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Since its arrival in the Americas, smallpox has been inextricably bound up with the nature of military and imperial conquest, appearing during wars and spread by their movements. European colonisers sometimes used the destructive nature of smallpox among indigenous populations to rationalise their conquest of Native American lands; likewise, Native American accounts of intentional spreading by Europeans articulate anxieties about European colonial ambitions and Native America vulnerability. This chapter therefore analyses not just the role of smallpox in warfare, but also reports and rumours of its spread. As this chapter demonstrates, smallpox should be considered as part of conflict, with armies using disease for their own ends, through differential immunity and vaccinations, biological warfare, or accusations thereof. Smallpox made wars more deadly, shaped military alliances and hostilities, while warfare also made the disease deadlier, increasing its reach and inflaming its spread.

Original publication





Book title

Routledge Handbook of the Global History of Warfare

Publication Date



305 - 318