Almost 250 years ago, British commanders came up with the idea of spreading smallpox among hostile Indians by giving them infected blankets.
A lot of Americans don’t believe this when they first hear it, but the incident is well-documented. In fact, the reason we know about it is because the details were discussed in letters between British generals.
It’s important to be clear about one thing. Neither of these groups-European or Indian-would understand the term biological warfare. Both sides saw themselves engaged in a war for survival with a monstrous and uncivilized enemy.
The infected blankets were planted after several other events. A long war-the Seven Years War-had spread from Europe to the Americas. The British were winning and the French and Spanish losing. This was before the revolution; there was no USA.
As the British pushed the French out, the tribes around the Great Lakes were badly treated. They rose in rebellion: a pan-Indian alliance of many tribes-something that had never happened before. Through May and June of 1763, they took eight forts from the British and besieged Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt.
The first smallpox incident happened when two representatives of the Delaware tribe parleyed with Captain Simeon Ecuyer of Fort Pitt. He told them he would not surrender the fort.
There were 500 people–most of them soldiers–inside Fort Pitt, and smallpox had broken out. As Ecuyer concluded his meeting with the Delaware men, he offered them gifts-including two blankets and a handkerchief from the fort’s smallpox ward.
The British commander-in-chief in America, General Jeffery Amherst, had been a soldier since he was fourteen years old. At the time of Pontiac’s Rebellion he was Sir Jeffery Amherst, the governor of Canada and Virginia! He had just helped his country win battles against other European foes. Now, his depleted army returned from Cuba, decimated by malaria. They were tired. Amherst wanted, more than anything else, to get back to England. His wife was slowly going insane there; he needed to go home. He was, it seems, quite desperate.
Even before hearing of Ecuyer’s act, Amherst suggested something similar to another commander. Amherst’s exact words in a letter dated July 16, 1763, were “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Commander Henry Bouquet, out in the field, wrote back that he would “try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.”
The letters are quoted in Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War, the definitive book on the Seven Years War, in note 11 to Chapter 56.
Ethics can go out the window when wars are fought. The enemy is the enemy. The enemy gets demonized, dehumanized, and since he will no doubt kill you if he gets a chance, you are justified in doing all in your power to kill him.
There is no evidence that the actions of Ecuyer, Amherst, or Bouquet actually caused any epidemic. There’s also no evidence that they didn’t.
The European war was winding down at the time of Pontiac’s Rebellion, but the war between the British and the Indians kept going-probably because the British focused on destroying the Indians, rather than coming to terms with them. Peace was finally negotiated in late July 1766-nine years before the American Revolution began.