Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina, by Stuart B. Schwartz, Princeton University Press.
Call it a hurricane or a ‘weather bomb’, we’re as much at its mercy as ever, writes Philip Hoare in this review for The Times Higher Education (UK).
I write this in the face of a Cape Cod storm that threatens to blow the little wooden house in which I work clear of the beach and into the sea. And, for all that I inhabit the technologically advanced 21st century, there is nothing I could do about it. Even now, in 2015, we humans have yet to extend our dominion to the greater forces of nature – despite our somewhat hubristic notions of geoengineering and “planet-hacking”.
Equally, on a metaphorical level, it is almost impossible not to see storms and other extreme climatic manifestations as symbols or omens. Great storms augur God’s wrath – or great political change – and have done so since humans began to create stories around the sense of their own existence. From creation myths to Shakespeare’s The Tempest to hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, vast disturbances in the atmosphere, whirling and wreaking havoc in their wake, alter political careers, and have been held accountable for more metaphysical disruptions and disasters. Eschatology as well as climatology is at work here, fed by our cultural obsession with the weather: witness the current vogue for the term “weather bomb”, or any number of sensational newspaper headlines threatening doom and destruction. The fact that we survive is, pace Frank Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending” lectures of the 1960s, proof of the perennially disconfirmed nature of apocalypses.
In his fascinating, extremely well-researched book, historian Stuart Schwartz looks at a specific arena of tempestuous record: the hurricanes of the Caribbean, a vast area encompassing the Gulf of Mexico, the southern North Atlantic, the coastline of the southern states of the US and parts of Latin and South America. His remit reaches back to the Meso-Americans, and the Caribs, who rendered images of the storms as graphic spinning arms, uncannily like the modern meteorological symbol for a hurricane.
Schwartz’s account really takes off with the Western colonisation of these zones, beginning with the Spanish voyages of discovery, and expeditions of exploitation, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Europeans had no first-hand knowledge of hurricanes, and their fearsome power took the uninvited visitors by surprise. One might well sympathise with their reactions when faced with apocalyptic storms far beyond anything they had ever experienced: winds blowing at 130 miles per hour or more, causing catastrophic and life-endangering storm surges at sea, even as they tore up trees and flattened houses with wilful disdain. The death and destruction they wrought equated with the other, human problems presented by the new colonies: isolation, subsistence, violence.
Given their Christian faith, the Spanish inevitably saw hurricanes as supernatural judgements. Some believed the presence of the Holy Eucharist would dispel the storm, and priests held up the Host as if it were an anti-lightning rod. Others tossed crucifixes into the raging seas, a throwback, seemingly, to the placating of river gods. In Cuba, the autumn hurricane season was incorporated into the liturgical year with the prayerAd repelendas tempestates – a violent version of the harvest festivals being celebrated in more temperate climes.
The colonists soon learned that the “primitive” peoples they had subjugated had their own systems for predicting the advent of storms. Indigenous islanders knew that their livestock would move to safety of their own accord long before a hurricane hit. The Caribs could read the skies and even timed raids on other islands for the stormy months in order to maximise havoc for their enemies. In another notion of retribution, the islanders claimed that the coming of the Spanish had exacerbated the hurricanes. These tensions, on both sides, set the stormy tone for what Schwartz describes as a “proving ground for the techniques and violence of empire”; a crucible of conquest and discontent. With the later English, French and Dutch incomers, the vicissitudes of natural forces became somehow complicit with the human catastrophe for which the Caribbean became known: slavery.
The 18th century brought the agricultural industrialisation of the Caribbean. Paradise was planted. The change in land use made the islands more susceptible to damage, as storms could tear through land environmentally undermined by crops planted in bare earth. As Schwartz notes, hurricanes are a natural phenomenon; human activity turns them into disasters. Yet, at the same time, scientific understanding was being applied to climate. Thermometers and barometers could measure and predict; it seemed storms might yet come within the human compass.
Storms also became a mechanism of, or prompt for, change and reform. When hurricanes hit slave-serviced plantations, the disproportionate suffering of the workers in the aftermath pricked the consciences of the British, in particular. Schwartz shows that storms became an effective component in the move towards the abolition of slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He evokes the notion of “disaster utopia”, a sense of community created by storm damage, quoting the marquis de Bouillé, governor of Martinique, who extended the hand of charity to his British enemies after they had both suffered in a terrible hurricane in 1780: “In a common catastrophe, all men are brothers.”
With the 19th century, there was a growing understanding of the science of storms – with the work of men such as William Charles Redfield, who, from 1835 to 1854, mapped the tracks of Caribbean hurricanes, and established that northern-hemisphere hurricanes rotated anticlockwise and their southern counterparts clockwise. In the process, natural disasters moved from the notion of sin and moral failure towards rational explanation.
Yet that same science would, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, also make direct and indirect links between anthropogenic climate change and the perceived increasing frequency and ferocity of hurricanes. Thus the political response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which put George W. Bush in such a difficult position – it was the most expensive disaster in US history, estimated at a cost of up to $125 billion – segues to Barack Obama’s positive handling of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which, in contrast to his presidential predecessor’s mistakes, proved key to his re-election a month after the storm. Today we really do see these “weather events” as a result of our moral failings – the result of what we have done to the planet’s climate.
It is a neat, if salutary, turn-around, from early superstition to future dread. Schwartz places Katrina “within the long and still evolving history” of these natural phenomena. Ironically, the correspondences with the enslaved Caribbean of the past were all too evident in the hierarchy of suffering. “[The government] treated us as badly as you could treat your fellow human beings,” complained one survivor. As ever, those who suffered most were disproportionately of African American backgrounds. Clearly, all men are not brothers in such contemporary catastrophes.
As we look to the future, rising seas will make hurricanes – “hypercanes”, in the modern idiom – ever harder to deal with and ever more disastrous. Kermode did not necessarily take account of climate change when he proposed the disconfirmation of apocalypses as a kind of renewal of the human spirit. In the 21st century, these über-storms reflect global geopolitics, as Schwartz concludes: “In a way, the hurricanes and how societies deal with them have become symbolic of competing world views.” The winds are howling around this house as I write, hurling furniture about on my seaward-facing deck. We may be far from those Caribbean tempests, but we will undoubtedly feel their effects, one way or another, in decades to come.