The coronavirus pandemic has shocked the world and transformed millions of lives within a matter of months, making most people feel like they are living through something utterly unprecedented.
Yet as Yale University historian Dr. Frank Snowden’s frighteningly timely history of human disease, Epidemics and Society, so aptly shows, events that are once-in-a-lifetime for those of us experiencing them today have been an integral part of most of human existence.
Indeed, Snowden’s interest in epidemics arose from his own realization as a student that so much of the course of human events had been shaped by them, he told me during a Real Vision interview.
The examples are as multiple as they are fascinating, but one particular disease-ridden twist of human history struck me as especially striking: It turns out an epidemic played a key if indirect role in the formation of the United States.
Here’s the basic story, hopelessly oversimplified. In American history class, we learn about the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 as basically a bloodless coup by the wily Thomas Jefferson against France’s loose-cannon emperor, Napoleon.
The truth was a little more complicated. Napoleon gave up control of the Louisiana Territory (which doesn’t sound like a lot when you look at Louisiana the state but actually ended up amounting to 15 present-day U.S. states) because a yellow fever epidemic wrecked his plan to quash the first modern anti-colonial uprising, Haiti’s fight for independence.
Without that geographic foothold in the Americas, it would become impossible for Napoleon to even attempt to secure and develop the parts of North America that he controlled on paper.
“Since Haitian independence made the venture exponentially more risky and expensive, Napoleon concluded that the prudent course was to cut his losses, accept the money offered by Thomas Jefferson and move on to alternative projects elsewhere,” writes Snowden.
“Thus the successful slave rebellion directly influenced the rise of the United States to global power.”
Source: Forbes – Money