8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century

Larry Holzwarth - November 2, 2017

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
During a Treaty Conference the English gave the Native Americans smallpox infected blankets, leading to an epidemic among the tribes. Library of Congress

Pontiac’s Rebellion

Following the victory of the British Empire over the French in North America, many Native Americans viewed with growing alarm the encroachment of colonial settlers on what they viewed as their lands. Pontiac was an Ottawa war chief who built a fragile coalition of tribes along the edges of the Ohio Country and the area of the Great Lakes. Many of these tribes were historical enemies, creating an uneasy alliance.

The American colonists and settlers were officially proscribed from settlement west of the Allegheny mountains, but growing numbers ignored the King’s edicts and as the tribes felt the growing pressure they responded with open warfare. Lord Jeffrey Amherst commanded the King’s troops in the region and sought a quick solution to the problem.

Serving under Lord Amherst was one Colonel Henry Bouquet, a veteran of the French and Indian War who had served in the Swiss Guards in Europe before being acquired for British service as a mercenary. Bouquet was familiar with the events surrounding Fort William Henry and its aftermath. In response to a request from Amherst, who was also familiar with the earlier events, Bouquet suggested that an infection of smallpox among the “…Indians by means of blankets which may fall in their hands…” was not only possible but desirable.

A parley was arranged under the guise of preventing conflict and the opportunity was taken to present the arriving chiefs with “gifts”, including smallpox-infected blankets and other clothing and leather items. These the chiefs took home to their villages.

Modern-day estimates claim nearly a half-million Native Americans died of smallpox during Pontiac’s Rebellion – the number could be much higher – reducing Pontiac’s forces in the field and devastating the non-combatants in their villages. In the end, concerned with the cost of protecting the frontier, the British issued the Royal Proclamation which largely closed the Ohio country to settlement, and became a major contributor to the causes of the American Revolution.

8 Horrifying Instances of Biological Warfare Before the 20th Century
The Old Burying Ground in Cambridge is the final resting site of many smallpox victims of 1775-76. Flickr

The American Revolution – The Siege of Boston

Following the opening shots of the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British Army remained holed up in Boston surrounded by an American militia army. When George Washington arrived to take charge of this new “Continental Army” it was still made up of largely New England troops, famous for their intransigence towards authority of all types.

Boston itself was steadily reduced by starvation rations and disease, and British guards denied passage in and out of the city, with few limited exceptions. When smallpox broke out in the town the British were largely immune – most of their troops had been inoculated against the disease. Not so the New England troops outside of the town. British commanders attempted to take advantage of this by releasing some Bostonians infected with smallpox to the Americans outside of the city, weakening Washington’s army.

Washington was aware of the vaccination process – called inoculation – and that it still made the individual receiving it sick, but only for one or two days and with much milder symptoms. He organized and required participation in a plan to inoculate his entire army against the British attempts to spread the disease.

When Washington, was made aware by evacuees from Boston that a major British attempt to release victims of the disease – particularly slaves – into the American lines was forthcoming he redoubled his efforts. Washington’s program worked to some extent, but the overcoming of suspicious New England minds to inoculation led to numerous disciplinary problems for the American troops.

The British made several other attempts to spread disease in American camps as the Revolutionary War progressed, perhaps unsurprisingly since they had used similar operations in preceding wars. In 1781 in Virginia, en route to Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis was informed by a subordinate of a plan to release “700 Negroes” infected with smallpox among the plantations and towns of the Tidewater region. Another British officer by the name of Robert Donkin published a pamphlet suggesting the use of smallpox-infected arrows against the American troops.

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