J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Receiving A Cold Welcome

A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America by Sam White looks at early American history outside my usual timeframe. I picked it up looking for answers to a question that’s puzzled me for a while.

White focuses on the first decade of the seventeenth century when European powers made permanent settlements in North America. The Spanish established Santa Fe to go with their Florida outpost of St. Augustine. The French founded Québec. And the British, after failures at Roanoke and Popham, just barely created a permanent base at Jamestown. (In the following decades, the Dutch would come to Manhattan and the Swedes to Delaware, but they’re not part of this story.)

That decade of 1600-1609 was at the trough of the Little Ice Age that lasted from about 1300 to about 1850. “One of the steepest declines in Northern Hemisphere temperatures in perhaps thousands of years took place in the half century leading up to the founding of Jamestown, Quebec, and Santa Fe,” White writes. In fact, due to volcanic eruptions, the climate was even harsher than that around 1600, with cold winters, cool summers, and droughts. “The timing of this volcanic weather could not have been worse for European expeditions in North America.”

That concatenation has been well established. It exacerbated the European explorers’ bafflement at how the North American climate didn’t conform to their expectations. Québec is well south of Paris, but its winters are colder—yet summers in North America were hotter than in Europe. On top of that mystery, White writes, the Europeans were encountering conditions that were worse than a few decades before when the Spanish first explored the Americas.

My question was, given that the Europeans arriving in North America in the 1600s encountered the most difficult conditions in decades, why did those settlements succeed? Isn’t that like finding the best time to climb a mountain is during a blizzard?

White presents several factors to explain that pattern, one of which I’d thought of and others that were new to me. First, the Little Ice Age also put enough pressure on the European powers to make those societies and the people in them a little more desperate, more willing to take chances across the ocean. “Climate-driven sustenance crises in France and England left some in those countries looking for ways to dispose of hungry, poor, and vagrant subjects.” In the same way, evolutionary leaps take place when species are under pressure to survive, not when they’re happily propagating as they are.

In particular, the harsh conditions leading up to 1600 weakened the Spanish Empire through famine and epidemics in Castile. The Spanish crown had enjoyed over a century of gold and silver from South America, but forays into North America hadn’t been so lucrative. With resources at home becoming scarcer, the Spaniards were less inclined to guard North America against their European rivals to the north.

Furthermore, the changing climate also affected the North American powers, albeit in less documented ways. The Native nations experienced droughts and harsh winters, as well as the diseases they hadn’t yet developed immunity to. So for the English and French, there were openings in the early 1600s despite the climate.

Finally, White notes the importance of chance events. We wouldn’t be talking about Jamestown as the seed of Britain’s North American empire unless a resupply fleet had arrived off the coast at just the right time in 1610. Samuel de Champlain survived calamities at two French settlements and learned from them in order to establish a third. As White points out, even in the Little Ice Age North America wasn’t inherently unlivable; the new humans from Europe needed to survive just long enough to adapt.


David Kindy said...

I've read some theories that suggest the Little Ice Age was caused - or at least contributed to - by the decimation by disease of indigenous peoples in South America during the 1500s. The fact that they weren't farming their lands after being wiped out by illness changed the world's weather. Intriguing concept.

J. L. Bell said...

The evidence seems clear that the temperature drop started well before Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It’s also clear that the population loss on those continents over the next two centuries changed their environment, but changing the worldwide climate—what would be the mechanism for that?