Could it not be contrived to send the SmallPox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them…

undated and unsigned note from Jeffrey Amherst, c. July 1763

In the summer of 1763, in the vicinity of Fort Pitt (Western Pennsylvania), occurred what is widely believed to be the first documented case of biological warfare. This is the incident of the infamous smallpox blankets, in which British military men gave blankets infected with smallpox to Native Americans (in this case, two Delaware Indians), thereby hoping to purposefully spread a fatal and horrific disease among their enemies.

Even if you aren’t a history buff, you have likely heard the story of smallpox blankets, or associate the British officer Jeffrey Amherst with biological warfare. The incident captures much of what we know about European-indigenous relations in the Americas: European diseases such as smallpox killed thousands of aboriginal people; European aggression drove out and devastated indigenous societies; traditional European laws of war broke down when Europeans fought Native American warfare. The Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Paul Muldoon, makes use of the smallpox blankets to portray the nature of British and Native American relations in his poem ‘Meeting the British.’ The gentlemanly opening of the poem is belied by its final lines, ‘They gave us six fishhooks / and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.’

It is clear that such an incident did happen. Look carefully at the top image of British military accounts, and you can make out, just a few lines down:

The image is from Henry Bouquet’s Papers, held by the British Library, © British Library Board Add MS 21654 folio 168.

making sense of biological warfare

As outlined in other posts, disease inevitably accompanies war. Yet, the deliberate spread of disease during wartime is widely regarded as unlawful, immoral, and abhorrent. But why is this so? Why are some forms of killing in wartime illegal and immoral, and others not?

Most (Western) laws of war revolve around not killing civilians. For example, indiscriminate bombing is condemned because it is impossible to predict that only military personnel will be hit. Likewise, the use of chemical warfare — such as a poisonous gas — is widely outlawed. Like the spread of disease, poison gas is difficult to control and would likely spread throughout a civilian population as well, killing widely and indiscriminately. The language of international law captures this difference: there are weapons of war and there are weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of war are legal during a war. Weapons of mass destruction, by contrast, are widely condemned as immoral and illegal. A weapon of mass destruction is ‘a nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological, or other device that is intended to harm a large number of people.’

Laws of war are not only concerned with what we are allowed to do in war. They also define the justness of a war itself. Governments often use examples of others’ illegal acts to justify war. For example, in 2013, many debated whether reports of chemical warfare in Syria justified Western military intervention. In other words, governments consider a foreign country’s breach of the laws of war as legitimizing military action against it: one country breaking the laws of war can justify another country declaring war on it.

This means that an accusation of breaking the laws of war — for example, the purposeful spread of disease — can have serious repercussions. It can result in a declaration of war, or of other states joining war, or switching sides. Accusations can establish, maintain, or destroy military justifications and military alliances. And in contexts where public opinion — where reporting by newspapers, radio, or television — plays a crucial role in sustaining or limiting financial support for the waging of war, accusations can be powerful elements of wartime propaganda. This is a useful reminder that accusations of immoral or illegal actions in war are also part of the waging of war.

Accusations in War

Wars are environments ripe for unverified accounts: people are hungry for information, and yet confirmed news is difficult to establish as circumstances and events rapidly shift.  Such stories are also central to establishing and reaffirming identities and alliances: the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  Rumors of atrocities committed by the other side are common during wartime, circulated by civilians and military personnel alike.  This does not dismiss their significance; such accounts capture deeply-held beliefs and concerns, even if their veracity is questionable.

The history of accounts of German atrocities during World War I shows the centrality of such accusations in war. Throughout the war, stories of German atrocities circulated throughout Britain and Allied nations — particularly of attacks on civilians, and especially attacks on women, children, and medical personnel. Such accounts encouraged public support for the war among Allied countries, and likely also encouraged American backing for the Allied cause. The 1915 German execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell for treason, for example, was publicized in British war-time propaganda.

British recruitment poster featuring nurse Edith Cavell. Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12217)

Soon after the war, it became clear that accounts of atrocities had been manipulated, if not exaggerated — both by unofficial reporting and by government officials. What followed was a general discrediting of accounts of German atrocities. This was accompanied by broader critique of the role of propaganda and emotional appeals during wartime. Many agreed that mass media, ardent nationalism, and mass democracy were a potent and dangerous mixture. We might recognize this critique in our own skepticism of national propaganda and emotional patriotism, if not also our distrust of mass media — today most likely focused on the power and dangers of social media.

Yet, historians have since uncovered substantial evidence that German atrocities did, in fact, take place. Perhaps these did not always take the form or the scale that sensationalist versions provided, but historical evidence suggests that post-WWI skepticism about WWI atrocities was an overreaction. Moreover, such post-war skepticism fed into tendencies in the late 1930s and early 1940s to doubt reports of Nazi atrocities in Germany. In other words, accounts of WWI German atrocities themselves have a tangled history that shaped future accounts of atrocities, and their exact contours are still being debated today.

Separating what actually happened from allegations and accusations is difficult, especially in real time. But what is clear is that such accounts — and accusations of immoral and illegal actions in war — are tied up with the unfolding of a war itself. Accusations shape morale, recruitment, financing, alliances, and even the way in which a war is remembered for generations to come.

accusations and smallpox

Like accusations of attacks on civilians, accusations of smallpox being spread by enemy forces are littered throughout American history. The story of General Amherst and smallpox blankets is best known; but it is easy to find accusations that Europeans — and later, Americans — purposefully spread smallpox among indigenous societies in order to take over their land, or that the British spread smallpox among American forces during the American Revolution. (try a keyword search on the internet to see the variety of posts, opinions, and articles)

Until it was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980, smallpox was a feared and loathsome disease. It is caused by infection with the variola virus, one of the orthopoxviruses.  It usually takes around ten days between infection and the first symptoms of fever, intense headache, and malaise to manifest themselves. At this point, smallpox’s characteristic rash and its pustules spread over the face and entire body, growing in size and severity across seven to ten days, until either death or recovery ensues – the latter involving gradual scabbing of the lesions, which often resulted in deep scarring (pockmarks). Recovery could entail secondary complications such as blindness and male infertility, but it also resulted in life-long immunity to the disease.  In the ‘ordinary’ type of smallpox, fatality rates ranged between ten to thirty per cent.  But in more lethal strains of the disease, or where secondary infections of pustules or the respiratory tract occurred, fatality rates could reach up to seventy per cent, if not higher.

The symptoms and course of smallpox are particularly unpleasant.  A description from an outbreak in 1958 recorded:

The majority of patients had fully developed smallpox in the suppurative stage, with confluent pustules covering the entire body. The head was usually covered by what appeared to be a single pustule; the nose and the lips were glued together. When the tightly filled vesicles burst, the pus soaked through the bedsheet, became smeared on the blanket and formed thick, yellowish scabs and crusts on the skin. … Wails and groans filled the rooms.

Smallpox and its Eradication (WHO, 1988) p. 27

Smallpox also has a particular history in the Americas. It was one of the key diseases brought by Europeans in the 1400s and 1500s that caused widespread devastation among American indigenous populations. Because smallpox was a relatively common disease in Europe, and because a survivor of the disease is immune to it for life, most Europeans who traveled to America would likely have already had the disease and so had nothing to fear from it. By contrast, those who were brought up in the Americas — whether of indigenous or European descent — encountered the disease when it arrived as a contagious and horrific epidemic. Smallpox was thus highly feared, and seen as a foreign disease that was introduced by outsiders. In the 1600 and 1700s, American colonists established local universities in part so that young men would not have to travel to England for an education, where they would face the threat of smallpox.

There is no cure for smallpox. Whether in the 1700s or today, the best one can do is provide rest and attentive care. Although some strains of smallpox can be mild, the disease can be highly fatal. Its symptoms are revolting, and it is also easily spread via direct contact with an infected individual. It isn’t surprising that smallpox was highly feared. And, given that American populations — both indigenous or European — encountered it when it was an epidemic introduced by strangers, smallpox was particularly terrifying and unpredictable.

Smallpox and war

Wars in colonial America brought smallpox. It arrived through the influx of European soldiers; it was further spread by the movement of troops during wartime, and the return of veterans when war ended. Soldiers and civilians were aware that the outbreak of war also meant the outbreak of contagious diseases such as smallpox. For example, Native American nations allied with the French chose whether or not to join the French war effort in part based on fears of smallpox, rather than simply on strategic and diplomatic considerations.

Outbreaks of smallpox during war weren’t unusual. But when smallpox did arrive, it was common for people to try to identify who was responsible — who had brought it? who had unleashed it? — even to blame someone, regardless of firm evidence. Whenever disease erupts, we all search for answers. Why did it start here, and not there? Why are some affected, and others not? When disease erupts during war, we are even more likely to see it as part of the conflict, and to link it with the enemy.

As we’ve seen, accusations and rumors about enemy conduct are common during wartime. For example, in the 1750s, French military officials blamed the British for an outbreak of disease when such an explanation helped maintain their alliance with Native American nations. During the American Revolution, many American soldiers — and even American officials such as George Washington — thought that their constant problems with smallpox were the result of British military strategy. Such rumors were repeated — including by prisoners of war or deserters, who would have been keen to support the American cause and denigrate the British. But there is no firm evidence to support these accusations that the British purposefully spread a disease during the American Revolution that would have also been dangerous to their own men and military efforts.

the evidence

However, there is one incident of deliberate disease spreading for which we have evidence. That is the incident, outlined at the top, in the summer of 1763, at Fort Pitt. British military men gave blankets from their smallpox hospital to two Delaware Indians, in the hope that it would spread smallpox. There is clear evidence: the account, shown above, of the blankets and why they were used, now held among British military correspondence at the British Library.

In 1763, the British Army was in the midst of Pontiac’s War: a war that pitted a number of Native American tribes around the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley against British military forces and imperial ambitions. Throughout the conflict, British officers and soldiers found themselves frustrated and embittered by Native-American tactics that used surprise and targeted civilians. Next to the accounts containing the smallpox blankets is another grisly account, titled:

Return of Persons Kill’d, Scalp’d, and Taken by the Indians in the Department of Fort Pitt

From Henry Bouquet’s Papers, held by the British Library, © British Library Board Add MS 21654 folio 170

This account lists 33 British captured or killed in total across May, June and July 1763, both soldiers and civilians – including children. These are small numbers within a larger conflict: the war raged on, killing Native Americans, British troops, and American colonists alike across 1763 and in many areas into 1764, ending in various uneasy negotiated settlements. Relations between Native Americans and American colonists were not settled in 1764, or any time soon after.

This second account does not justify those troops who tried to spread smallpox among the Delaware Indians, and nor does it excuse Amherst’s reprehensible outburst against Native Americans, quoted at the outset. What makes Amherst, and his correspondent (British officer Henry Bouquet) even more accountable for their words is that they appear to have recognized that their sentiments — their ugly wish to rid themselves of their enemy Native Americans via smallpox — should not be part of official correspondence. Their few notes back and forth on this topic are unsigned and undated, entirely unlike the thousands of pages that otherwise make up their official correspondence during wartime.

But these accounts remind us that wars — even wars from hundreds of years ago — are emotional and messy events. Accusations and counter-accusations run rampant; arguments as to what is ethical or legal and what is not abound. These accusations are recorded in official archives and histories, and their outrage passed along for generations. For most of us, the story of the smallpox blankets is not about historical evidence. For many, it doesn’t matter that historians think the blankets did not spread smallpox among Native Americans: there were no outbreaks that correspond to the tainted gift. It might not even matter that Amherst’s correspondence bears no relation to the blankets: he wrote his notes well after the incident at Fort Pitt, expressing his frustrations with an ongoing war against a powerful enemy — indeed, it is most likely that Amherst knew nothing of the Fort Pitt stratagem and nothing suggests he tried to implement such a measure.

Instead, the story of the smallpox blankets remains alive because it seems to capture the nature of aboriginal-Western relations; it draws its staying power from current socio-economic disparities and serves as a symbol of Western culpability. Wartime accusations of atrocities are messy, uneven, unreliable, and difficult to decipher. Such accusations remain difficult to untangle and verify for centuries after the fact. In the end, what can be said with certainty is that accusations of atrocities will exist for as long as wars continue: they express the real fears and bitter antagonisms within conflicts, and how wars are played out in the realm of public opinion as well as on the battlefield.

2 thoughts on “Accounting for Biological Warfare

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