Climate Change in the First Age of Globalization

Abigail Agresta on Sam White

Sam White. A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America. Harvard University Press, 2017. pp. 376. $19.73 Hardcover.

In 1961 Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun,” a young artist struggles to survive in her New York apartment as the Earth inexplicably moves closer and closer to the Sun. As the rising temperatures finally shatter her thermometer, she wakes up, and the audience learns that the oppressive heat has been a fever dream. In fact, the Earth is moving away from the Sun, and she and the rest of humanity are going to freeze.

A similar reversal appears in recent environmental histories of the early modern period. The Little Ice Age, a period of colder temperatures and unstable weather patterns that lasted roughly from 1300 to 1850, has emerged in these works as a cold mirror of our own times: a newly connected world destabilized by climate change, but freezing rather than burning. As European explorers rampaged across New and Old Worlds in the first age of globalization, a changing climate put stress on both colonizers and colonized, as well as the market relationships that had begun to bind them together.

The Little Ice Age, as its name suggests, was distinctly cooler on average than the centuries before or after. It was not, however, only cold, nor was it uniformly so: some regions experienced droughts, others saw floods, and some saw both. The impact on the freezing margins of the inhabited world was extreme (enough to end the Viking colonies in Greenland), while effects in temperate regions were subtler. Works like Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis (Yale University Press, 2014) and Bruce Campbell’s The Great Transition (Cambridge University Press, 2016), among others, have shown how changing weather patterns upset human societies around the world, sparking famines, wars, and even witch trials. The causes of the Little Ice Age were varied, and their timing more or less coincidental: natural oscillations in systems of atmospheric pressure and ocean currents; slight shifts in the Earth’s orbit; periodic reductions in solar energy; volcanos erupting in the tropics, where their ash plumes rose straight into the upper atmosphere and filtered sunlight across the globe. One theory, still debated, suggests that the demographic collapse in the Americas after the voyages of Columbus also contributed to the cooling, as trees grew in abandoned fields and captured increasing quantities of carbon. The Little Ice Age was thus a world-wide phenomenon at a time of unprecedented global connection: a (literally) chilling example of the havoc that small climate fluctuations can wreak on human lives.

Among the studies that have built this new consensus, Sam White’s A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America is of particular interest, because it rewrites a part of history with which most Americans will be at least glancingly familiar.

A Cold Welcome recounts the many abortive prequels to the American colonization story: the failed Spanish, French, and English settlements in various parts of the United States and Canada, and the precarious survival of Santa Fe, Quebec, and Jamestown in the early seventeenth century. White places these events in the context of the Little Ice Age, and particularly of one of its coldest phases, from the mid-1500s to the early 1600s. This period, sometimes called the Grindlewald Fluctuation, coincided with some of the earliest European attempts to colonize the northern reaches of the New World. White stresses that “natural” disasters are as much to do with human societies as with climate. It was not just that the climate was bad, but that these new colonial endeavors “were often at their most vulnerable when the climate was most extreme.” Human choices and climatic fluctuations combined to create the disasters of the Little Ice Age.

European colonists put themselves in the wrong places at the wrong times in North America, partly because they misunderstood the nature of the lands that they would encounter. Theories of climate, such as they were, derived from the classical presumption that climate was a function of latitude. Just as, from a European perspective, Europe and the Mediterranean were bordered by the uninhabitable Arctic to the north and the uninhabitable Sahara to the south, so the whole earth was similarly divided, with “frozen” zones at the poles, a “torrid” band around the equator, and “temperate” regions in between. The first stumbling block for European colonization, then, was not a changing climate, but the climate that had always existed. In America the tropics were more hospitable, and the temperate zones less so, than was the case in the Old World. One expedition after another expected to find the climate of the Sahara in Cuba, of Seville in Virginia, of Paris in Quebec. White provides a useful primer on the complex patterns of winds, atmospheric pressure, and ocean currents that shape the climate of the tropics: patterns that were in the sixteenth century already shifting with the dynamics of the Little Ice Age. The very instability of weather patterns in this period allowed would-be colonizers to dismiss the weather they saw as an aberration, and to continue to insist that the sites they chose could support the settlements that they planned.

Chapters Two and Three of A Cold Welcome chronicle a litany of failed colonial enterprises. While the failures themselves come as no surprise, the detailed analysis of climate and weather lend a fresh note of contingency to tales of hubris and disaster. We learn, for example, that Hernando de Soto’s expedition, which wandered around Florida and what would become the American southeast from 1538 to 1543, was plagued by freezing wind, cold rains, and such “great snows…that we thought we were dead men.” The cold was not the only problem, however; even after the Spanish had established Florida outposts at St. Augustine and Santa Elena, prolonged drought in the 1560s brought those settlements to the brink of starvation.

Nor did Spain’s rivals fare any better. The best known of these efforts is the so-called “lost colony” at Roanoke. Here again White uses climatic and environmental data to add nuance to the story. Despite the glowing reports of initial scouts in 1584, Roanoke Island’s soils were probably never rich enough to sustain the colony. The colonists had the additional bad luck, however, of arriving on the eve one of the worst regional droughts in centuries, identified through the study of local tree rings. The initial colonists were almost totally dependent on trade with the Secotan Indians, who were themselves suffering the strain of the drought. When trading relations broke down under the pressure of scarce resources, the return of relief vessels was delayed by storms in the Atlantic and by the Spanish Armada. White deftly weaves together the various climatic and political factors, both structural and contingent, that led to the failure of this colony and the disappearance of its colonists, now believed to have been killed some years later in the continental interior.

The Little Ice Age did not make these failures inevitable, but it did increase the probability of cold winters, long droughts, and storms. Poor planning and lack of preparedness magnified the impact of these disasters on vulnerable new settlements. Information about North America circulated around the Atlantic world in unreliable forms: the letters of boosters, the reports of spies, the testimony of returning settlers. These accounts emphasized both the promise of wealth that the expeditions sought and the hazards that the settlers endured, painting a picture of an environment simultaneously fertile and barren. By the end of the sixteenth century, these reports reached a Europe that was itself in crisis, also experiencing the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age. In his fourth chapter, White argues that the differential effects of this crisis led Spain to withdraw from the contest for eastern North America, while economic depression drove England to redouble its efforts abroad. In Spain, the powerful believed that famine and plague had depopulated and bankrupted the country, making the extension of its empire an unaffordable luxury. In England, meanwhile, the influx of refugees into London convinced the elite that the country’s overflowing population required an outlet overseas. As a result of differing interpretations of shared crises, the Spanish Crown abandoned attempts to challenge the new English colony at Jamestown, which seemed doomed to fail in any case.

This assessment, as White notes, was “almost right.” The remaining four chapters recount the trials and tribulations of the quartet of North American colonies founded in 1607 and 1608: Jamestown, Quebec, Santa Fe, and the short-lived Sagadahoc or Popham Colony in what is now Maine. Here the narrative veers north, showing how efforts to find the Northwest Passage (like previous expeditions, a mix of flawed geographical reasoning, unrealistic optimism, and unusual cold), paved the way for the foundation of the Virginia Company’s colony at Jamestown, which was expected to furnish England with Mediterranean products like olives, grapes, and silkworms.

The poor judgment of Jamestown’s founders is well-known, from choosing a site without a reliable water supply to mismanaging relations with local Native Americans. White, however, argues that underlying these errors was the climatic strain of the Little Ice Age; as in Roanoke, English settlers arrived at the start of one of the most severe droughts in centuries, which led their crops to wither, turned the tidal James river even more saline, and exacerbated tensions over scarce resources. While Native Americans, established on familiar land, had more choices in the face of the Little Ice Age, they too were limited by social and political concerns, and did not always adapt seamlessly to environmental pressures. Evidence suggests that the Indians of Virginia, like those of Florida and elsewhere, approached European settlers to ask them to pray for rain. Such requests ultimately proved a double-edged sword; by claiming that their God had the power to grant and withhold rain, the settlers were also claiming responsibility for the worst drought in centuries. Either they were lying, or they and their God had brought the disaster. Only the failure of the Sagadahoc or Popham colony, abandoned after one extraordinarily cold winter, made struggling Jamestown appear worthy of further investment. While the initial relief expedition was scattered by a hurricane that may have inspired Shakespeare’s Tempest, supplies eventually arrived to relieve the starvation at Jamestown and secure this English foothold in North America.

Spanish efforts to colonize New Mexico were likewise hampered by the expectation of a Mediterranean climate, and by the reality of regional droughts, freezing winters, and a local population under ecological stress. At the same time, the explorers on the west coast came away with an unfavorable perception of California, which to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century expeditions appeared cold and inhospitable. Unsurprisingly, the French had to contend with a similar cocktail of expectations, cold, and local disruptions as they sought to establish a colony in what is now Canada in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Quebec succeeded, White argues, because its founders had learned from previous mistakes to keep its population low and to cultivate productive relationships with surrounding First Nations.

A Cold Welcome covers a lot of ground, both chronologically and geographically. In any such ambitious work, specialists may have reason to quibble with the presentation of some details. But this is the downside of a book that is short and straightforward enough to appeal to non-specialists. General readers will find a refreshing absence of jargon and clear explanations of both historical and climatological phenomena. The pages are uncluttered by footnotes, but endnotes are plentiful enough for scholarly use.

One of the primary goals of environmental history is to understand the environment as more than a stage set for human dramas. In this White succeeds admirably, showing us a dynamic landscape interacting with human societies. William Cronon’s 1983 Changes in the Land, a classic of environmental history, chronicled Indians’ and European settlers’ conflicting uses of the landscape of colonial New England. In A Cold Welcome, the land (or rather the climate) changes all by itself, and both Indians and Europeans struggle to keep up. In arguing for the impact of climate on history, White has of course to steer clear of environmental determinism (the idea that environment alone determined human history). He does so skillfully, placing climate and weather in the context of a multitude of factors shaping European colonization, and showing how perception of climate, accurate or not, also influenced human choices about their environments.

White’s expertise is in environmental history rather than in the history of North America, and for the details of European and Native American history he has relied to some extent on secondary material. It is not surprising, therefore, that the climate analysis in the book is so successful. The outlines of the historical narrative offered, however, are ultimately quite traditional. The protagonists are overwhelmingly European explorers—white men on adventures. Their names survive and their thoughts (from letters and diaries) are narrated in vivid color. To the extent that the native peoples of these regions appear in the narrative, they are almost entirely anonymous, and their choices in the face of changing climate are at best a sideline. White makes clear in the introduction that this is a book about Europeans coming to North America during the Little Ice Age, not about all the people in North America during the Little Ice Age. He does not make precisely clear why that is the case. The new research that the book draws on—paleoclimatic reconstructions and archaeology—is much less weighted toward the European perspective than is the documentary record. But of course, tree rings and wind patterns do not make a story. It is the letters and diaries, with their agonized exclamations on the weather, that give life to the book, and the narratives of each expedition that give it a manageable structure. There is a compromise here: to make a book about historical climate change readable, White has centered the story on white male adventurers and their trials and tribulations. The frame of A Cold Welcome is revolutionary. No one reading this book will soon forget the profound impact of climate change on North American colonization. The story within this frame, however, is in some ways not new at all.

“It is worthwhile to remember,” White declares in the conclusion, “how differently history would have turned out but for these accidents.” The differences he cites are in the patterns and timing of European colonization; most importantly, that Spain rather than England and France might have pursued claims to North America, and that the continent might have been colonized sooner than it was. Such differences would doubtless have altered the world we know today, but White does not elaborate on how. The conclusion, which reduces the importance of the Little Ice Age in North America to a leg up for the English over the Spanish, does not quite match the depth and subtlety of the rest of the book. It could have used a more nuanced discussion of climate change as a process that may produce human winners and losers, along the lines of Dagomar Degroot’s The Frigid Golden Age, which analyzes the success of the Dutch Republic during the same period. A Cold Welcome effectively describes the disasters of the Little Ice Age, but we are left on our own to imagine what might have been.

Abigail Agresta specializes in medieval European and Mediterranean history, with an emphasis on environmental history, urban history, and history of public health. Her current book project, God, Humans, and Nature in Late Medieval Valencia, investigates how the rulers of a religiously mixed society–the city of Valencia, Spain–understood the relationship between God, human beings, and the natural world. Dr. Agresta has taught courses on medieval urban history, religious history, and history of medicine. Prior to joining the faculty at George Washington, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.