Under the weather

By David Knight, Jr

Climate and Catastrophe in Cuba and the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolution, by Sherry Johnson
(University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 978-0-8078-3493-0, 328 pp)

Havana harbour

View of Havana from Géographie complète et universelle (1855), by Malthe Conrad Bruun. Public domain image posted at Flickr by the British Library

It’s only natural that environmental history should take on new importance in the early twenty-first century, an age so absorbed in the prospect of impending ecological crisis. Contemporary concerns are, after all, the primary lens through which we view the past, sometimes dimming our vision, at other times granting it new clarity. A sense of urgency currently surrounds the issue of climate-related disaster; new works like Sherry Johnson’s Climate and Catastrophe in Cuba and the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolution are designed to grab our attention.

Johnson, who is director of academic programmes at the Latin American and Caribbean Centre at Florida International University, has brought the field of historical climatology to bear on the eighteenth-century Caribbean, in an effort to make connections between events of that turbulent era and newly available — or at least newly relevant — data on climate. The innovation of Climate and Catastrophe is meant to be its aggressively multidisciplinary form: this is a work that may read like narrative history, but its author has no time for the mutual disinterest with which the social sciences and the natural sciences often regard each other. Johnson writes:

Decades of research have made “climate change” household words, but until now the social sciences have rarely utilised scientific discoveries to understand the connections among climate, catastrophe, environmental crisis, and historical change.

This is undoubtedly a novel approach to Atlantic World history, and Johnson believes it will reveal connections that challenge our conventional understanding. The case could be made that the term “the Atlantic World” here, in the title of Johnson’s study, is a slight overstatement: it is overwhelmingly Cuban history that dominates Climate and Catastrophe’s narrative, even when its arguments branch out in recognition of the fact that environmental disaster is a thoroughly transnational issue. Spanish colonial history is familiar terrain for Johnson, whose previous work was titled The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba, and she proves herself to be a passionate and knowledgeable source of information on the subject.

If climate science sounds off-puttingly technical, readers can be reassured that Johnson’s argument in Climate and Catastrophe hinges on data that can be easily understood with little scientific knowledge. New evidence suggests that the period between the years 1748 and 1804 — a time of great political upheaval, often referred to as the Age of Revolution — experienced climate fluctuations consistent with what we know today as the El Niño and La Niña cycles. Most readers will be familiar with these climate-related phenomena, periodically responsible not only for prolonged drought in the Western Hemisphere, but also for increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin. Johnson is curious whether the Age of Revolution’s apparent political instability and its extreme weather patterns are purely coincidental — and if not, how they are connected within the geographic area she studies.

Johnson is a cautious writer, careful to not reduce complex historical shifts to the influence of environmental factors alone. What she does argue, often very convincingly, is that the effects of climate on events in the eighteenth-century Caribbean are often underestimated. According to Johnson, the El Niño and La Niña cycles during this period influenced events profoundly, whether by causing food shortages that left Spanish defenses in Havana vulnerable to the British occupation of 1762, or by frustrating the efforts of Spanish troops sent from Cuba to Hispañiola when the revolutionary spirit of the age came to Saint-Domingue. The amount of research that Johnson has done to support these claims is impressive; the ninety-four pages of appendices, notes, and citations she includes are equal to nearly half the length of the main body of the work.

Johnson is most persuasive during her discussion of the liberalisation of trade that occurred in the Spanish Caribbean in the late eighteenth century. This is perhaps not as exciting or romantic a subject as some of the others covered in Climate and Catastrophe, but its implications may be the most profound. Rather than attribute changes in colonial economic policy during this period to the advance of global capitalism alone, she argues that many of these changes were made out of necessity, a response to the period’s volatile climate. Drought and storms had ravaged the food supplies of a good deal of the Americas, essentially forcing reluctant officials to embrace the idea of free trade. Cuba, when it could no longer rely on an ecologically devastated Mexico to provide its food surpluses, opened its markets to merchants from North America. Provocatively, Johnson further argues that the opening up of markets in the Caribbean allowed the thirteen American colonies that would soon become the United States to rely less on metropolitan Britain for trade, increasing the confidence of those colonists who would agitate for independence. If El Niño and La Niña were truly major factors in this development, it significantly changes our interpretation of a key period of Atlantic World history, with the most far-reaching consequences.

One of the things that readers will take away from Climate and Catastrophe is a reinforced sense of the roughness of life in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, due not least of all to climate-related factors. Johnson cites the death toll of one hurricane in 1780 during one landfall in the Leeward Islands alone at over twenty thousand. Famine, disease, and constant raiding parties from rival colonies were only some of the consequences of ecological disaster in the late eighteenth century. With so much historical research done on the often merciless political and economic context of the colonial era, so innate to the Caribbean’s famous “quarrel with history,” it’s easy to forget that environmental forces often pressed their weight down on the region with equal intensity.

Climate and Catastrophe is an accessible book with a thought-provoking argument that dovetails nicely with current events. My only frustration with it is perhaps not a fair one, given the constraints of academic writing. Like so many similar works, there tends to be a good deal of repetition designed to ensure the clarity of the author’s point. The result is that readers with only a casual interest in climate-related history may be better served gleaning the essential points by skimming the most important chapters. For those wishing to do their own work in the growing field of historical climatology, however, or for those who wish to delve a bit more deeply into a novel approach to eighteenth-century Cuban history, Climate and Catastrophe will prove to be a valuable resource.


The Caribbean Review of Books, October 2016

David Knight, Jr, is a writer, editor and journalist from the US Virgin Islands. His articles have appeared in publications including ARC, The Caribbean Writer, and Caribbean Beat. He is the co-­founder and co­-editor of Moko, a regional arts and literature journal based in the British and US Virgin Islands. He is currently based on St John.