Smallpox (from latin variola, meaning small pustule), is an infectious disease caused by the variola virus that belongs to the genus Orthopoxvirus, it’s characterized by deep vesicles or pustules on the skin 1. It is estimated that during the twentieth century alone it caused the death of 400 million people worldwide 2

The last registered smallpox case was in 1977, in Somalia, however, its worldwide eradication wasn’t certified until 1980 3. Edward Jenner, the investigator who created the vaccine against smallpox, described the disease as the deadliest in human history 4.

So far, the origin of smallpox remains unknown. Mummies with characteristic wounds of the disease dating back to the III century b. C. have been found in Egypt, including that of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V. The first documented descriptions were registered in the IV century a. C. in China and in the VII century a. C. in India 4.

Smallpox in New Spain

During the XVI century, living conditions for the indigenous population of New Spain were adverse. The presence of famines during various agricultural crisis, as well as slavery and economic exploitation, led to the development of infectious diseases and therefore, a high mortality rate in this sector of the population 5,6,7.

Because of this, epidemic outbreaks became a part of the daily life of the population of New Spain. This has been inferred thanks to medical historiography 8,9 and the existing documentary records, such as tax plates, geographical relations, conquerors and missionaries’ chronicles, parish and hospitals records 6,10-16. Between 1520-1521, smallpox (“hueyzahuatl” or the great leprosy) was the first registered epidemic in New Spain. It was mainly contained in the Center of Mexico and it is estimated to have caused the death of between 5 and 8 million of individuals 17 It is recognized as one of the causes of the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlan against the Spaniards 18

Between 1520-1521, smallpox (“hueyzahuatl” or the great leprosy) was the first registered epidemic in New Spain. It was mainly contained in the Center of Mexico and it is estimated to have caused the death of between 5 and 8 million of individuals 17

Documentary description, mainly chronicles about the Spanish conquest, have allowed the tracking of patient zero or the initial case of the epidemic outbreak of smallpox in New Spain. It all began in December 1518, in the port of Santo Domingo, located in La Española, an island in the Caribbean Sea, after the landing of slaves of African descent, infected with smallpox, in a Portuguese ship. From this moment on, the disease spread to Puerto Rico, Cuba and the rest of the Antilles 19.

Two years later, in 1520, the crew led by the Spanish captain Panfilo Narváez, left Cuba for New Spain to arrest Hernan Cortes. Among them was a slave of African descent identified as Francisco de Eguía who was already infected with smallpox. On May 30th of that same year, Narváez crew arrived at Cempoala, Veracruz, and thus began the dissemination of smallpox in New Spain 6.

Torquemada (1615) 19,20 describes it as follows:

“… a black man with smallpox was in Narváez army… The unburied dead were so many that the stench corrupted the air and there was fear of the great pestilence. The smallpox disease spread throughout New Spain and caused great mortality… Many think that this evil did not happen from the contagion of the black man because from time to time this disease and others were true and general in the Indies and by not having touched the Castilians, it seems to have a semblance of reason…”

This hypothesis is replicated in chronics about the Spanish conquest, those written by Motolinía 21, López de Gómara 22 and Díaz del Castillo 23 and native-mestizo sources, such as the Relación Geográfica de Tlaxcala by Muñoz Carmargo 24, the Códice Ramírez 25, the Décima Tercera Relación de Ixtlilxochitl 26. However, the research carried out by Brooks, 1993 27 suggests that there’s four reasons to doubt the credibility of this approach; i) all the documental evidence that exists on the topic, falls on a single source, Motolinía’s description; ii) Motolinía’s account is considered as a work of mythopoiesis; meaning, a fictional narration in which through an analogy with the biblical story “The Ten Plagues”, in which de Eguía was part of the characters of the story; iii) at that moment there was no knowledge was a disease that could be transmitted from one person to the other; iv) assuming de Eguía was infected with smallpox and infected other individuals that had contact with him, they could have presented symptoms after ten to twelve days, so it isn’t possible to identify the exact source of contagion, taking into account the limited medical knowledge of the time. Therefore, it is almost impossible to say that the initial case of smallpox in New Spain was Francisco de Eguía 27,28.

These types of assertions were made without considering its impact on Francisco de Eguía and the afro-descendant population of Mexico on that time period. Which continue to be part of a marginalized section of the population 29. In contrast, little is known about Juan Garrido, also afro-descendant and who also introduced wheat for the first time to New Spain, one of the cereals that alongside corn, form the basis of our diet today 30.

In contrast, little is known about Juan Garrido, also afro-descendant and who also introduced wheat for the first time to New Spain, one of the cereals that alongside corn, form the basis of our diet today 30.

We are currently facing the Covid-19 pandemic, that has become a worldwide problem and it has been accompanied by racism and xenophobia, mainly against people of Asian descent. Through international agreements, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 31, we’ve sought to diminish the racial rhetoric of this pandemic.

For this reason, it’s extremely important to raise awareness of the impact that any type of assertions related to the origin and spread of epidemic outbreaks can have, particularly on the integrity and stigmatization of some human populations, ancient or contemporary.


  1. Shors, T. Virus: Estudio Molecular Con Orientacion Clinica/ Molecular Study With Clinical Orientation. (Ed. Médica Panamericana, 2009).
  2. Henderson, D. A. et al. Smallpox as a Biological Weapon: Medical and Public Health Management. JAMA 281, 2127–2137 (1999).
  3. Acha, P. N. & Szyfres, B. Zoonoses and Communicable Diseases Common to Man and Animals. (Pan American Health Org, 2003).
  4. Meyer, H., Ehmann, R. & Smith, G. L. Smallpox in the Post-Eradication Era. Viruses 12, (2020).
  5. Crespo, H. G. Historia de Morelos: tierra, gente, tiempos del sur. in (H. Congreso del Estado de Morelos, 2010).
  6. Cook, N. D. & Lovell, W. G. Juicios secretos de Dios: epidemias y despoblación indígena en Hispanoamérica colonial. (Editorial Abya Yala, 2000).
  7. Meza Manzanilla, M. El declive de las condiciones de vida, salud y nutrición de los pobladores de Tetetzontilco en el siglo XVI. Estudios de Antropología Biológica 11, (2013).
  8. Malvido, E. & Viesca, C. La epidemia de cocoliztli de 1576. Historias México, DF 11, 27–33 (1985).
  9. Viesca Treviño, C. Las enfermedades. Historia general de la medicina en México. Medicina novohispana. Siglo XVI (1990).
  10. F. B. (médecin. The Opera Medicinalia: By Francisco Bravo. Printed in Mexico, 1570. With a Biographical and Bibliographical Introduction ; by Francisco Guerra,. (1570).
  11. Beaumont, F. Pablo: Crónica de Michoacán. Publicaciones del Archivo General de la Nación, México (1932).
  12. Telleriano-Remensis, C. Codex telleriano-remensis. Ritual, Divination and (1995).
  13. Inegi. Catálogo de Documentos históricos de las estadísticas en México (siglos XVI-XIX). (2005).
  14. Gimmel, M. Hacia una reconsideración del Códice de la Cruz Badiano: nuevas propuestas para el estudio de la medicina indígena en el período colonial. Colon. Latin Am. Rev. 17, 273–283 (2008).
  15. Baracs, R. M. El largo descubrimiento del Opera medicinalia de Francisco Bravo. (Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2015).
  16. Velázquez, P. F. & León Portilla, M. Códice Chimalpopoca. Anales de Cuauhtitlán y leyenda de los Soles. (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2019).
  17. Acuña-Soto Rodolfo & David W. Stahle. Megadrought and Megadeath in 16th Century Mexico. Emerg. Infect. Dis. 8, (2002).
  18. Mandujano, A., Camarillo, L. & Mandujano, M. Historia de las epidemias en el México antiguo. Algunos aspectos biológicos y sociales. Casa del Tiempo 5, 9–21 (2003).
  19. Guerra, F. Origen de las epidemias en la conquista de América. Quinto Cent. (1988).
  20. Torquemada, J. de. Monarquía indiana. 1615. Ed. Miguel León Portilla. Mexico City: Biblioteca Porrúa (1975).
  21. Motolinía, T. History of the Indians of New Spain. (Academy of American Franciscan History, 1951).
  22. de Gómara, F. L. Historia de las conquistas de Hernando Cortés. (la testamentaría de Ontiveros, 1826).
  23. del Castillo, B. D. Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España.[Textband]. (Instituto Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1982).
  24. Muñoz Camargo, D. Relación geográfica de Tlaxcala. Relaciones Geo (1984).
  25. de Tovar, J., y Berra, M. O. & Ramírez, J. F. Códice Ramírez: manuscrito del siglo XVI intitulado: Relación del origen de los indios que habitan esta Nueva España, según sus historias. (Ed. Innovación, 1979).
  26. de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, F. Décima tercia relación de la venida de los españoles y principio de la ley evangélica. (P. Robredo, 1938).
  27. Brooks, F. J. Revising the Conquest of Mexico: Smallpox, Sources, and Populations. J. Interdiscip. Hist. 24, 1–29 (1993).
  28. McCaa, R. Spanish and Nahuatl Views on Smallpox and Demographic Catastrophe in Mexico. J. Interdiscip. Hist. 25, 397–431 (1995).
  29. Díaz Casas, M. C. & Velázquez, M. E. Estudios afromexicanos: una revisión historiográfica y antropológica. Tabula Rasa 221–248 (2017).
  30. de Gómara, F. L. & Lacroix, J. G. Historia general de las Indias y Vida de Hernán Cortés: Historia de la conquista de México. (Fundacion Biblioteca Ayacuch, 1979).
  31. Nations, U. & United Nations. Convención internacional sobre la eliminación de todas las formas de discriminación racial. (2014) doi:10.18356/2062d146-es.

Leave a Reply