- Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrin by Stuart B. Schwartz
Stuart Schwartz’s Sea of Storms is an ambitious book. The geography of the book, the entire circum-Caribbean region, covers a variety of distinct nations and cultures — independent islands, small nations on the isthmus of Central America, and the Caribbean regions of Venezuela, the United States and Mexico — with complicated links to imperial rulers and each other. Chronologically, five centuries of hurricane history includes thousands of distinct events. As natural disasters go, hurricanes are complicated in their causes, predictability, and outcomes. Creating a cohesive narrative from his unwieldy topic, and doing so in an engaging lively manner, is a notable achievement.
Schwartz mainly concentrates on three main themes: the social-political implications for societies in a hurricane-prone region, changes in the nature and understanding of hurricanes over the five centuries since Europeans first established a presence in the Caribbean, and environmental causes and results of hurricanes. The book’s methodology relies on inserting hurricanes into the fairly accepted periodization and issues of Caribbean historiography. Schwartz judiciously does not assert that the experience with hurricanes was the causal factor shaping Caribbean societies; rather, he convincingly demonstrates that Caribbean history and society cannot be understood without taking account of these storms.
Hurricanes are the ubiquitous “known unknowns” of the Caribbean. They will occur every year from late summer through autumn, with unknown strength, points of origin, paths, and numbers. One of the implicit conclusions of Sea of Storms is that, everywhere and always, planning for and response to these disasters is political. Ideology, expediency, and personality have determined whether a governing state will learn from past storms to build and provide in anticipation of future storms or will offer aid in recovery. Political actors have used hurricanes to build legitimacy and supportive constituencies when useful; others have left natural disaster to the realms of charity or individual resiliency. Juxtaposing the Cuban government’s response to storms during the period from 1996 to 2002 with the US government’s actions during Katrina in 2005 (chapter eight) is a persuasive tactic to argue that wealth and resources do not determine a state’s preparation for, or response to, disaster. The state forms only part of the institutional story of hurricanes. We also learn [End Page 612] about the nature of charity and community by inserting hurricanes into Caribbean history. Philanthropic debates about the nature and targets of charity got thorough workouts from storms. Community response has been more constant than that of other social institutions. With these responses, Schwartz demonstrates the effects of hurricanes on shaping Caribbean societies. He also emphasizes that empathetic and constructive community response has always been the norm, much more than the “exaggerated narrative of social breakdown” (p. 327) that grabs attention.
Sea of Storms demonstrates that the experience of hurricanes was not uniformly diverse across time; Schwartz finds systematic change in important aspects of dealing with hurricanes. Most significantly, how people have understood these storms has changed. Scanty evidence suggests that indigenous peoples incorporated them into belief systems. Newly arriving Europeans needed a framework to interpret hurricanes, storms with a strength and character previously unknown to them; religion provided that framework and hurricanes were typically either a test of worthiness or an expression of their God’s wrath. Through the nineteenth century, and firmly in the twentieth, scientific knowledge and interpretation overtook explanations rooted in religion. The field of meteorology turned its attention to explaining the formation of storms and to prediction. Two other long-term trends in the experience of hurricanes have also been worth noting. With increasing population density and economic activity, their effects have become increasingly destructive. Secondly, the increasing role of government during these episodes is a very useful prism for understanding the increasing presence of governance institutions in the lives of people throughout the region.
The environment is, of course, the implicit backstory throughout Sea...