What a Disaster! Wait, What's A Disaster?
ANNETTE TELLS TALES Disaster History: Not So Much About Disasters As It Is About What Disaster Means To Us
How Long is This Post? Around 7,500 words. About 35 mins read.
“Wish you were here!”
Okay, so this drawing probably wasn’t a postcard. But people couldn't get enough of the earthquake, fire, and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755.
When and how did we start caring about—or at least being interested in— disasters? That's today's theme, because I’m riffing on historian Cynthia A. Kierner’s book Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood.
I love the comedy/disaster movie Don’t Look Up. Two academics try to warn humanity that a planet-killing comet is headed at Earth. Government, media, and the public ignore and dismiss them. Finally, a weird tech billionaire is tasked with protecting the Earth from this disaster. What happens next is hilarious and cringe-worthy, and I recommend it.
If you bring popcorn to historian Cynthia Kierner's book Inventing Disaster, you’re going to be disappointed. But if, like me, you never really thought before about why we respond to disasters as we do, and that thought intrigues you, welcome!
Our Disaster Script
When I was a kid in England, disasters to me were something on TV news. The adults in the room put their hands to their faces, shook their heads, and said “That's terrible”. Like, what was the point of winning The War (WWII) if bad things kept happening? Must admit, I now sympathize.
But I digress. We follow a script when disasters happen, don’t we? Think about it. Imagine there's a really big earthquake, like an 8.0.
If the quake happens in a part of the world to which we have no connection at all, we think, oh, that’s sad, in a polite, dutiful, relieved sort of way, followed by wonder what I’ll have for dinner?
Or, if it happens in San Francisco, and we know people there, we’re immediately concerned. But it’s not yet a disaster to us, because we don't know any more about it.
And then, as reports emerge, we grow more interested, especially if we see collapsed buildings, and distressed and bleeding people, and —let’s be honest—especially if we know the place, or people who live there (even if we now know our friends are ok) or if we speak the same language, or otherwise somehow feel kinship.
Does racism come into our reactions? No doubt it does. But there's also a human tendency to think “Phew, that quake couldn't possibly have happened to me. Look, that shepherd dresses funny, doesn’t speak my language, probably has never enjoyed a latte, and his little house looked ready to collapse anyway.”
Be that as it may . . . The more we learn of the impact of our theoretical earthquake disaster, the more genuinely sad/magnanimous we feel, and we may now open our wallets. Later, there will be calls for better earthquake safety, better building design. Maybe a memorial to the dead.
Even as survivors are still picking up the pieces of shattered lives, the rest of us move on to the next disaster: Floods, fires, plane crashes, wars, and famines. Oh, dear, what a shame… Rinse, repeat.
It never occurs to most of us that people didn't always respond like this. But they didn't. How, when, and why did we start to do so, especially in North America and Britain? That’s what Cynthia Kierner’s book is about.
Oh, That's A Disaster!
So what’s a disaster, anyway? Turns out, there’s no general agreement among academics about what a disaster even is, which is irritating. But there are two things on which scholars do agree, Cynthia Kierner tells us:
First, it’s not a disaster if it only affects one person. Sorry if you were late to your own wedding, or had a bad haircut before a job interview, or whatever, but … Whatever. In fact, no matter how terrible, it’s only a disaster if it affects a whole community.
Second, for historians, disasters are not so much the event itself, but the event viewed in historical context. In other words, disasters are defined not only as The Bad Thing That Happens, but also as how people respond to it, and what that response reveals about them.
Disaster Studies, an interdisciplinary subject (not historians as such) is also a thing. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. I learned it from Cynthia Kierner. Disaster Studies experts want us to know that natural disasters are NOT a totally different beast than manmade disasters, as we fondly like to think. Instead, disasters are on a spectrum from “totally natural and unpreventable” [SEE UPDATE BELOW] to “Yeah, people made that happen. It’s all on them.”
UPDATE: Dr. Kierner has pointed out, quite rightly, that I need to clarify that Disaster Studies experts, in fact, believe that natural disasters are not actually a thing. I guess that’s because, hey, if people and property aren’t hurt, it’s not a disaster, and if they are, then human error is always somehow involved. There you go, Cindy!
How does that work? An earthquake in an uninhabited desert wouldn’t qualify as a disaster, unless maybe you’re a lizard, but if you are, Disaster Experts don’t care about you. The same earthquake in San Francisco? That’s another story, and whose fault is that disaster? People. You would think we would have taken the hint and not rebuilt San Francisco after the quake and fire that flattened the city in 1906. But we did, adding the Marina district, which was built on piles of rubble from the 1906 Quake dumped in the Bay. As Kierner notes, when we look at things from a Disaster Studies perspective, all disasters are to some degree ‘man-made’.
So, in Inventing Disaster, Cynthia Kierner defines disaster as:
“bad things that happened that resulted in substantial and unintended losses of lives and property”
War doesn't qualify as a disaster for this book, because it's done on purpose.
So Kierner chooses some disasters to show us how people’ s attitudes toward disaster changed over time, with a special focus on North America and Britain.
Disasters: From Don’t Care to Let’s Fix This
Kierner’s goal isn’t for us to learn how to prevent and manage disasters. Dammit, Jim, she’s a historian, not a scientist. Instead, she examines past disasters, or rather the public response to them, to help us understand how the modern world began, and how it became what it did. In other words, how did we become the sort of people we are, who react to disasters in the way we do?
Between the disaster of England’s Jamestown colony in the early 17th century, and the massive Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania in 1889, when a dam burst and swept away a city and 2,000 of its citizens, something changed. We won’t make it all the way to Kierner's last chapter on the Johnstown Flood, so here's a quick summary:
In the days after the Johnstown Flood, the Red Cross showed up in force, and news reporters descended. Stories about Johnstown filled the national press, and Americans opened their wallets for the poor people of Johnstown. Looky-loos (a great American word) turned up to take pictures. Investigations were launched to discover how the catastrophe happened.
Doesn’t that all sound familiar? It’s hard not to figure out the rest of the story after Johnstown, especially since the arrival of CNN and 24 hour news. Broadcasters now had screentime to fill, and disasters, like wars, fit the bill perfectly. The age of Uncle Walter Cronkite telling you on the evening news what you needed to know about a disaster? Over. Disastertainment (24/7) Had Arrived!
So you have the idea. I will take us only as far as the first modern disaster, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Meanwhile, let’s get started with Kierner’s first disaster, my own favorite colonial catastrophe, straight from the Monty Python playbook (drumroll, please) 🥁🥁🥁
Ta da! Jamestown! 1607! It's a Brit Thing
Jamestown, the very first permanent English colony in what would become the US, the first one that didn’t end up as a smoking ruin … Wait, actually it did, but that came later. . . Never mind. Forget it.
Let’s start again. Jamestown. Hoo, boy! What a disaster. No wonder Americans like to pretend the nation started with the nice (?) religious people on the Mayflower. Who wants to own the trainwreck that was Jamestown?
But before my British readers settle in for a nice bit of America-bashing, think again. Listen up, Brits. Every time Brits moan about Americans, and American corporate influence on the UK, and how it’s all America’s fault, Americans coming over here, force-feeding us Big Macs, etc, etc, I like to fix them with my beady-eyed stare.
I remind them that the United States began as a project of the Virginia Company of LONDON. The Virginia Company of LONDON was a major ancestor of all modern corporations. Owned, operated, and grossly mismanaged in that bumbling, amateur-hour way we know and (sort of) love, in LONDON. Yes, the London in England.
The Virginia Company of London (which I’ll now call VaCoLon) was funded by a bunch of small investors in England, widows, country gents and the like, and formed to set up an English colony in newly-claimed Virginia. VaCoLon's mission statement: Go Forth And Make Money Somehow. Okay, I'm lying, but it should have been.
Ooh, wouldn't you love to imagine those boardroom conversations? “Look, chaps, there's bound to be something we can find over there. I mean, look at the Spanish! Rolling in American money! Obviously, there's gold and silver lying all over the wretched continent. … Yes, all right, I suppose it's possible we’ve claimed the only part of America that's lacking precious metals. Unlikely, but possible. If that turns out to be the case, then you can just jolly well use your initiative, man! Make perfume from the bloody flowers, or something! Now charter a few ships, round up some riff-raff who fancy a free Atlantic cruise, and get on with it!”
Did the company’s CEO and Board themselves travel to Virginia in 1607? Of course they didn’t. They stayed in lovely, familiar London, planning to spend their bonuses on massive country estates.
Who did go to Virginia, then? The younger sons of the nobility and gentry (the ones who wouldn’t inherit anything from Dad, since it all went to the eldest son), a few soldiers, and a bunch of poor men and boys. They arrived. Most died.
Never mind, said VaCoLon, there's more where they came from! More people sent. More people died.
Look, we would love to make money, the colony’s on-site leaders surely told London, and we will, going forward. Bound to happen. But meanwhile, we’re having a few hiccups, like, you know, feeding ourselves. In fact, just fyi, one man killed his wife, preserved her with salt, and planned to eat her over the winter until we stepped in and had a word. (True story. A.) More died/arrived.
There was no gold. There were no exotic flowers for perfume. VaCoLon sent silkworms, hoping to start a silk industry, and the ship’s rats ate them. The colonists made glass out of the plentiful sand, melting it by burning the plentiful trees, and then realized it made no economic sense to ship glass bottles to England.
Drugs! Got it! The leaders finally figured out they could export drugs! They started sending shiploads of tobacco to a ready market in England. And just as the drug business was booming, and people were spreading out from beyond Jamestown’s fences to plant tobacco, the Powhatan Indians got completely fed up of the whole lot of them, and tried to kill everyone. Disaster and Jamestown? Hand in hand.
Death and suffering in early Jamestown was news . . . Nowhere. Sure, VaCoLon kept sending more poor people. This way, everyone, all aboard! Bon Voyage!
But nobody in England outside the Company knew what happened to the people who shipped out. They just vanished. Most couldn’t read or write, so letters weren’t exchanged. Sometimes, someone might have said, somewhere in England, “I wonder what happened to George who used to hang round outside the pub?” But probably not. And if they did, they didn’t think about it long.
If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody hears it, did it happen? If a bunch of people die in the forests of Virginia, and nobody notices or cares, did that happen, either?
So what, then, made Jamestown a disaster?
To most English people, Jamestown wasn’t a disaster. Virginia was out of sight and out of mind. The fate of a handful of men, most of them poor, didn’t matter to anyone in England except the officers and investors of the Virginia Company of London. And their interest was not compassion, but business.
Most English people didn’t care about Jamestown because, in an age before newspapers, they weren’t even aware it existed. And even if they had, most wouldn’t have have cared about people they didn't know in somewhere they couldn't imagine. Harsh I know, but, hey, welcome to the past.
English people in Jamestown died from disease. They died from starvation. The company, mindful of its duty to the shareholders and its officers, sighed and sent more people. They didn’t worry about the dead, or try to learn lessons going forward, or any of that modern PR self-delusion we love. They just left all that sort of thing to God to sort out.
But there were already signs, Cynthia Kierner tells us, that new attitudes to disaster were on their way. Two years before Jamestown, English philosopher Francis Bacon presented an idea. Instead of just trusting the Church to answer life’s most pressing questions, like why do disasters happen, why not learn by asking questions, and examining evidence? Hold that thought.
Two years after Jamestown was started, a ship called the Sea Venture, bringing more settlers and supplies to the collapsing Jamestown colony, was wrecked off the coast of Bermuda. And another year or two after that, the Sea Venture most likely was the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s latest smash hit play, The Tempest.
But neither the shipwreck nor the play, nor Bacon’s new ideas about how to think, meant that the disaster at Jamestown had come to the attention of the English public, or that they were yet thinking differently about disasters. As we’ll see, the connections among these three apparently unconnected happenings only seem obvious when we look back. At the time, nobody gave a rat’s patootie.
Even when the English did find out about disease, drought, and famine at Jamestown, they viewed the events as the colonists’ fault. Or maybe a message from an angry God.
I’m not going to retell the whole story of Jamestown today, fun though that would be. Let’s just say that between 1607 and 1624, more than 6,000 people came to Jamestown. By 1624, the year the King took over the colony from the Virginia Company of London, only about 1,200 people were still there. No, the others had not retired to Florida.
Thousands missing, presumed dead. The Virginia Company of London’s response? It’s the settlers’ fault! Public relations hadn’t yet been invented, but corporations had already figured out to blame the workers! And guess what? For a very long time, historians believed them! All the people who came to Jamestown were lazy bastards! That was the problem! Sorted!
Well, not exactly. Turns out, Jamestown got its start during the Little Ice Age, a time of lots of droughts and freezes, making it hard to grow food. And the settlers drank from the James River, the level of which dropped in summer, making it a bacterial soup. Even if Jamestown colonists survived dysentery and malaria from the millions of mosquitoes, and managed to grow enough corn to eat, their limited corn-based diet led to pellagra, a nasty disease unknown in Europe. Malnutrition also led to apathy and death.
Starving people, understandably, questioned the competence (and possibly the parentage) of their leaders. Some colonists voted with their feet, and went to live with the Indians, who offered a far more appealing way of life, where nobody gaslit them and urged them to focus on self-improvement.
But sure, the Jamestown colonists were lazy. You bet. Uh-huh.
The word that nobody used to describe Jamestown? Disaster. It was a brand new word in 1607 English, unknown by almost everyone, and it came from the French word for star. “Disaster” at first meant, Kierner writes, “a generally unfortunate situation,” rather than a particular event like an earthquake. The “star” came from the idea that the stars decided whether or not we had good fortune, so no need to worry ourselves. But this helpless attitude was giving way to other explanations. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius said, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. What people do matters.
In fact, most commentators at the time didn’t call what happened at Jamestown a disaster, because it seemed to them that the colony’s fate wasn’t the result of bad luck. Instead, they saw its fate as the result of EITHER deliberately bad actions by people, OR God intervening in human affairs because of human failings or maybe both.
Captain John Smith, soldier, and one-time leader of early Jamestown, is a good example of someone who thought differently about disasters. He wrote from Jamestown to London to explain that virtually anything that had succeeded in Jamestown was his doing. If he couldn’t figure out how to take credit, he said it was God’s doing. He blamed his leadership rivals and “idle” colonists for all failures, congratulated himself on a job well done, and buggered off back to England, only for the colony to almost starve to death within months. In fairness, Smith, in his bestselling memoirs of 1624, later also blamed the Virginia Company of London for its poor management.
So what? Well, it’s intriguing that Smith didn’t blame the stars, or misfortune, and as Kierner notes, he didn’t blame God, either. To Smith, the disaster at Jamestown was all the fault of people.
Before you decide, oh, here’s modern thinking, it’s not that simple. Other Englishmen saw everything that happened to Jamestown not just as the direct result of human failings, nor did they blame bad luck coming from the “stars”. Most people in England agreed that God had a hand in everyday events. Earthquakes? God did it. Your cow’s milk dry up? God again. That God! He’s always trying to tell you something. Jamestown? God’s doing. Why was God doing disasters? It's complicated.
An example: When the Sea Venture, the ship carrying settlers and supplies to two year old Jamestown, was wrecked off the coast of Bermuda, the survivors were able to build boats, and make their way to Jamestown. At every step, William Strachey, a survivor who later wrote his story, explained that everything that happened (including the terrible state of the colony when they arrived) was a sign of God’s mercy, God’s punishment, or God’s approval. Conditions at Jamestown were all part of God’s plan. And that, Strachey wrote, included the arrival of the new governor. Lord De La Warr was a fed-up VaCoLon investor who had decided to take the colony in hand. He showed up with supplies and settlers, on the very day the colonists had planned to abandon Jamestown. That was God’s plan.
Jamestown: Under New Divine Management
Looking at the trainwreck that was Jamestown, the Virginia Company of London hastily rebranded their shambolic get-rich-quick venture as a religious mission.
Don’t assume this was just a cynical 21st century style move. Seriously. Kierner argues that the Company's officers really believed that England was chosen by God to do great things for Him. And I think she’s right. But when clergymen started advertising the new, God-approved Jamestown project from their pulpits, it was a little tricky to explain why, if God had endorsed Jamestown, he kept sending famine and disease its way.
Explanations to get around that problem came down to God moving in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Or, if you like, that chaos was all part of His Plan.
Giving credit to God, as Kierner notes, did, all the same, give VaCoLon a really great excuse for its pathetic performance. When, for example, there was starvation and cannibalism in Jamestown, the Company’s officers explained to investors that, yes, the colonists were lazy, and the leaders on the ground were, sadly, inept, but at the end of the day, they were happy to report, God was in control!
How very convenient.
Reinterpreting Jamestown as a Holy Crusade also offered the chance to change the popular perception that disaster was bound to happen in a weird experiment in an unimaginably distant and exotic place. Now, Jamestown became something that concerned Protestant Christian Englishmen should care about, and invest in.
This religious whitewash, unconvincing though it seems to us, didn’t fully paper over Jamestown’s problems. At least one writer, arriving in 1622, reported that ordinary colonists thought they would have been better off losing a limb and begging on the London streets than enduring a miserable and demeaning existence as indentured servants (unfree labor) in Virginia.
Either way, faced with the catastrophe this colony had become, the Virginia Company of London was now conveniently off the hook when it came to disaster prevention. There was no need to lose sleep over the settlers' horrific fates, when either the place was intrinsically awful, or God was in the driver's seat.
Yet. Jamestown started at the same time the King was intervening to help his subjects survive disaster. In the very same year, 1607, when poor people in England rioted for food, the King jumped into action, prosecuting food hoarders and wasters. His rapid response was in total contrast to the apathetic incompetence of VaCoLon, a profit-driven enterprise. Jamestown, remember, was a private venture. Just like the Martian colony our billionaires are planning now. ⚡ 😱👀☠️
Meanwhile, remember, most people in England still didn’t know what was happening three thousand miles away. There were no newspapers, most information about conditions in Jamestown was only in private letters, and VaCoLon did its best to stop factual accounts from going public. Shipwreck survivor William Strachey’s book, featuring descriptions of starvation at Jamestown, was not published until after the Company went out of business. A coincidence? I think not.
Jamestown colonists stopped starving, but the disaster continued. Powhatan Indians finally got fed up of the weird English taking over their land, and launched a massive attack in 1622, killing about a third of the English colonists. This was the beginning of the end of VaCoLon: Two years later, the King took over Jamestown.
Meanwhile, the disastrous actions of the Powhatans had to be explained without suggesting the Indians were more powerful than God. Here’s one theory suggested: The Powhatans were agents of the Devil, acting on God’s behalf in pursuit of His grand plan. And another: Maybe this event was God telling the English that Virginia should be theirs alone, and that it was time to wipe out the Powhatans. Or something.
One element of a modern approach to disasters emerged from the 1622 Powhatan attack: Accounts of individual suffering of ordinary Englishmen in Virginia were aired in England for the first time. Poet Christopher Brooke published the story of his friend Nathaniel Powell, who had arrived in Jamestown in 1607, and survived against the odds. By 1622, he was married, and his wife was pregnant. The Powhatans killed them both, and Nathaniel Powell’s head was taken as a trophy.
By publicizing the tragic deaths of people like the Powells, in poems, ballads, and even a play, writers began to craft the disaster story we know today. For now, though, the point of such individual stories was not to make Englishmen more sympathetic toward disaster victims. It was to make them angry at Indians.
So to continue our story, let’s abandon Jamestown, and set sail on the high seas.
What a Total Shipwreck
With the invention of newspapers and pamphlets, you no longer needed a personal acquaintance writing you letters to share in distant and dramatic disasters. Shipwrecks had a recipe for great reading: Terror on the high seas, innocent women and children drowned, struggles for survival in exotic locales, and happy rescues.
Since Britain is an island, Brits were very interested in sea travel. American colonists were also interested in what happened at sea, many of them having made the nightmare Atlantic crossing themselves. Here, I need to remind all of us how much more nightmarish that journey was for enslaved Africans, while also pointing out that nightmare is always the key word in Atlantic crossings at this time.
Shipwrecks weren’t new, of course. But as there were more and more ships going to sea in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were more and more wrecks. People were eager to hear about them. That included businessmen and investors with an interest in overseas trade, of course, but everyone else, too.
Newspapers reported up to 15-20 shipwrecks a week. Maybe one in twenty ships sank. Perhaps up to 4,200 Brits (and this is just Brits) died in shipwrecks every year.
Imagine plane crashes instead, and you get a little idea of (a) How risky ocean travel was in the 17th and 18th centuries and (b) Why the public was fascinated by shipwrecks.
Shipwreck stories helped reshape how people thought about disasters. But what if you couldn’t read? No prob. You would hear entertaining shipwreck adventure stories, either from friends, or from your minister, who was reading about them, and using shipwrecks as source material for his sermons.
The Portuguese pioneered long-distance ocean voyages, and they also pioneered the shipwreck disaster story genre. These Portuguese shipwreck stories suggested that while you might get rich building empires, it comes at a terrific cost. Maybe the rest of us should have listened.
It didn't take long for Brits to write about shipwrecks, and add their own spin. A book appeared in the late 1500s, encouraging England to develop its own colonies. Author Richard Hakluyt (Hack-lut), a clergyman with a lot of time on his hands, stuffed his bestseller with lots of exciting shipwreck stories. You wouldn’t think shipwreck tales would do much to encourage Englishmen to sail off and start colonies, would you? But there you go. History is full of surprises.
English people set sail, and those who survived shipwrecks sometimes wrote about them. Sylvester Jourdain, an English merchant and one of the survivors of the Sea Venture, the ship wrecked in Bermuda on its way to Jamestown, wrote a book, as did his fellow castaway writer, poet William Strachey. Unlike Strachey, whose account was suppressed for years by the Virginia Company of London, Jourdain got into print right away. That's because, unlike Strachey, Jourdain focused on the shipwreck, rather than focusing his readers' attention on the disaster that was Jamestown.
Both Strachey and Jourdain were Christians, and both were pro-colonies. In their books, both credited God for their survival. Both were keen to argue that Jamestown’s experience didn't mean God was unenthusiastic about his English colony.
Other writers of shipwreck stories, though, saw things differently. Partly, that's because other writers’ goal wasn't just to entertain their audiences. Partly, it's because, unlike Strachey and Jourdain, they weren’t writing from personal experience. These other writers were clergy, and they wanted people to recognize shipwrecks as signs of God’s mightiness. They urged their followers to contemplate what happened to shipwreck victims, and then ask forgiveness for their own sins.
Ministers had a lot of influence on how people thought about disasters. The two bestselling authors of shipwreck stories were both ministers: James Janeway, in London, and the wonderfully-named Increase Mather in Boston, both popular authors on either side of the Atlantic. The longwinded title (typical of this period) of Janeway’s 1674 book is like a modern movie trailer. It pretty much tells you the plot:
Mr. James Janeway’s Legacy to His Friends, Containing Twenty Seven Famous Instances of God’s Providences in and about Sea Dangers and Deliverances, with the Names of Several that were Eye-witnesses to many of them. Whereunto is Added a Sermon on the same subject.
Phew. Gotta love that he adds a sermon to his sermon. Anyways . . . Janeway urged readers to think of the ocean as a metaphor for life, in which each of us is always alone except for God. “Your dangers are wonderful in this respect,” he wrote, and he didn’t mean “wonderful” as we would, but more like “horribly stunning”. He also explained that the dangers of shipwreck are even worse than we think:
“It is not only the danger of a shipwrecked vessel, and a shipwrecked estate, and a shipwrecked body, but a shipwrecked soul.”
As if people on leaky wooden ships in the stormy Atlantic didn’t have enough to worry about! But if shipwrecked people truly repented their sins, Janeway said, God would rescue them, so there was that.
Janeway’s book told a cool shipwreck story, about a man named Major Gibbons. When the food ran out in (I guess) his lifeboat, Gibbons and his fellow castaways decided to draw lots to see who would be dinner. First, though, Gibbons led the folks on board in prayer. But as they prayed, lo! A huge fish jumped in the boat.
Once the fish was eaten, they prepared again for someone among them to be served to the team, and once again, they prayed. This time, POW! A big bird landed on the boat, and a sailor grabbed it.
Third time, a ship appeared as they were praying. YAY! Unfortunately, it was a French (and therefore enemy) ship, and to make matters worse, the Frenchmen were also pirates. Fortunately, though, one of the French pirates recognized Gibbons as someone he had met in Boston who had been kind to him once.
The moral of this shipwreck story, in the hands of Reverend Janeway, wasn’t “always keep shelf-stable food in the lifeboat”, or even “be nice to people, because you never know when you’ll meet them again.” Janeway explained that God heard the castaways’ prayers, and that he had acted. But he let them suffer a bit, too, because that suffering got them to pray, and to feeling even more grateful to Him when they were rescued.
Janeway’s goal wasn’t to lead his readers to feel sorry for Gibbons and the others, but to use emotion to persuade his readers to submit to God’s will.
Rev. Increase Mather’s American spin on such stories was to direct them at people in the Puritan colonies of New England, and to use shipwreck narratives to confirm that God saw New Englanders as the Chosen People, whom he spared so they could carry on their mission. Mather applied the same explanations to his stories of godly Puritans surviving tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, etc.
OK. Remember, folks that this is Non-Boring History, not Non-Boring Christianity, so regardless of anyone’s personal beliefs, we need to keep our eye on the ball: These stories and their telling by clergymen are clearly still a long way from the modern secular interpretation of disasters.
But shipwreck narratives did mark one important change. True, Boston’s Increase Mather regarded shipwrecks and other disasters, like diseases and tornadoes, as acts of God. Yet he was also interested in new ideas about science: He even wrote a book about comets. But while Mather was interested in how things worked, he believed the mechanics of disaster were ultimately operated by God in pursuit of His plan. Mather, like certain other educated clergymen, had found a compromise between religion and science.
That compromise held on. Mather’s son, Rev. Cotton Mather (those Mather names!) was made a fellow of the Royal Society of London, an exclusive organization of scientists (still is). He endorsed inoculation against smallpox, unlike many ministers, who were firmly anti-vaxxers. But for Cotton Mather, as for his dad, the meaning of disasters was the same as other clergy: God was sending a pointed message to convince people to believe in His power and mercy.
In short: The main goal of clergymen writing about shipwrecks wasn’t to make people feel sorry for the victims, or to spur research into preventing disasters at sea. It was to encourage everyone to pray and repent their sins. And that lesson wasn’t aimed specifically at people who had suffered shipwrecks, or who might suffer shipwrecks or other disasters, but at everyone in the community.
Clergymen weren’t the only storytellers in town, however.
While clergymen like Janeway and the Mathers were telling people in Britain and British America how to think about shipwrecks in books and sermons in the late 17th and 18th centuries, people who actually experienced shipwrecks were also writing, and some of them led people to thoughts that weren’t just religious.
Their accounts of suffering coincided with the rise of sensibility. Sensibility was part of gentility, or poshness, our old friend at Non-Boring History. In case you’re a new reader, don’t panic. A quick explanation: Brits and British Americans in the 18th century were making big bucks from global trade, including buying and selling enslaved people. The newly-rich needed to show that they deserved to be respected. One way they did that? Adopting manners and “correct” viewpoints. Here’s my post on How To Be Posh, in case you want to read more about this.
Being Posh demanded having deep emotions, or “sensibility”, unlike the riff-raff who were assumed to have no feelings, really, or at least none we need worry about. Sensibility included caring about disaster victims, even if you had to rub onions in your eyeballs until your emotions were properly trained to respond sincerely. God still had a role in this new elite worldview, but He was a kindly and merciful God, rather than an angry one.
Here’s an example that Kierner gives of this new kind of shipwreck story with added sensibility: Religious Quaker merchant/slaveowner Jonathan Dickinson was among those headed from Jamaica to Philadelphia in 1696 with his wife and baby, as well as four enslaved people he owned, but that’s the last we will hear about them. They were all shipwrecked in Florida, and yet nobody had even opened a Hooters to feed them.
Dickinson focused on the castaways’ experiences at the hands of their Indian captors, who beat his wife, and were threatening to cut her throat, when their chief’s wife stopped them. Guaranteed, that’s a story we need to hear from the Indians, too. Dickinson’s baby son also nearly died when the Indians stuffed his mouth with sand. Another story that needs told from the Indians’ perspective, right there.
Unsurprisingly though, Dickinson wasn’t interested in what his captors’ actions meant to them. He was afraid his son would die, or, if he lived, be adopted among the Indians. None of it, of course, was explained from the Indians’ point of view, and all of it stirred British fears of alien and savage people when Dickinson wrote about it. He also stirred his readers to compassion for his family, and his book was a massive international bestseller which stayed in print until 1868 (not a typo).
Soon, others got their hands on Dickinson’s story, and put a more solid religious spin on it, emphasizing God’s grace in rescuing everyone. All the same, there was still much room for readers to focus on feeling bad for the Dickinsons.
Secular shipwreck disaster stories were also becoming more important. The most famous? Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, who has already had a supporting role at NBH in How To Be Posh: Lessons From 18th Century America. Defoe’s novel was a huge hit, and has had all sorts of unexpected spinoffs, like the Swiss Family Robinson attraction at Disney that you go on because everything else has a long line. A lot of people in 1719 had no idea that Robinson Crusoe was a novel, because the first edition credited the fictitious Crusoe as author, so they thought it was non-fiction, and felt sorry for him.
Alongside the rise of secular shipwreck stories with “sensibility”, religious shipwreck narratives also continued, often in the same books. But sensibility was winning. An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the Doddington Indiaman, published in 1756, contains a heart-wrenching scene, in which kindly men distracted a sailor while they buried his drowned wife on the beach. This real-life tale may or may not have played out the way the author wrote it (there are differing accounts) but, as my old professor John Phillips said, perception is reality. It must have had readers sobbing into their hankies. Heck, I almost sobbed into mine.
By the mid-18th century, newspapers were well established in both Britain and British America. Most newspaper accounts of shipwrecks were short and unsentimental, because newspapers and most of their readers were more concerned with the impact of shipwrecks, hurricanes, and the rest on the economy. Businessmen were also concerned with getting information that could maybe point the way to disaster prevention in future. Informed eyewitness accounts provided valuable info: How, say, a storm broke a ship’s masts, and how sailors struggled to save the vessel with every trick of their trade. Not, of course, that these accounts explained how storms happened. The focus wasn’t on science. It was on how people might help fix the impact of such events, regardless of what (or who) caused them.
However. The growing amount of info from newspapers led people to see patterns in natural disasters, like how hurricanes were seasonal, and to see them less as God sending a punishment or message.
Newspapers were also affected by the new culture of sensibility coming from novels, and other forms of secular storytelling. American newspaper accounts of the wreck of the Catherine off Nova Scotia in 1737 told of the drowning of over a hundred immigrant men, women, and children headed from Northern Ireland to Boston. Many readers were themselves immigrants, and the suffering would have felt especially personal to anyone who had experienced the terrors of an Atlantic crossing. The writer spared his readers no heartrending details: “Very pitiful were the cries of the poor people for mercy.” Take that, Erik Larson, author of the splendid and harrowing Dead Wake, about the Lusitania! Some anonymous journo first paved the way for you nearly three hundred years ago.
By the by, the reporter notes how the Governor of Nova Scotia sent a boat to pick up the survivors, and how they were provided with food, shelter, and medical care.
And suddenly, with this story of a shipwreck, the modern disaster story is coming into focus: Look at the nice people helping. Doesn’t that make you think of Mr. Rogers, Americans? So here’s the culture of sensibility in action. By the mid-18th century, we’re already a long way from Jamestown, and on our way to Come From Away (which if you haven’t seen, you really should, and I hate musicals).
Shipwrecks were not the only emerging disaster, in the experts’ sense of the word. Plague killed 100, 000 people in France in 1720, and British and American newspapers covered the story. Inspired, Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year two years later. It wasn’t about the recent plague in France, but the 1665 plague in London, affecting people like his readers. Defoe’s book basically had the three elements of a modern disaster narrative: Discovering and describing known facts. Moving storytelling. And discussion of how to help ease suffering, and prevent future disasters.
It was a smash hit. Defoe’s book didn’t start the belief in human agency, the belief that people could fix and prevent disasters, but it did signal that this viewpoint had arrived. No wonder, then, that maritime insurance (to cut material losses from shipwrecks) popped up in London and American cities. Lighthouses were now being built around the British and colonial American coasts. And lighthouses, increasingly, fell under the work of government: They weren’t just seen as a way to prevent business loss, but as a way to save the lives of His Majesty’s subjects.
Ah, I’m running low on time. So, onto earthquakes. I’ve been through a few earthquakes, and they’re especially scary, because you can’t predict them. But if you ever lived in Southern California, as I did, you sort of get used to them. I drove over a bridge on the Santa Monica Freeway in LA just hours before a quake collapsed it, but that sort of disturbing tale becomes normal when you live there.
Same thing happened in Jamaica in the 17th century. Well, without the freeways. There were so many earthquakes that people started to regard them as no big deal. And then, in 1697, the Big One hit, killing about a third of the people who lived in the town of Port Royal. The quake was regarded as an act of God, sure, but since the town was made of tall brick buildings constructed on sand, maybe that had something to do with the catastrophe? Maybe, they suggested, they should build back better?
Earthquakes, including small quakes in London in 1750, led to more scientific interest. But, and here’s why history’s complicated, this in turn led many people, especially early evangelicals, to double down on seeing them as signs of God’s intervention. Early Methodist Charles Wesley even wrote earthquake-related hymns. Meanwhile, Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular publication, tried to hedge its bets, attributing the London quakes to God, before launching into speculation about how electrical currents might cause earthquakes.
Events like the London quakes and the New England quake of 1727, caused little damage and no deaths. They were only of interest to scientists and locals. The 1746 Lima quake killed 10,000 people, but Peru was far away from Europe in reality and in perception.
And then came the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. It also led to a massive fire and tsunami that obliterated the Portuguese city of 275,000 people, killing maybe 40,000 people. The tsunami even caused high tides in mainland America, and floods in the Caribbean.
The Lisbon quake, Kierner notes, is considered the first modern disaster: Investigations followed, and science was applied to rebuilding the city. The disaster also led to the very first wave of international aid.
The Lisbon quake also sparked a massive outpouring of writing and drawings around the world, in print, stories, art, sermons, and even songs (Come From Away again!) From eyewitness letters, to newspaper articles in seven languages, poems, and pamphlets, the amount of disaster literature was incredible, and it focused people on the human impact of the quake/fire/tsunami. With all these different accounts came different interpretations, in which everyone drew their own conclusions. From France, one view was that the disaster was somehow caused by Portugal’s alliance with Britain. Another was from the French philosopher Voltaire, who used the disaster in his novel, Candide, to mock philosophers who embraced sunny optimism, He showed how it was toxic positivity to look at the smoking ruins of Lisbon, and decide people should choose happiness.
Brits also had complicated responses. Brits explained Lisbon as an act of God OR the result of natural phenomena OR both, you will not be surprised to learn. Some focused on the destruction and human suffering, in keeping with the culture of sensibility. But most significantly, some zeroed in on relief efforts and kindness, which they were starting to see as essential parts of British identity.
In sum, British and British-American responses to the Lisbon earthquake took on a very secular tint. John Michell, an English scientist and ordained minister, thought the earth was made up of layers, and that underground fire and steam caused quakes by making the layers shift. He was wrong, but he got scientists started on the road to understanding tectonic plates. Scientific enquiry into earthquakes now ramped up, including at Hahvahd.
Liberal Christianity and (I’m proud to point out, as a Scot) Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, as well as the posh culture of sensibility, pushed people more and more toward giving a damn about people, and trying to learn from disasters to prevent suffering. It’s really not a long line from Lisbon to Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb, a hundred and fifty years later.
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As ever, I remind you that this Annette Tells Tales post is my interpretation of another historian’s work, with added Annette asides for which my learned colleague is not responsible. I invite Dr. Kierner or other academic historians with expertise in this area to let me know if I have blown it, possibly by sending a drone carrying a boulder to Non-Boring House. This would, I guess, still not qualify as a disaster, since the rest of Madison would be unaffected. If this post has captivated you, consider reading Inventing Disaster yourself. It’s available through your library, or the bookseller of your choice.
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