How did disease lead Europeans to seek slaves from West Africa?

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Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The travels of Columbus to the Americas issued in a period known as the Columbian Exchange.  This transfer of people, animals, plants, ideas, and diseases brought about one of the most radical transformations the world has ever known.  One of the most negative effects was the influx of communicable diseases to the Americas.

Europeans had built up immunity to a host of diseases through their travels and explorations throughout Africa and Asia in the previous centuries.  The indigenous peoples of America, however, were isolated for centuries.  When the Europeans interacted with the natives, their immune systems were bombarded with pathogens their bodies had never encountered, and the results were devastating.  Some scholars estimate that up to ninety percent of the native population was wiped out as a result of the diseases introduced by the Europeans.  Bear in mind, that the numbers out there will vary greatly due to the lack of accurate population records in pre-Columbian America.

West African slaves were sought for two fairly obvious reasons.  First of all, their immune systems were much more advanced due to their proximity and trade with both Europe and Asia.  While some would certainly fall ill, as a whole they were less likely to experience the problems of the Native Americans.  Secondly, the native population wiped out there was a labor shortage that had to be filled.

In addition to the issues of the immune system, there was one more reason that African slaves were valued.  As conditions worsened in the Americas, many native populations revolted and tried to overthrow their colonial oppressors.  This proved challenging as the natives held many advantages due to their familiarity with the land and their surroundings.  African slaves had no such advantage, and were much less likely to stage a successful revolt.

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