Smallpox, North America and a global Europeanness

A new post in the smallpox series: geographies of diseases in the eighteenth century and the dawn of a consciousness of globalisation

During the eighteenth century, the development of historical-geographical knowledge and philosophical disputes in the Old World connected the themes of disease, contagion and inoculation to discussions of the physical difference of the American humanity and the environmental and climatic conditions that determine it.

The Histoire Philosophique et Politique des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes connected, for example, the speed of the course of diseases to the climate in the Americas,1 exemplifying the reflections of the coeval neo-Hippocratic medical climatology of the Enlightenment that informed the treatment of these themes also in Abbé Prévost’s Histoire générale des voyages and in Robinet’s Dictionnaire universel des sciences.2 The climatic and environmental elements were seen to interact in a complex way with customs, habits and lifestyles, and with differences in constitution between genders and races. In Raynal’s Histoire, the geography of diseases, so to speak, is the product of a stratification and articulation of factors between natural history and physical and socio-cultural variety.3

This series discusses the theme of smallpox in some eighteenth-century witnesses, with particular regard to travel accounts significant for the observers’ interest in American societies. These accounts are placed against the backdrop of the attempts of description and systematic explanation mentioned above, but stand out for the weight they give to direct observation and testimony, often combining cognitive ambitions with tasks in policy, diplomacy, colonial administration, in the context of specific imperial apparatuses, and particular biographical experiences.

These examples constitute the background for a deepening of the theme in Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Here, the construction of medical knowledge closely linked to the expansion projects of the republican government.4  By adopting as sources the reports of the expedition, the correspondence between some of the protagonists, the coeval medical publications that influenced the preparation of the expedition, this particular perspective of analysis will allow to focus on smallpox as a catalyst of a proto-consciousness of European globalization processes by the actors involved. The awareness of the devastation brought by epidemic phenomena coming from the Old World plays an important role in the very genesis of the Jeffersonian project of documentation of the North American native populations whose extinction is noted or foreseen. Thus, in the journals kept by the participants, recur notations of the role of smallpox, alongside syphilis and other not always identified plagues, in the destruction of specific nations or human groups.


[1] G.-T. Raynal, Histoire Philosophique et Politique des établissemens & du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, A Geneve, Chez Jean-Leonard Pellet, Imprimeur de la Ville & de l’Académie, 1780, University of Chicago, ARTFL Project,, see t. 3, Livre onzieme, chap. XXXII – Maladies auxquelles les Européens sont exposés dans les isles de l’Amérique, p. 233; and XXXI – Caractères des Européens établis dans l’archipel américain.

[2] D. Droixhe, Les maladies des Antilles et de l’Amérique du Sud dans l’Histoire des deux Indes. Climat, environnement, santé, in Autour de l’abbé Raynal: Genèse et enjeux politiques de l’Histoire des deux Indes, éd. par A. Alimento et G. Goggi, FerneyVoltaire, Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle 2018, pp. 125-169. On the connection between physical degeneration and climate in Raynal: A. Gerbi, La disputa del nuovo mondo. Storia di una polemica: 1750-1900, a cura di S. Gerbi, con un saggio di A. Melis, 1955; new ed. Milan: Adelphi 2000.

[3] Raynal, Histoire, t. 3, Livre onzieme, chap. XXXII. The moral geography of the behaviour of Europeans in the West Indies affects their exposure to disease, as they indulge in pleasures that habit makes less harmful to men born in those climates, t. 3, chap. XXXI, p. 234. On the other hand, scurvy also afflicts the savages of Hudson Bay because of the unhealthiness of some aspects of their lifestyle. However, the adoption of the moeurs of policés peoples is not necessarily beneficial to the natives: «Peut-être aussi les mœurs des peuples policés, sont-elles plus contraires que leur climat à la santé des sauvages?», t. 4, Livre dix-septieme, chap. VI – Climat de la baie d’Hudson. Habitudes de ses habitans. Commerce qu’on y fait, qt.. p. 187. See also on climate and health in Louisiana: t. 4, Livre seizieme, chap. VI – Etendue, sol climat de la Louysiane; VII – Caractère général des sauvages de la Louysiane, & celui des Natchez en particulier, esp. p. 98.

[4] On of the evolution of Jefferson’s attitudes towards state power, international relations, territorial expansion and the use of force: F. D. Cogliano, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press 2014; for an in-depth study of Jeffersonian concepts and policies towards indigenous peoples: B. W. Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian, New York, W. W. Norton and Company 1973 (Sheehan’s theses are echoed by J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York, Vintage Books 1996, pp. 239, 404 note 54); A. F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press 1999.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “in the raging time of the small pox”: Il vaiolo e la documentazione dell’alterità americana tra fine Settecento e primo Ottocento, Diciottesimo Secolo, 6 (2021): 67-82, doi: 10.36253/ds-12544; ISSN: 2531-4165. This article is available in full green open access:

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Smallpox, North America and a global Europeanness," in Geographies of Time, 01/04/2022,

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license