The History of Disasters: New Global Approaches
In many ways, the occurrence of disasters—whether natural, biological, military, environmental, or urban—have come to define modern times. These events are never far away thanks in part to the media and our lightning-fast access to information from across the globe, as well as the widespread consequences that often follow disasters, such as a rise in gas prices, or global clouds of ash that can ground flights for weeks. Disasters are not isolated events affecting only the regions or time periods in which they occur. Instead, as the papers in this panel will demonstrate, their effects can be wide-ranging, both intellectually and geographically—and this does not represent a recent phenomenon. Accordingly, each paper examines a disaster or set of disasters in a different part of the world between 1720 and 1903. We hope in this way to incite discussion about global disasters, and the benefits of using these as a tool for interpreting history.
In her paper on “The Politics of Disaster,” Cindy Ermus takes a transnational approach to the study of the Marseille Plague of 1720, exploring its ramifications not in France, but in neighboring Spain, where Philip V enacted a series of commercially restrictive and supervisory measures in response. These not only disregarded the terms of recent treaties, but also complimented centralist reforms recently enacted within Spain. Cindy thus examines one example of how disasters have been exploited for political purposes in the past.
In “Scaling Disaster: Modernity and Risk in Paris,” Peter Soppelsa investigates various smaller-scale urban events in Paris from 1897-1903, analyzing the use of French terms like catastrophe, désastre and sinistre to describe these local tragedies. Defining and debating disasters became a way for turn-of-the-century Parisians to construct the meaning of other aspects of urban modernity: technoscience, secularism, political conflict, and so on. In so doing, Peter finds that they were coming to terms with modern Paris’s status as what sociologist Ulrich Beck famously called a “risk society.”
Nicholas Breyfogle examines the 1861-1862 earthquakes in Lake Baikal Russia in his paper, “Confronting Catastrophe.” He uses these events as a lens to examine the role of natural disasters in the social and cultural lives of the Imperial Russian population and as a way to understand the environmental sensibilities and approaches of the people around Lake Baikal. Earthquakes tended, for example, to reinforce the view of nature—and Lake Baikal in particular—as dangerous, capricious, and life-taking.
Quinn Dauer takes us to 18th and 19th-century Chile, where he examines two earthquakes that struck the city of Concepción in 1751 and 1835. He considers how the Spanish Crown and the embryonic Chilean state responded to disasters as a means to better understand the state-formation process in Chile over this period of time. In a refreshing conclusion, he reveals agency on the part of the citizens of Concepción in the wake of these events, demonstrating that in both cases, it was they who ultimately determined where they rebuilt their homes and businesses.