How Columbus Silently Devastated Europe

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, March 16, 2014
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“Historically, syphilis is right up there with Germans. It wiped out the Romanovs, it decimated our fleet at Pearl Harbor, and of course, Fidel Castro impersonated Marilyn Monroe and gave President Kennedy a case of syphilis so severe that eventually it blew the back of his head off.” —Noblet, Strangers with Candy

In A Nutshell

Christopher Columbus and his men are credited for bringing a lot of wonderful things back to Europe from the New World. It’s long been up for debate on whether or not they brought back one thing that, for so many, negated all the good. Now, evidence suggests that the sailors did, in fact, bring syphilis back to Europe; when they did, they unleashed a plague of rotting, festering flesh.

The Whole Bushel

The first confirmed cases of syphilis happened in Italy in 1495, about two years after Columbus returned from his first voyage to the New World. Those first few cases started in the army of French king Charles the VIII, spreading to Italian military and civilians alike when the French invaded Italy. It was originally known as mal francese, or the French disease, and it didn’t take long before it spread like the plague.

Untreated syphilis is a horrifying sight. At first, doctors in Renaissance Italy were hesitant to admit that there was a new disease causing flesh to rot from people’s still-living bodies, proclaiming that they hadn’t done anything bad enough to cause God to unleash such a nightmarish plague on the people. Traveling friars thought that the disease was a herald of the Second Coming, and when syphilis kept spreading out of Italy and into the rest of Europe, the church started taking steps to quarantined those they thought were being punished.

From the outside, syphilis was little different from the widely known leprosy. There was the same chronic wasting away of the body, the same sores, the same lack of successful cures. While it was known that syphilis was sexually transmitted, treatment of the two remained interchangeable. Those with syphilis were often confined to hospitals with others suffering from long-term illnesses, and the lack of distinction made it difficult from the beginning to tell just where the disease came from.

Evidence of syphilis before Columbus’s return to Europe and the subsequent outbreak a few years later is sketchy at best, and it’s recently been debunked. A handful of skeletons bearing scars that were thought to be proof of pre-Columbian syphilis have failed other tests for the virus, and researchers point out that if the disease had existed in Europe before Columbus, there would have been more signs than just the handful of skeletons that have been uncovered.

All indications point to a New World infestation of the syphilis virus, but it didn’t happen how you’re thinking. It’s unlikely that a group of randy sailors stuck at sea for too long were too indiscriminate in their actions and brought the venereal disease back with them, where they continued to spread it in Europe.

The syphilis virus has been traced back to a non-venereal strain of virus that still exists today, and it’s mainly restricted to children in Guyana. This closely related disease, called yaws, is transmitted through skin contact and manifests itself in red, itchy sores on the skin, swelling of the extremities, and eventual scarring. Like syphilis, the disease can cause permanent disfigurement if not treated with antibiotics. Modern tests that detect syphilis are also used in suspected cases of yaws.

Now, it’s thought that it was this closely related virus that came back to Europe on ship with sailors. The virus thrived in the hot, wet climate of the New World, and it’s now believed to have mutated into the virus that caused syphilis. The disease needed to adapt to the colder climate of Europe, and it mutated into the deadly, sexually transmitted virus that’s still around today.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Genetic Study Bolsters Columbus Link to Syphilis
NY Times: Yaws—Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment
Italy in the Age of the Renaissance, edited by John M. Najemy
ScienceDaily: Skeletons point to Columbus voyage for syphilis origins