Christopher Columbus Brought More than Riches from America – Part II

c10On October 12,1492, Rodrigo de Triana, a sailor aboard the Pinta, first sighted land. Columbus himself later claimed to have seen a sort of light or aura before Triana did, allowing him to keep the reward he had promised to give whomever spotted land first. The land turned out to be a small island in the present-day c12Bahamas. Columbus named it San Salvador, although he remarked in his journal that the natives referred to it as Guanahani. There is some debate over which island was Columbus’ first stop; most experts believe it to be San Salvador, Samana Cay, Plana Cays or Grand Turk Island.

Columbus explored five islands in the modern-day Bahamas before making landfall in Cuba on October 28,  at Bariay, a harbor near the eastern tip of the island. Thinking he had found China, he sent two men to investigate. They were Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, a converted Jew who spoke Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic in addition to Spanish. Columbus had brought him as an interpreter. The two men failed in their mission to find the Emperor of China, but did visit a native Taíno village. There they werec13 the first to observe the smoking of tobacco, a habit which they promptly picked up. But this is NOT the most interesting thing that Columbus brings back from the New World.

c14At first, most observers in Spain considered his first voyage a total fiasco. He had not found a new trade route and the most valuable of his three ships, the Santa Maria, had sunk. But when people finally realized that the lands he had found were previously unknown, his stature grew and he was able to get funding for a second, much larger voyage of exploration and colonization.

Following Columbus’ discovery, Pope Alexander VI  (1431 – 1503) issued a May 4, 1493, papal bull granting official ownership of the New World to Ferdinand and Isabella. To these monarchs, the Pope declared.“We of our own motion, and not at your solicitation, do give, concede, and assign for ever to you and your c17successors, all the islands, and main lands, discovered; and which may hereafter, be discovered, towards the west and south; whether they be situated towards India, or towards any other part whatsoever, and give you absolute power in them.”  The Pope’s declaration ultimately had dire consequences for enslaving native inhabitants of the Americas.

Columbus and the New World

Since his death in 1506, Columbus’ life story has undergone many revisions. He is vilified by indigenous rights groups but he was, believe it or not,  once seriously considered for sainthood. While certainly not a saint,  Columbus was not a monster and had some c15admirable qualities as well some very negative ones. He was not a bad or evil man, simply a skilled sailor and navigator who was also an opportunist and a product of his time.  On the positive side, Columbus bravely went west without a map, trusting his instincts that the world was not flat and his not-so-accurate calculations. He was very loyal to his patrons, the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and they rewarded him by sending him to the New World a total of four times. He took slaves from those tribes that fought him and he seems to have dealt relatively fairly with those tribes that he befriended, such as that of Chief Guacanagari.  But there are many stains on his legacy as well. Ironically, the Columbus-bashers blame him for some things that were not under his control and ignore some of his most glaring actual defects. He and his crew brought awful diseases, such as smallpox, against which the men and women c16of the New World had no defenses, and millions died. This is undeniable, but it was also unintentional and would have happened eventually anyway. His discovery opened the doors to the conquistadors who looted the mighty Aztec and Inca Empires and slaughtered natives by the thousands, but this, too, would likely have happened when someone else inevitably discovered the New World.  Today, Native American activists portray the New World as an earthly paradise. If so, this New World was a “paradise”where some of the natives practiced cannibalism, ritual human sacrifice and slavery and suffered from syphilis, hepatitis, addictive cocaine use and cancer, caused by smoking.


So….What Did He Bring Back?

Syphilis.   The exact origin of syphilis, sometimes called the French Disease or the Great Pox among other names, is unknown but it is widely agreed upon by historians and anthropologists that syphilis was present among the indigenous peoples of the Americas before Europeans traveled to and from the New c18World.  The Columbian theory holds that syphilis was a New World disease brought back by Columbus and Martin Alonso Pinzon and their crew. This theory is supported by genetic studies of venereal syphilis and related bacteria, which found a disease intermediate between yaws and syphilis in Guyana, South America.  There was a Pre-Columbian theory that syphilis existed in the old world for millennia, but there has been new evidence, according to George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory University and co-author of the appraisal published in the 2011 edition of the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.   He states that,  “Skeletal evidence that reputedly showed signs of syphilis in Europe and other parts of the Old World before Christopher Columbus made his voyage in 1492 does not hold up when subjected to standardized analyses for diagnosis and dating.”  This 2011 appraisal was the first time that all 54 previously published cases have been evaluated systematically, and bolsters the case that syphilis came from the New World.”

The first well-recorded European outbreak of what is now known as syphilis occurred in 1495 among French troops besieging Naples, Italy.  It may have been transmitted to the French via Spanish mercenaries serving King Charles VIII of France in that siege. From this center, the disease swept across Europe.  Most researchers have now concluded that syphilis was carried from the New World to Europe after Columbus‘ voyages. Many of the crew members who served on this voyage later joined the army c8of King Charles in his invasion of Naples in 1495, resulting in spreading the disease across Europe. Syphilis spread throughout Europe in the 1490s and was particularly lethal in its original manifestation. While the death toll will never be known, estimates are that during the Renaissance syphilis was responsible for over 5 million deaths and is suspected to have  infected over a million individuals at any one time.

The disease was fulminant and the skin eruptions were especially gruesome. It caused genital sores, advanced to a general rash, and then developed into particularly ugly abscesses and scabs over the entire body. The sores changed to open ulcers that could erode bone and destroy tissue, especially eyes, lips, nose, throat, and genitals. As with most epidemics, the victims were blamed for the disease (debauchery, lechery, etc.) and frequently ostracized.  The regimes of the time, with their many standing armies, made extensive use of mercenaries and fought frequent battles, which was conducive to rapid and efficient spread of the disease via the usual “camp followers” of the warring parties. Syphilis reached Germany and Switzerland in 1495, England and Holland in 1496. Vasco da Gama’s crew carried it around the Cape in 1497 causing an outbreak in India in 1498, which in turn spread eastward. China and Japan were affected in 1505, a full 15 years before the arrival of Portuguese sailors in Canton, China.

c18So Now…..What’s the Connection with Hearing Loss?

While the incidence of syphilis steadily dropped from the time of antibiotics in the 1940s through the 1970s, it has begun a resurgence worldwide, particularly in developing countries.  Recent figures show about 12 million people infected worldwide.  While there are some that feel deafness from syphilis is overestimated, those most at  the highest risk are babies born with congenital syphilis. According to  Northern and Downs (2002) approximately 30% of fetuses die in utero, 30% die postnatally, and 40% of the survivors develop late symptomatic syphilis.  If a pregnant mother is identified as being infected with syphilis, treatment can effectively prevent congenital syphilis from developing in the unborn child, especially if she is treated before the sixteenth week of pregnancy. The fetus is at greatest risk of contracting syphilis when the mother is in the early stages of infection, but the disease can be passed at any point during pregnancy, or even during delivery.

A woman in the secondary stage of syphilis decreases her child’s risk of developing congenital syphilis by 98% if she receives treatment before the last month of pregnancy.  An afflicted child can be treated using antibiotics much like an adult; however, any developmental symptoms are likely to be permanent.  If left untreated, neural hearing loss is generally noted in early childhood and may even present as a bilaterally symmetrical, sudden,  severe to profound hearing impairment.  While hearing instruments will be necessary for these children the neural atrophy created by the disease may render the instruments of limited benefit.

Among adults who contract syphilis, there is usually not much hearing impairment in the primary and secondary stages, though tertiary syphilis can lead to sudden-onset sensorineural hearing impairment with auditory discrimination issues.   Nadol reports that endolymphatic hydrops may be seen in both the congenital and acquired forms, and Zoller et al. advise that syphilis should be considered in any patient with sensorineural hearing loss of obscure origin, despite a negative history for syphilis.


About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.