Since the arrival of the satellite era, the business of monitoring storms, and forecasting weather in general, is improving in accuracy. Governments and those in authority, stand to benefit from computer modeling, for example, to forewarn residents in harm’s way of approaching severe weather patterns.
In this blog, I look at how the first settlers of the ‘New World’ in the colonial era dealt with the climatic conditions of the West Indies. How they viewed and prepared for hurricanes, and how they recovered from their impacts. Conversely, we compare the modern Caribbean residents’ approach to dealing with this persistent threat that they have inherited.
Finally, we will extract the lessons learned from both eras, to produce new insights into disaster management, mitigation, and recovery.
The Caribbean’s first settlers: the Arawaks and the Caribs, had long realised the cyclic nature of the weather in the Caribbean. Over 2000 years, they had learned how to adjust their their way of life to the hazardous environment that lurked beneath the veneer of gentle, spectacular, beauty that dresses these islands. Distinguished, Dominican, anthropologist and historian, Dr. Lennox Honychurch speaking on DBS Radio, on 20th October, 2017, weeks after the passage of Hurricane Maria that utterly devastated the island on September 17, said that the best source of knowledge of what we know about the impact of hurricanes on Dominica, and by extension the British Caribbean overall, comes from records kept by colonial secretaries and diarists since the island was occupied in 1763. The first of which was in 1766.
Of the Kalinago people, who the Europeans formally referred to as the ‘Caribs’, and from whom the Caribbean got its name, he said, that any discussion about hurricanes in the Caribbean must begin with the Kalinago people. “…because they have a great deal of knowledge about these things. They had been on Dominica for over 2000 years, and let us understand that hurricanes had been happening in this land for thousands of years. It just so happens that we are here at time, ” Honychurch said. In this interview, Dr. Honychurch shares detailed information of the devastation caused in Dominica for the last 200 years, but remarked that, “…We are in the way! Nature is doing her thing, and we are basically in the way. We are building things, constructing roads, and we are shocked and horrified when things are washed away or damaged. Or our roofs are damaged or our houses are flooded. But we must understand that these things have been happening long before even human beings came to establish themselves in Dominica. But the people that first settled, the Amerindian people, and most notably the Kalinago people have left evidence of their knowledge and awareness of these storms,” Honychurch continued adding, that the word hurricane comes from an anglicized derivative of the Kalingo word: ‘huracan’. Dr. Honychurch said that the Kalinago people believed that “Huracan was this force that emerged during the period of May and October when different waves of bad weather would come across the Atlantic.”
Meantime, Matthew Mulcahy, in his book Hurricanes and society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624 -1783, says that the ‘native populations of the Caribbean basin’ regarded these extreme meteorological events as a ‘tempestuous spirit’ citing a 17-century account. Further south, he says that the now lost Mayan civilisation regarded hurakan as one of three ‘most powerful forces,’. Cabrakan the god of earthquakes, Chirakan the god of volcanoes and Hurakan the god of storms. Furthermore, in peacetime, when the Europeans were not at war with the indigenous peoples, the early colonists learned from the natives that they could foretell when a hurricane would strike through observation of the sky and the celestial bodies, such as the number of rings observed around the moon at night.
The colonial expectation
During the British colonial era, in the 17th and 18th centuries, in the British Greater Caribbean — ‘a region from Barbados through South Carolina’, Mulcahy explains that the pioneer settlers that arrived in the ‘New World’ with their enslaved labourers, had to rethink their ambitions, attitudes and beliefs on what was possible to achieve in the newly-acquired lands. Not only were their initial financial investment at risk from resistance from the native peoples, but from the extreme weather and environmental hazards namely: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and hurricanes. “17th century colonists arrived in the ‘New World’ with a firm belief that they could tame and transform the American wilderness they encountered,” Mulcahy writes. According to him, contemporary, colonial thinking held the view that the object of colonial possession of these islands was a God-given right, and their duty to ‘improve’ nature by by transforming,”wild and uncivilised areas into civilized, productive societies.” The planters, he said, “quickly set about establishing towns, farms, and plantations that more closely resembled the landscapes they had left behind.”
It was also the opinion of the early settlers that this social development, “changed the physical environment of the New World for the better.” He cited that the colonists believed that by cutting down trees and and replacing them with cultivated canefields mitigated diseases lurking in the heavy undergrowth of the tropical rainforests they met. They believed, too, that by deforestation, for example, “allowed for easier passage of the trade winds across the islands, purifying the air.”
The destructive, and disruptive nature of hurricanes was not only a problem for the British, but for all Europeans bent on colonising these islands. Stuart B. Schwrtz, author of Sea of Storms: A history of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina writing from the Spanish perspective writes that in the 1500s, not only were towns levelled, livestock and slaves killed, and coffee plantations and canefields destroyed, another main loss resulting from the onslaught of these seasonal disasters was the disruption of the ‘Atlantic commerce and the flow of silver and gold to the king’s coffers.
Living with hurricanes
The aspiration of building European-like societies in the West Indies, and the extraction of the wealth generated from slave labor, the slave trade, and the plantations that they slaved on, came at great personal risk and financial cost. The mis-adventures the colonists endured are well documented in the colonial newspapers and government gazettes of the day. Another source of information on the impact that hurricanes 300 years ago had on this region also comes from the personal accounts of planters themselves as they wrote about their experiences in their diaries.
Recommended further reading
DBS Radio on Facebook Watch (2020). Available at: https://www.facebook.com/dominicabroadcasting.station/videos/1880908022238987/?v=1880908022238987 (Accessed: 23 August 2020).
(2020) Amazon.co.uk. Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hurricanes-Society-British-Caribbean-1624-1783/dp/0801890799/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1598188320&sr=8-1-fkmr0 (Accessed: 23 August 2020).
Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1. and Mulcahy, M. (2020) Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624–1783, Goodreads.com. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4207640-hurricanes-and-society-in-the-british-greater-caribbean-1624-1783 (Accessed: 24 August 2020).
Katrina and Schwartz, S. (2020) Sea of Storms, Goodreads.com. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21981634-sea-of-storms?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=8yjUMutse7&rank=1 (Accessed: 24 August 2020).
Williams, T. (2020) Hurricane of Independence, Goodreads.com. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4067575-hurricane-of-independence (Accessed: 24 August 2020).
Hurricanes: Science and Society: About (2020). Available at: http://www.hurricanescience.org/about/ (Accessed: 24 August 2020).