Sunday, January 25, 2015

Stuart B. Schwartz's "Sea of Storms"

Stuart B. Schwartz is the George Burton Adams Professor of History and chair of the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at Yale University. His many books include All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Sea of Storms catches a major turning point in the history of governmental response to natural disasters. The year 1780 created an extraordinary challenge for all the nations and colonies of the Caribbean. In that year, eight hurricanes made landfall in the region, among them the "Great" hurricane, the deadliest storm in the history of the Caribbean. Until the late 18th century, most countries and European empires had left disaster relief to the Church or to private charities, but this storm had roared up the chain of the Lesser Antilles during the American Revolution for independence when the Caribbean was awash with Spanish, English, and French ships and troops. The storm killed over 30,000 people, destroyed whole fleets, disrupted commerce, and along with the other storms, devastated the slave-based plantation economies of Martinique, Jamaica, Barbados and other islands. For the first time England's Parliament, realizing that the plantation economies had to be restored, sent significant funds for disaster relief to its colonies, fearing that not to do so might lead the discontented island colonies to join the continental rebels. As page 99 shows, the French governor of Martinique took a similar position, writing to Paris: "In this dreadful circumstance, it was absolutely necessary to distribute relief to the victims."

The great hurricane of 1780 and the other storms of that year proved to be a point of departure. Decisions in that year about governmental responsibility in the face of calamity had been shaped by politics as well as moral and charitable concerns, and that would become a recurrent aspect of the ways in which governments would respond to communal catastrophes thereafter. The questions generated by such intervention: are disasters a private or public matter? is disaster relief a basic human right? who should benefit from relief? and how can it be best provided without creating dependency or moral hazard? have remained at the heart of a debate that still rages today.
Learn more about Sea of Storms at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue