September 26, 2002



I'm a big admirer of military/political commentator and football fan Gregg Easterbrook, but one aside in his otherwise entirely intelligent latest piece on WMDs deserves comment. That's this quote:

The most successful biological warfare to date took place nearly 250 years ago, when the British gave smallpox-laden blankets to French-affiliated Native Americans during the Seven Years' War.

Okay, the obvious problem is that the instance Easterbrook is dimly recalling took place in the 1763-66 Pontiac Rebellion, which took place after the Seven Year's War was over (That war between French and British had been effectively over in North America since 1760, when the last French forces on the continent surrendered, but peace in Europe wasn't concluded until 1763.) Pontiac wasn't French-affiliated, he was just anti-British.

Was it "successful biological warfare," though? That's never been conclusively established. Here's a brief chronology of what's known:

1738: A smallpox epidemic among the Cherokee in South Carolina is attributed at the time to the arrival in Charleston of slave traders ("Guinea Men"), who traded with the Indians. Smallpox, brought by earlier settlers, is known in North America already. This may be the first contemporary realization that it could be getting spread through trade goods, however.
1747: The disease attacks Micmac Indians in Nova Scotia (French allies before N.S. surrendered to the British.) At least one French source accuses the British of intentionally spreading it with infected clothing, presumably to prevent rebellion among their new native subjects. The accusation is probably French propaganda, but indicates the idea of trying to spread the pox intentionally had already crossed a few minds.
16 May, 1763: Pontiac's Rebellion marks its first success, attacking and capturing the fort at Sandusky, Ohio, and massacring the 13-man garrison. In the next six weeks, every colonial town and outpost west of Niagara other than Detroit and Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) is captured or abandoned, and the last two beseiged. Losses among the white settler population are extreme... people fear if Pittsburgh falls, the Indians will raid and kill as far east as Philadelphia.
24 June, 1763: With the Ohio frontier going up in flames, and smallpox already in his fort, the commander at Fort Pitt, Capt. Simon Ecuyer, apparently tries to buy time by infecting the local Indians, through parley gifts given out when they come to demand the surrender of his fort. Resident William Trent writes in his diary: "We gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."
7 July, 1763: The supreme British commander for North America, Sir Jeffrey Amherst in a letter to his best commander, Col. Henri Bouquet, suggests infecting the rebelling Indians with smallpox: "Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?"
16 July, 1763: Under heavy pressure from the Pontiac confederacy, and no lover of Indians himself Amherst authorizes Bouquet to attempt infecting the Indians with smallpox. Bouquet at the time is marching from Philadelphia to relieve Ecuyer at Fort Pitt: he acknowledges the order on July 26.
10 August, 1763: After a vicious two-day battle at Bushy Run, Bouquet marches into Fort Pitt, breaking the Indians' siege, and the back of Pontiac's revolt.
April, 1764: Soldier Gershom Hicks reports that smallpox has been raging among the local Indians "since last spring," killing perhaps 80 ("30 or 40 Mingoes, as many Delawares and some Shawneese") The epidemic may have continued for another year later, with obviously an even higher death count.

Possible hypotheses, based on the evidence: Either
1) The Indians' smallpox was spreading anyway (it was already among the white population of Pittsburgh), and Ecuyer's distribution of blankets (approved after the fact by Amherst) had no additional effect; or
2) Ecuyer's actions did contribute to the suppression of native resistance in central Pennsylvania in 1763.

There's simply not enough evidence in the record to indicate that this was, as Easterbrook claims, "successful biological warfare." It was certainly an attempt at one, though.

Postscript: There is still some question about that July 7 letter -- the original of which is hard to locate... and also whether that June 24 diary entry should actually have been dated May 24, even if Ecuyer only reports the setting up of the "Smallpox hospital" to Bouquet on June 16. Regardless, Bouquet's acknowledgement of Amherst's order (and hence Amherst's direct authorization) still came only AFTER Ecuyer had acted independently. Fort Pitt's records even include an invoice to replace the specific items Ecuyer gave to the Indians, dated in June.

Other commentators have suggested George Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, came up with the idea: there is no historical evidence for this at all. There is also no evidence to support for another common suggestion, that U.S. troops also spread smallpox blankets among Indians they were fighting a century later: in fact, there are records of American attempts to vaccinate Indian tribes (albeit not very effective ones) starting in 1832.

Posted by BruceR at 01:03 PM



"The Prime Minister has expressed no interest in diverting funds from his ambitious legacy agenda to the cash-strapped Armed Forces."


"Bill Sampson, the Canadian man sentenced to die in Saudi Arabia for allegedly planting two car bombs, was forced to confess after police hung him upside down, kept him awake for more than a week and threatened to harm his family."

It's rare you see that kind of cause and effect in the same paper, idn't it?

Canada's foreign office's response to the torture accusation?

"Reynald Doiron, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, would not address the alleged torture of a Canadian citizen, saying he could not comment on a judicial matter that is under review in a foreign country."

A judicial matter? Judicial? "I'm sorry, we cannot comment on the torture of Canadians until the torturers have completed their torturing, or until the torturee dies, whichever comes first. After that, of course, we can be expected to send somebody or other a stern letter. Well, maybe not so stern... wouldn't want to disparage their local belief system in any way, of course. Um, thank you, come again..."

In other tidbits:

"A host of Canadian celebrities... say a war on Iraq would be "immoral" and would endanger the whole world." (Okay, I'll say it first... Canadian? celebrities?)

"If we continue to second guess and prosecute our soldiers for actions taken in the fog of war, then who will be there to fight our next battle?" Accused American F-16 pilot Harry "Psycho" Schmidt, in a leaked private letter to contributors to his legal defence fund. Well, Psycho, certainly not the 4 soldiers you killed recklessly, to start with... I'm sure Lieut. Calley thought he was operating in the "fog of war," too... in both cases the case would be immeasurably strengthened if they were operating anywhere near people with some vaguely hostile intent...

"The award-winning Newfoundland chemist who tied so-called Gulf War syndrome to depleted uranium in shells has left Canada and ended her controversial research..." Before anyone starts talking about censorship of scientists, let's be clear what this chemist actually attempted to establish... that some Canadian Forces personnel who served in Bahrain and Qatar during the Gulf War had elevated levels of Uranium-238 in their urine. Which proves exactly zip-squat.

The study has yet to be confirmed by another lab... even if it were true, and there was some connection between U-238 and the collection of mass hysterical symptoms called "Gulf War Syndrome," there's no reason we wouldn't therefore be seeing elevated levels of civilian disease in the much larger civilian populations of Bahrain and Qatar. If the assumption is that US M1 tank shells that blew up Iraqi T-72s may have partially vaporized, and the resulting U-238 dust floated over 400 miles through the air to somehow kill CF military police officer Terry Riordan, even though the elevated levels of U-238 reported even in his system are far below the threshold for either radioactive contamination OR the (much lower) threshold for heavy metal poisoning, then it's simply not credible on its face. If Riordan had ever been close to the battle, then maybe there might be something worth investigating further in this area... otherwise, the two logical explanations are either Prof. Pat Horan's results are inaccurate, or there was some minor U-238 exposure deep in the rear area of the war for some other, as yet unestablished reason, that has nothing at all to do with the illness, but due to the sensitivity of modern isotopic testing equipment, is still detectable today. You pick.

Posted by BruceR at 10:16 AM