The Persistent “Puzzle of…Climate”: Climatic and Microclimatic Challenges to Atlantic Empires

AHA Session 203
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 8 (Washington Hilton)
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, New York University
The Audience

Session Abstract

As European empires slowly extended their reach through the Atlantic world after 1492, settlers and officials found climatic conditions to be surprisingly unstable over time and geographically varied. As historian Karen Kupperman has put it, early modern Europeans found the “puzzle of...climate” in their colonies and outposts to be vexingly resistant to any simple solutions. The four papers in this panel illustrate just how complex and baffling climate-related questions proved to be for Spanish and English colonizers. The temporal instability of global climate and the spatial diversity of local microclimates frustrated European attempts to achieve theoretical clarity, synthesize findings about weather and environment, or widely apply practical adaptations. When colonizers acknowledged their shortcomings and sought to acclimate themselves to idiosyncratic conditions, rather than broadly transforming colonies into “neo-Europes,” they found the process of acclimation to be ambiguous and protracted. Even the targeted procedures of acclimatizing singular plants or animals to analogous climates within empires often turned out to be inconclusive.

Sam White's paper recovers the climate-related perplexities and troubles on the northern frontier of the Spanish empire in sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Previous experiences elsewhere in the hemisphere did not prepare explorers and settlers for the drought and cold they encountered in the South and Southwest. Using climate data to restore the full environmental context to the ongoing encounter of Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians, White shows how equivocations and disagreements about "Little Ice Age" conditions weakened the Spanish colony and opened up opportunities for creative indigenous resistance. Similarly, Tom Wickman investigates the convergence of cold weather and winter raids on the northern frontier of New England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, arguing that vistas of winter devastation caused settlers to question whether English-induced "changes in the land" would actually be permanent. The deaths of cattle and sheep due to freezing conditions, insufficient fodder, or direct attack especially disturbed English settlers for whom pastoral landscapes had symbolized a peaceful future in North America. Michael Hill explores English anxieties in tropical West Africa, where a balance between hot days and cold nights and between dry and rainy seasons had promised sixteenth-century travelers a healthful and habitable atmosphere, similar to temperate England. In the seventeenth century, as resident English employees dealt with mortal diseases, English writers reinterpreted daily and seasonal extremes as being unpredictable and debilitating. Finally, Anya Zilberstein brings to light an ambitious plan to extract and develop North American wild rice as a filler crop to be grown in unproductive zones within Ireland and Australia, situating this case study within the context of previous British attempts to acclimatize American plants to new conditions within the sprawling imperial realm.

Taken together, the four papers respond to probing questions first articulated by Kupperman, the panel’s chair, in three articles published between 1982 and 1984. Marking the thirtieth anniversary of her groundbreaking work, the panel should provoke a discussion of Kupperman’s vital questions about “fears,” “puzzles,” and “mastery” of climate.

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