How Columbus Silently Devastated Europe

“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

  • Check

    Yet another seal on the Christopher Columbus infamy coffin. Hard to imagine during my youth how he was such an honored man in history. Now, he is an example of how the truth can warp in the hands of those in power.

    • Nathaniel A.

      In the eyes of the general population, his good deeds outweigh his bad ones.

      • Andy West

        Only in the ones who haven’t gone blind yet.

        • OC

          Many — most — can’t think outside the Religion of White Supremacy.

      • rincewind

        What good deeds? He certainly didn’t prove that the earth was round. Even 2000 years earlier, ancient Greek mathematicians had already proven that the Earth was round, not flat. This was known throughout educated Europe at the time. Columbus, a self-taught man, greatly underestimated the Earth’s circumference. He also thought Europe was wider than it actually was and that Japan was farther from the coast of China than it really was. For these reasons, he figured he could reach Asia by going west, a concept that most of educated Europe at the time thought was daft — not because the Earth was flat, but because Columbus’ math was so wrong.

        Also he didn’t discover America. Even if we ignore the fact that millions of humans already inhabited this land later to be called the Americas, having discovered it millennia before. And let’s ignore that whole Leif Ericson voyage to Greenland and modern-day Canada around 1000 C.M.E. If Columbus discovered America, he himself didn’t know. Until his death he claimed to have landed in Asia, even though most navigators knew he didn’t.

        • Nathaniel A.

          His good deed was opening up the Americas to European colonization.

          • rincewind

            Are you calling genocide a good deed? He ultimately caused the deaths of millions of Americans.

          • Nathaniel A.

            “opening up the Americas to European colonization.” How does this constitute genocide? Sure genocide happened, but it isn’t inherent in the word “colonization.”

          • OC

            Yes. It is.

          • rincewind

            Your original statement: “His good deed was opening up the Americas to European colonization.”

            There isn’t any appreciable difference between colonization and conquest. There is documentary evidence that Columbus engineered a program of forced labour that reduced the American population from millions to thousands in little over a decade.

            Bobadilla, who ruled as governor from 1500 was tasked by the Court with investigating the accusations of brutality made against Columbus. A recently discovered report by de Bobadilla alleges that Columbus regularly used torture and mutilation to govern Hispaniola. The 48-page report, found in 2006 in the state archive in the Spanish city of Valladolid, contains testimonies from 23 people about Columbus and his brothers’ treatment of colonial subjects during his seven-year rule.

            According to the report, Columbus once punished a man found guilty of stealing corn by having his ears and nose cut off and then selling him into slavery. Testimony recorded in the report claims that Columbus congratulated his brother Bartolomé on “defending the family” when the latter ordered a woman paraded naked through the streets and then had her tongue cut out for suggesting that Columbus was of lowly birth.

            The document also describes how Columbus put down native unrest and revolt; he first ordered a brutal crackdown in which many natives were killed and then paraded their dismembered bodies through the streets in an attempt to discourage further rebellion.

            “Columbus’s government was characterised by a form of tyranny,” Consuelo Varela, a Spanish historian who has seen the document, told journalists. “Even those who loved him [Columbus] had to admit the atrocities that had taken place.”

            Other testimony from the period accuses Columbus of systematic brutality against the natives and engineering a program of forced labour that reduced their population from millions to thousands in little over a decade. The priest Bartolomé de las Casas, son of the merchant Pedro de las Casas who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, described Columbus’ treatment of the natives in his History of the Indies:

            “Endless testimonies…prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives… But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then… The admiral (Columbus), it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.”

            Colonization can never be thought of as a “good deed”.

          • Nathaniel A.

            Colonization: to create a colony in or on (a place) : to take control of (an area) and send people to live there(Merriam-Webster)

            As you can see, colonization is a fairly innocuous practice when applied normally, Columbus just went overboard with the whole thing. Columbus surely committed atrocities, but as I said in my original comment, in most people’s eyes this is outweighed. By opening up the Americans to European colonizing, he not only influenced Spain(under which the aforementioned crimes against humanity took place) to take their portion, but also Portugal, England, and France etc.

          • rincewind

            There isn’t any need to tell me the meanings of words. I have made a very good living out of the things throughout my writing career.

            Columbus and Spain subjugated the American population by conquest:
            The subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by military force, such as the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish

            By your own definition, colonization only means sending people to live in a place. It doesn’t mean killing the people who already live there.

            Anyway, it is getting late here now so I’m off. It has been a good discussion, Nathaniel.

          • Nathaniel A.

            Good way to end it civilly.

          • tumadre

            you self hating asshole. Go back to Europe then. hypocritical fuck.

          • Mae

            Colonisation is not a “fairly innocuous practice.” It created a divided world that subordinated non-European cultures. Read some Charles Mills, Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, or a whole host of other post-colonial theorists to further educate yourself on the subject.

          • Wes Johson

            No, he didn’t cause genocide. You can’t blame one person for the actions of others, when their aims were totally different. And..colonizing America was inevitable, as were the eventual pandemics.

            Anyone who, on one hand, blames Columbus for what befell the First Nations…AND points out Columbus never reached America, clearly isn’t that interested in thinking much.

          • rincewind

            There isn’t any need for insults – I am able to think most of the time 😉

            Where did I (quote) “point out Columbus never reached America”? Of course he did, although he never knew it.

          • OC

            Yes. He is.

          • inconspicuous detective

            gen. speak, i agree with this. generally, anyway. if you look at how things played out, genocide was/is an inevitable part of colonization, and right now, this moment in the present we’ve (americans) benefited greatly from the loss of the american indian population. no, that does not make it just, but yes, it’s the reality of the situation. two cultures, many cultures, cannot coexist long – term and make a viable nation, and our interests (economic, social) were constantly in conflict with theirs (plains buffalo, land to use, etc.). eventually, you had a “break don’t bend” situation. we won. end of story.

          • Andy West

            His dirty deed was opening it up to infection.

          • OC

            The thing about Columbus that makes my stomach ache is his desperate, inate, contagious HATRED. Even if you review books on the Roman Empire, read about the travels of Livingstone, you won’t necessarily find that pure unreasonable HATE manifesting itself whereever they go. Greed, theft yes – that we understand is the nature of the Beast. And Columbus recorded it all in his Journals.

          • OC

            How’d that help YOU? Or anyone else?

        • Groundskeeper Willie

          What good deeds? Are you serious? Have you tried his salame? And don’t get me started on that peppered turkey.

      • OC

        Just shoot me.

        • Nathaniel A.

          Do you have anything to contribute to this discussion, or are you just trying to insult it?

          • OC

            Pretty much insult it I think.

          • Nathaniel A.

            Insulting anonymous strangers online. Your parents must be so proud.

          • OC

            We were talking about the *discussion* of the *idea* that Columbus’ explorations had any positive effect on the inhabitants of America. FOCUS!

          • Nathaniel A.

            “WE” were not, Rincewind and I were.

          • OC


          • Joseph

            You’re basically discussing it with anyone that visits this site and has the ability to read.

          • Nathaniel A.

            Are you so sure that is a bad thing?

          • Joseph

            I didn’t take a position on whether it was good or bad. I guess it really depends on the topic.

        • inconspicuous detective

          ya know, that would be a great way to prove nathaniel’s “do one bad deed, do a world of good later” argument. don’t be so stupid in the future.

  • Hillyard

    Montezuma’s ultimate revenge. (Yes I know that it was Cortez that brought down the Aztecs but it sounds so right.)

  • Mark Bryant

    This is a really good article but the only inaccuracy is that technically Syphilis is a bacteria and not a virus. This article keeps mentioning it as a virus instead of a bacteria or simply an std.

  • Jazzy

    This is creepy. The disease basically “mutated” in the sultry climate? That freaks me out. I don’t like thinking of diseases as alive things, even though I know they are.

    • lbatfish

      Diseases can’t mutate and then reproduce (a.k.a. “evolve”). Just ask any creationist.

      • Jazzy

        You so smart.

  • namemon

    These are the most retarded quotes ever.

    • OC

      My thoughts exactly.

  • OC

    Syphillis was what Europeans brought TO the New World NOT from it. EVERYONE has always acknowledged that. Except for this article.
    Even the VERY benign Dear Abby once said these Europeans’ contributions were Syphillis, the Bible and, the third thing she mentioned was either Genocide or Slavery.

  • History is always opened to debate, but speculating on things which happened in past is just past for me.

  • This is a really good article 🙂

  • History is always opened to debate