Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina, by Stuart B. Schwartz

Call it a ‘hypercane’ or a ‘weather bomb’, we’re as much at its mercy as ever, writes Philip Hoare

February 5, 2015

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 prayer Ad 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.

Philip Hoare is professor of creative writing, University of Southampton, and author, most recently, of The Sea Inside (2013).

Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina

By Stuart B. Schwartz
Princeton University Press, 472pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691157566 and 9781400852086 (e-book)
Published 28 January 2015

The author

Stuart Schwartz, the George Burton Adams professor of history at Yale University and chair of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies, lives in “a small colonial town on the Connecticut shore with my wife Maria Jordán, a scholar of Golden Age literature and a native of Puerto Rico. Much of my research in the past 20 years has been done at her side while she was working on her own projects in Spain and Portugal, or while I was writing in Puerto Rico. She and her family taught me a great deal about hurricanes and about Caribbean life in general”. 

He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts to parents who were “inveterate readers – novels for my mother and popular history for my dad, a physician who, other than medical journals, only read history. As an only child, I read a lot when I wasn’t playing baseball. When I was about 10, my dad gave me C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars, a history of archaeology, and along with a book called Augustus Cesar’s World, my interest in the past was piqued.” 

A “distracted student”, Schwartz says he was “good in what I liked (history and English) and lax in what I didn’t (math and Latin)”. Happily, he attended “an extraordinary public high school”, Classical High in Springfield.

It had “wonderful teachers, some with doctorates. My school counsellor suggested I enter the military since I probably would not get into college, but the coach of the school baseball team was also my history instructor and he urged me to apply to some good colleges. Luckily I got in.”

He took his undergraduate degree at Middlebury College in Vermont, and recalls that he “began to get serious around my second year in college. I had studied Spanish in high school – not very well. But I had a good teacher at Middlebury and so when a close friend invited me to drive to Mexico City in the summer of 1960 to attend classes at the National University and live with a Mexican family, I was ready for what seemed a great adventure – and it was. 

“I travelled all over the country, visited many archaeological sites, and for the first time really began to speak and appreciate the language. But Middlebury had no Latin American historian on its faculty and so I returned and concentrated on Asian history. I did a senior essay on the Middle East in the First World War, but my real passion was Tokugawa Japan. (I collected ukiyo-e woodcuts). I went to graduate school at Columbia University to work in that field, and only changed over (or back) to Latin America after getting an MA.”

Brazilian history is a key area of research interest for Schwartz, and he has a number of monographs on the subject to his credit. “My relationship with Brazil is very positive. Non-academics sometimes find it curious that a foreigner or ‘Brazilianista’ spends so much time on their history but Brazilian academics have been very generous and kind to me. 

“My books are used widely in Brazilian universities, I have been visiting professor at a number of universities, and have had a large number of pre- and postdoctoral Brazilian students who have come to work with me. Brazil is my second home…but I should also mention my affinity and deep affection for Portugal and Spain, where as a colonial historian I have lived for various periods and where I continually do archival research.”

Sea of Storms, he observes, “is the first of my books to go beyond the 18th century. I admit that I feel a bit like a carpetbagger. I’ve had to read and learn a lot of new things. I admit that I am somewhat out of my element, but in some ways this foray is liberating and exciting because I am also writing about events and times through which I lived.”

That said, he adds, “I would admit that the challenge of separating my memories and political proclivities for historical interpretation become difficult when doing contemporary history.”

As he mentions in the book’s introduction, “it was in re-reading Fernand Braudel that the idea for the book was born. I had spent 20 years working on slavery in Brazil and had read lots of the literature on Caribbean slavery as well. I wanted to do something on the Caribbean, but wanted to get away from writing another book on slavery, as I had said what I had to say on the topic).

“Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean gave me the idea of looking at the geophysical or environmental characteristics of the region as a way of dealing transnationally with the region – and what phenomena better or more characteristic of the region than the hurricanes? I knew Braudel’s book well; I always admired him and had met him in 1968 when he was the ‘surprise’ commentator on one of my first conference papers, given at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I was in shock when they told me who was commenting on my paper.

“He was overly kind and encouraging, took me to lunch afterward at a Mexican restaurant, and invited me to speak to his seminar at the University of Chicago – although I never went because shortly there after the student uprising in Paris in 1968 forced him to return.”

Schwartz adds: “When I started to work on Sea of Storms, I had no idea that slavery, race and social inequality would play such an important role as a central theme in my book, but I should have. As the book developed, those subjects reappeared continually. The roots of Katrina lay deep in the history of the region, and in many ways including the southern US in the story of a greater Caribbean makes a great deal of sense.” 

Karen Shook

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