Extreme weather and social vulnerability in colonial Antigua, Lesser Antilles, 1770-1890

Berland, Alexander Jorge (2015) Extreme weather and social vulnerability in colonial Antigua, Lesser Antilles, 1770-1890. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis presents an history of extreme climate events in Antigua, a former British colony in the Lesser Antilles, spanning the years 1770-1890. It employs a range of documentary sources from that period, including government, plantation, missionary and scholarly papers. Two major empirical elements are addressed: (1) reconstruction of the timing and magnitude of precipitation variability and tropical cyclone activity and (2) investigation of the implications of climatic hazards—principally droughts and hurricanes—for Antiguan society. On the basis of these analyses, temporal and social patterns of human vulnerability to hydrological extremes and storms are explored.

Established methodologies for analysing documentary climate evidence are used to reconstruct two major chronologies covering the study period, one of relative annual precipitation variations and one of tropical cyclones. The former, which is the first of its kind in the Caribbean, captures nine major phases of drought and six of precipitation excess and corresponds well with two series of instrumental data from the 1870s and 1880s. The latter records 42 tropical cyclones—including ten currently not listed in published storm datasets—with several peaks in event frequencies matching those in other reconstructions of North Atlantic cyclones. Connections between findings and known oceanic-atmospheric drivers of regional climate variability are considered. Assessment of the societal consequences of extreme events centres upon three case studies of climate-related disaster in the periods 1775-1783, 1834-1838 and 1860-1880. Each corresponds with historical developments of regional importance—respectively, the American War of Independence, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and major deceleration of the colonial sugar economy. The ways in which precipitation extremes and tropical cyclones affected human livelihoods in these distinctive socio-economic contexts, as well as how different groups reacted to them, are examined in detail. Evidence from the full study period is also used to highlight longer-term trends of impact and response, as well as the possible linkages between extreme weather, disease outbreaks and social unrest.

Diverse structural factors shaping Antiguans’ vulnerability are explored, ranging from local topography to economic dependence on plantation agriculture. Three broad thematic divisions of the study period are then proposed: (1) the late 1700s through early 1800s, when recurrent international warfare heightened vulnerability by disrupting maritime commerce; (2) the mid-1810s through 1840s, when relative geopolitical stability and economic success reduced vulnerability; and (3) the mid to late 1800s, when vulnerability was again amplified, this time by the rise of laissez-faire imperial policy in the midst of burgeoning competition in the global sugar market. Within the Antiguan populace, the distribution of socio-economic losses resulting from climatic stresses is shown to mirror patterns of material inequality inherent in the race- and class-based colonial hierarchy. Though failing to radically alter these relationships of power and vulnerability, slave emancipation is argued to have altered their finer dynamics in important ways.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Endfield, G.H
Metcalfe, S.E.
Keywords: Climate, history, Caribbean, Lesser Antilles, drought, hurricane, extreme weather, slavery, vulnerability, disasters, colonial geography
Subjects: F United States local history. History of Canada and Latin America > F1201 Latin America (General)
Q Science > QC Physics > QC811 Geomagnetism. Meteorology. Climatology
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Geography
Item ID: 29292
Depositing User: Berland, Alexander
Date Deposited: 08 Sep 2015 14:04
Last Modified: 17 Sep 2016 08:58
URI: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/29292

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