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Stuart Schwartz: Sea of Storms

schwartzStuart B. Schwartz is the George Burton Adams Professor of History at Yale University and former Master of Ezra Stiles College. He was educated at Middlebury College and the National University of Mexico and received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. The author of more than eighty articles, he has also published a number of award-winning monographs, including Sovereignty and Society in Colonial Brazil (1973); Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society (1984), winner of the Bolton prize in Latin American history; and All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (2008), winner of numerous prizes. This interview is based on his newest book, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes (Princeton University Press, 2015).

What initially drew you to the Greater Atlantic and environmental disaster histories?

As a historian of colonial Latin America I had been working on aspects of  “Atlantic history” long before that definition came into popular usage, although scholars like the Belgian Charles Verlinden and French Frederic Mauro had already begun in the 1960s to employ the concept. I spent much of the 70s and 80s working on slavery and plantations in Brazil and read widely and comparatively about the U.S. and the Caribbean. I wanted to work on the history of what I call the greater Caribbean and to try to conceive it in a new way. I started to reread Braudel’s Mediterranean as a broadly analogous book about an inland sea. While his approach was not mine, and I did not see his book as a model, I saw in his concentration on the physical environment an appealing way to find unities in a region of cultural and national differences. In the Caribbean, there is no aspect of the environment more characteristic than the hurricanes, so I began to think about using them to write a transnational history of the region.

I thought this project would just be a broad history of human interaction with nature. Having read so much about slavery in the Carribbean, I should have been prepared for the importance of slavery and race relations in the history of natural disasters, yet I was surprised to see how consistently social divisions and attitudes about class and race, both during slavery and long after, influenced government policies and actions. This helped me to see that including the U.S. South as part of the “greater Caribbean” made sense in terms of both history and ecology. The roots of the Katrina disaster were deep in the past of the Greater Caribbean.  My book turned out to be a social and political history of an environmental challenge in which people and governments, rather than hurricanes, are the protagonists. I have tried to make these natural disasters an interpretative theme that, like slavery, empire, migration, contraband, or war, could be used to find the unities in the region’s history, but I think I have also shown how all these other themes have been shaped by the principal environmental feature of the region: the hurricanes.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of looking at the Greater Caribbean as a whole? Of extending Atlantic history into the present? How have Atlantic scholars reacted to the expansion of the traditional periodization?

By including the South East and Gulf region of the U.S. as part of a “greater Caribbean” environment, I wanted explore certain cultural and historical commonalities in the history of such a diverse region. Most authors have limited the “Atlantic” approach to the Early Modern era, when the commonalities created by slavery, empire, and effects of the Enlightenment were obvious. Bud Bailyn and others have already pointed out the 20th century post-WWII origins of the “Atlantic idea,” but few scholars have tried to push the concept past or 1850 or 1900, that is, after the U.S. emerged as the regional predominant power. By concentrating on the common sense of hazard in confronting the same natural disasters, I was able to extend the usual and more comfortable chronological limits by showing that in the 19th century, policies and attitudes in the U.S. toward disaster relief and toward social disparities were very similar to places like Jamaica or Guadeloupe. But by the 20th century the United States, through its economic, military, and diplomatic power, became an influence and a model for the region, and by the 1960s, through its hegemony and influence on transnational institutions like the IMF or the World Bank, determined how other actors in the region would operate. Moreover, the history of hurricanes also involves the history of communications (telegraph, radio, satellite), science (meteorology, geophysics, etc), and technology that is also transnational.

An Atlantic approach not chronologically bound to the Early Modern era made good sense because the age of American hegemony is very much part of the story. I found Michele Landis Dauber’s book, The Sympathetic State, very suggestive about the importance of disaster relief in the origins of the American New Deal. But by looking at the region as a whole, I found that governments across the Atlantic world in the 1930s assumed direct responsibility for disaster relief of various types and employed a populist rhetoric that began to treat relief as a communal right and a government responsibility. Taking an Atlantic approach made the parallel approaches and the interconnected nature of this history clear.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

Research for a project like this spans more than five centuries and draws on archival and published materials in a number of languages, which presented challenges. I did archival work in a number of countries and got some research help in Denmark and Holland. My work was also greatly facilitated by the tremendous amount of archival and printed material that is now available in digital form. I further tried to make use of the considerable scientific literature on hurricanes as well as the specialized literature on disaster management, although it was not always useful for historical analysis.

What was the strangest and/or most interesting thing you found while doing research?

There were surprises in the research. Although I had read about the early development of natural philosophy and scientific thought in the Spanish world, I had not realized how their practical experience of the regularity and periodicity of hurricanes undercut providential interpretations of natural disaster. In the Enlightenment, Europeans turned to indigenous knowledge, added their observations and experience to folk weather rituals, and then developed scientific measurement. By doing so, Europeans adjusted to the seasonality of hurricanes, and patterned the ecology of the region as a whole based on the storms’ threats.

I had also not expected to find that the recurring crises following a hurricane continually challenged the mercantilist exclusivism of all of the imperial powers, and often forced governors faced with starving populations and ruined plantations to break rules against trade with other nations. Necessity almost always trumped restrictions. Hurricanes intensified the regions’ penchant for contraband and eventually contributed to a sense that local and imperial interests were not necessarily the same.