Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

"CASUALTIES AND DISASTERS": Defoe and the Interpretation of Climatic Instability

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

"CASUALTIES AND DISASTERS": Defoe and the Interpretation of Climatic Instability

Article excerpt

The Great Storm of November 26-27, 1703, that struck Southern England and Wales became a benchmark throughout the eighteenth century for the destructive power of Nature directed by a chastising God.1 Preaching on the thirtieth anniversary of the storm, Andrew Gifford called it "the most terrible Desolation of [its] kind that ever was known in the Memory of Man, or recorded in any History" (24). Survivors observed memorial days of prayer and fasting on the anniversary of the storm, and annual sermons to commemorate the dead continued well into the nineteenth century-reiterating the theological commonplace that "the tempest" was evidence of God's "great and terrible Judgment" and a forewarning to sinners that "the desolations which have been made in the earth" presaged the Day of Judgment (Stinton, Sermon 5; Pritchard, Desolations 28). In crucial ways, all of these sermons are indebted to, and often draw explicitly on, Daniel Defoe's The Storm: Or, a Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters Which Happen'd in the Late Dreadful Tempest Both by Sea and Land (1704), a unique compilation of eyewitness accounts that Defoe advertised for, assembled, and prefaced with a long essay describing his own experiences and reporting the tolls of destruction and death from across Britain. Published in two editions, The Storm remains a vital source of information for climatologists and historians; by marshalling the resources of early eighteenth- century print culture-the periodical advertisement and correspondents' letters-Defoe summarizes what statistics he could find and provides often striking vignettes of the destruction that occurred on November 27. His commitment to empirical verification reflects his solid understanding of the protocols of natural philosophy at the turn of the eighteenth century. "We have endeavour'd to furnish our selves with the most authentick Accounts we could from all Parts of the Nation," Defoe told his readers, and assured them that "a great many worthy Gentleman have contributed their Assistance in various, and some very exact Relations and curious Remarks" (69). In confronting the effects of this and other storms that ravaged England in the early eighteenth century, these "very exact Relations" superimpose empirical and theological interpretations: Defoe and his contributors justify their efforts to understand the physical forces that led to the "casualties and disasters" of 1703 with typological readings of their causes. In the process, The Storm reveals the complex ways in which our understanding of climate-in the twenty-first century as well as the eighteenth-both shapes and is shaped by a range of ecological, socioeconomic, and metaphysical values and assumptions.

Although hardly one of Defoe's most popular works, The Storm is a historically significant effort to register the "exact" and "curious" perceptions of the unsettled weather that characterized the early modern period. In its emphasis on eyewitness reports, the "virtual witnessing" that characterizes emerging notions of scientific methodology, his text describes some of the ways in which conditions during the Little Ice Age (c. 1350-1850)-a period of shorter springs and growing seasons, longer winters, and often abrupt and violent shifts in weather patterns-shaped larger perceptions of "Nature" itself.2 In the first section of this article, I explore the problems of representing the storm in 1703 and reconstructing its causes and effects three hundred years later by using cutting-edge climatological models. If the survivors, including Defoe himself, repeatedly maintain that no description can convey their embodied experiences, their "very exact Relations and curious Remarks" point to some of the constraints on current efforts to reconstruct the climatological past and model the future. I then briefly describe conditions during the Little Ice Age to suggest that the frequency and strength of storms that England experienced led to a more volatile conception of the natural world than one might assume from reading ahistorically the literature of agricultural improvement, the eighteenth-century georgic, or early Romantic poetry. …

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