Ancient Forms of Biological Warfare

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“The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.” – George S. Patton

Early American warfare has always seemed — to me, at least — rather quaint. Men in uniforms line up in a grassy meadow. They march toward one another. They fire, reload, and fire again. Whichever army shoots the most people wins. I never assumed the battles ended with handshakes and backslaps, but they still seemed rather sportsmanlike.

So you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a 2004 paper in the Colonial Williamsburg journal titled “Colonial Germ Warfare.” Germ warfare? In the 1700s?

As a matter of fact, yes. It turns out biological weapons have a long and sordid history dating back to way before colonists were killing redcoats (or vice versa). I learned that Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander best known for leading an army over the Alps atop an elephant in 218 B.C., used to catapult pots filled with snakes toward enemy ships. A little more digging led me to a paper enticingly titled, “The History of Biological Warfare,” which contains gems like this:

In 1495, Spanish forces supplied their French adversaries with wine contaminated with the blood of leprosy patients during battles in Southern Italy. In the seventeenth century, Polish troops tried to fire saliva from rabid dogs towards their enemies.

Both methods seem, at best, an incredibly inefficient way to spread disease. Symptoms of leprosy, a disease that is not all that infectious under the best of circumstances, can take as many as 20 years to develop. Early attempts at biological warfare were often stymied by an incomplete understanding of infectious diseases. For example, a Confederate doctor named Luke Blackburn tried to fell Union soldiers by handing them blankets off the beds of men with yellow fever, a disease spread by mosquitoes.

The blanket trick worked much better for smallpox. In 1763, an Ottawa chief named Pontiac led a band of Native Americans in attacks against the British. At Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania, Pontiac’s men laid siege. After nearly a month,  two Native Americans approached the fort and urged the Brits to abandon their post. The British refused. According to the account of one man, William Trent, British soldiers “gave them blankets and a handkerchief out of the Smallpox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect,” he wrote. Smallpox hit the Native Americans hard that summer, although no one has yet proven that the blankets caused the outbreak.

If it’s efficacy you’re looking for, then anthrax is a good bet. During WWII, British researchers tested the potential of anthrax as weapon on Gruinard Island, just off the coast of Scotland. They placed a small bomb filled with anthrax on the ground and tethered a flock of sheep downwind. When they detonated the bomb, a cloud of anthrax spores drifted over the animals, which sickened and then died. Rumor has it that at least one sheep carcass washed into the sea and floated to the mainland, sparking an outbreak there. The island was uninhabitable for decades. (There’s a great article here).

The award for most gruesome form of biological warfare goes to the Tartars. In 1346 they laid siege to Caffa, a bustling trading post on the north coast of the Black Sea. The relationship between Caffa’s Italian settlers and the Tartars, who inhabited the region, had recently soured, and the Tartars were out for blood. When their men began to die of the Black Death, they loaded the corpses into catapults and flung them over the walls of the city. Or so the story goes. The only account of this atrocity comes from Gabriele de’Mussis, a lawyer who heard the tale secondhand. He writes:

The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea. And soon the rotting corpses tainted the air and poisoned the water supply, and the stench was so overwhelming that hardly one in several thousand was in a position to flee the remains of the tartar army. Moreover one infected man could carry the poison to others, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone. No one knew, or could discover, a means of defense.

Never again will I make the mistake of thinking that warfare used to be less barbaric than it is today.

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Thanks to Christopher Albon of the fascinating blog Conflict Health for pointing me to the Colonial Williamsburg paper.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

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9 thoughts on “Ancient Forms of Biological Warfare

  1. Interesting post, Cassie! It’s funny, I’ve spent a little time digging into the grim history of germ warfare too, but it didn’t strike me until now just how inefficient these ancient attempts were. Not only would a better understanding of germ theory and etiology have made ancient germ warfare more effective, I almost wonder if you could deduce Koch’s postulates from these horrific incidents alone … not quite systematic enough to work as experiments I suppose. But still, they are a striking reminder that the more “gentlemanly” approach to war is usually only a thin veneer over the much baser brutality humans at war are capable of, and a rare one at that.

  2. I’m not military historian, but I’ve been given to understand that the “civilized” set-piece battles we associate with the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars was a very brief innovation coming out of the seventeenth century religious wars. Once half of Germany ended up dead, and the Enlightenment got going, Europeans decided to try being “nice” for a while. Didn’t last, naturally.

  3. I would think that the leprosy would be very efficient in causing panic in the ranks of the enemies, given how feared the disease was.

    I know that in the 13th century, the city of Strasbourg prepared catapults to launch feces at an enemy force that was threatening the city. As I remember, they only had to launch one salvo to get them to disperse.

  4. Tom, it always amazes me how little we knew about disease a couple of centuries ago.

    Bourgeois Nerd, I hadn’t heard that. Very interesting.

    Mark, to inspire panic, you’d have to tell the men you’d laced their wine with leper blood. And how would you prove that? Why wouldn’t you just lace the wine with fake leper blood if panic was your only goal?

  5. This post got a mention over at The Awl (www.theawl.com), and someone brought up a very good question in the comments: Can you spread disease via cadaver catapult?

    Here is my response: First off, let’s assume that the disease you’re trying to spread is the plague (because most people think the Black Death was caused by bubonic plague). The plague is spread by fleas who ride on rodents. It’s possible that there were fleas on the Tartar corpses (although one article I read suggested fleas flee dead bodies quickly). But if there were plague-ridden fleas outside the walls of Caffa, it seems plausible that there were also plague-ridden fleas inside Caffa’s walls. Rodents carrying the fleas could have traveled freely between the two populations. The plague can be transmitted by direct contact too. So it’s also possible that some inhabitants of Caffa contracted the disease as they drug the mangled and rotting corpses down to the sea to dispose of them. Fun stuff.

  6. The answers to many of your questions and the full ancient history of biochemical weapons can be found in

    Adrienne Mayor, “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (Overlook/Duckworth, 2009)

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