign of the cross while breathing on them, recite a Pater noster and Ave Maria, and pray to God, Our Lord, as best we could to give them good health and inspire them to do us some favors.  Thanks to His will and the mercy He had upon us, all those for whom we prayed, as soon as we crossed them, told the others that they were cured and felt well again.  For this they gave us good cheer, and would rather be without food themselves so as to give it to us, and they gave us hides and other small things.  So great was the lack of food then that I often remained without eating anything whatsoever for three days, and they were in the same plight, so that it seemed to me impossible for life to last, although I afterwards suffered still greater privations and much more distress, as I shall tell further on....

On the night we arrived there some Indians came to Castillo complaining that their heads felt very sore and begging him for relief.  As soon as he had made the sign of the cross over them and recommended them to God, at that very moment the Indians said that all the pain was gone.  They went back to their abodes and brought us many tunas [prickly-pear cacti] and a piece of venison, something we did not know any more what it was, and as the news spread that same night there came many other sick people for him to cure, and each brought a piece of venison, and so many there were that we did not know where to store the meat.  We thanked God for His daily increasing mercy and kindness, and after they were all well they began to dance and celebrate and feast until sunrise of the day following....

Early the next day many Indians came and brought five people who were paralyzed and very ill, and they came for Castillo to cure them.  Every one of the patients offered him his bow and arrows, which he accepted, and by sunset he made the sign of the cross over each of the sick, recommending them to God, Our Lord, and we all prayed to Him as well as we could to restore them to health.  And He, seeing there was no other way of getting those people to help us so that we might be saved from our miserable existence, had mercy upon us, and in the morning all woke up well and hearty and went away in such good health as if they never had had any ailment whatever.  This caused them great admiration and moved us to thanks to Our Lord and to greater faith in His goodness and the hope that He would save us, guiding us to where we could serve Him.  For myself I may say that I always had full faith in His mercy and in that He would liberate me from captivity, and always told my companions so.

When the Indians had gone and taken along those recently cured, we removed to others that were eating tunas also, called Cultalchuches and Malicones, which speak a different language, and with them were others, called Coayos and Susolas, and on another side those called Atayos, who were at war with the Susolas, and exchanging arrow shots with them every day.

Nothing was talked about in this whole country but of the wonderful cures which God, Our Lord, performed through us, and so they came from many places to be cured, and after having been with us two days some Indians of the Susolas begged Castillo to go and attend to a man who had been wounded, as well as to others that were sick and among whom, they said, was one on the point of death.  Castillo was very timid, especially in difficult and dangerous cases, and always afraid that his sins might interfere and prevent the cures from being effective.  Therefore the Indians told me to go and perform the cure.  They liked me, remembering that I had relieved them while they were out gathering nuts, for which they had given us nuts and hides.  This had happened at the time I was coming to join the Christians.  So I had to go, and Dorantes and Estevanico went with me.

When I came close to their ranches I saw that the dying man we had been called to cure was dead, for there were many people around him weeping and his lodge was torn down, which is a sign that the owner has died.  I found the Indian with eyes up turned, without pulse and with all the marks of lifelessness.  At least so it seemed to me, and Dorantes said the same.  I removed a mat with which he was covered, and as best I could prayed to Our Lord to restore his health, as well as that of all the others who might be in need of it, and after having made the sign of the cross and breathed on him many times they brought his bow and presented it to me, and a basket of ground tunas, and took me to many others who were suffering from vertigo.  They gave me two more baskets of tunas, which I left to the Indians that had come with us.  Then we returned to our quarters....

We remained with the Avavares Indians for eight months, according to our reckoning of the moons.  During that time they came for us from many places and said that verily we were children of the sun.  Until then Dorantes and the negro had not made any cures, but we found ourselves so pressed by the Indians coming from all sides, that all of us had to become medicine men.  I was the most daring and reckless of all in undertaking cures.  We never treated anyone that did not afterwards say he was well, and they had such confidence in our skill as to believe that none of them would die as long as we were among them....

Those who were with us took away from those people who came to get cured their bows and arrows, their shoes and beads, if they wore any, and placed them before us to induce us to cure the sick.  As soon as these had been treated they went away contented and saying they felt well.

So we left there also, going to others, by whom we were also very well received, and they brought us their sick, who, after we had made the sign of the cross over them, would say they were healed, and he who did not get well still believed we might cure him.  And at what the others whom we had treated told they rejoiced and danced so much as not to let us sleep....

Here they brought to me a man who, they told, a long time ago had been shot through the left side of the back with an arrow, the head of which stuck close to his heart.  He said it gave him much pain, and that on this account he was sick.  I touched the region of the body and felt the arrowhead, and that it had pierced the cartilage.  So, with a knife, I cut open the breast as far as the place.  The arrow point had gotten athwart, and was very difficult to remove.  By cutting deeper, and inserting the point of the knife, with great difficulty I got it out; it was very long.  Then, with a deer-bone, according to my knowledge of surgery, I made two stitches.  After I had extracted the arrow they begged me for it, and I gave it to them.  The whole village came back to look at it, and they sent it further inland that the people there might see it also.

On account of this cure they made many dances and festivities, as is their custom.  The next day I cut the stitches, and the Indian was well.  The cut I had made only showed a scar like a line in the palm of the hand, and he said that he felt not the least pain.

Now, this cure gave us such fame among them all over the country as they were capable of conceiving and respecting.  We showed them our rattle, and they told us that where it had come from there were a great many sheets of the same (metal) buried, that it was a thing they valued highly, and that there were fixed abodes at the place.  We believe it to be near the South Sea, for we always heard that sea was richer (in metal) than the one of the north....

One night I went away to sleep out in the field apart from them; but they soon came to where I was, and remained awake all night in great alarm, talking to me, saying how frightened they were.  They entreated us not to be angry any longer, because, even if it was their death, they would take us where we chose.  We feigned to be angry still, so as to keep them in suspense, and then a singular thing happened.

On that same day many fell sick, and on the next day eight of them died!  All over the country, where it was known, they became so afraid that it seemed as if the mere sight of us would kill them.  They besought us not to be angry nor to procure the death of any more of their number, for they were convinced that we killed them by merely thinking of it. In truth, we were very much concerned about it, for, seeing the great mortality, we dreaded that all of them might die or forsake us in their terror, while those further on, upon learning of it, would get out of our way hereafter.  We prayed to God our Lord to assist us, and the sick began to get well.  Then we saw something that astonished us very much, and it was that, while the parents, brothers and wives of the dead had shown deep grief at their illness, from the moment they died the survivors made no demonstration whatsoever, and showed not the slightest feeling; nor did they dare to go near the bodies until we ordered their burial....

All those people came to us that we might touch and cross them; and they were so obtrusive as to make it difficult to endure since all, sick and healthy, wanted to be crossed.  It happened frequently that women of our company would give birth to children and forthwith bring them to have the sign of the cross made over them and the babes be touched by us.  They always accompanied us until we were again in the care of others, and all those people believed that we came from Heaven.....

Go to:
  • Treatise against the Serpentine Disease... (c.1510) by Ruy Diaz de Isla (1462-1542)
  • the writings of an anonymous author in Tlatelolco (1528)
  • the Florentine Codex, or Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España (c.1579), created under the supervision of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (c.1499-1590):
    • Physicians, from Book X
    • Ailments of the Body and Medicines Suitable to Use for Their Cure, from Book X
    • The Plague Named Totomonjztli, from Book XII
  • Brief Relation of the Gods and Rites of Heathenism (c. 1629) by Don Pedro Ponce, Beneficiado of the District of Tzumpahuacan
  • Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain (1629) by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (c.1587-1646)
  • A Briefe and True Reporte of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590) by Thomas Hariot (1560-1621)
  • "June 2001:  And the Moon Be Still as Bright" (1948), in The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1920-  )
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes