The risk of hurricanes made planting in the British Greater Caribbean, a region stretching from Barbados through South Carolina, an especially volatile and uncertain business during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The storms were a new experience for European colonists, and they quickly became the most feared element of the region's environment. Hurricanes routinely leveled plantations and towns, destroyed crops and infrastructure, and claimed hundreds of lives. The widespread destruction resulted in significant losses for planters and necessitated major reconstruction efforts. Most planters survived these economic shocks, often with the help of outside credit, but at times hurricanes were the breaking point for smaller or heavily indebted planters. The profits that came from sugar and rice kept planters rebuilding, but the threat posed by the storms shaped the experience of plantership in the region throughout the period.
Hurricanes are annual, seasonal threats in the Caribbean and South Atlantic. Most storms develop in the eastern Atlantic Ocean off the African Coast, although some arise within the Caribbean basin itself. In both cases, the storms originate in the region where the northeasterly and southeasterly trade winds converge, generally between 5 and 20 degrees north of the equator. They form during the summer and early autumn months, when the ocean water temperature is highest, and are carried eastward by the trade winds. The wind speed of hurricanes ranges from 74 miles per hour, the minimum speed separating hurricanes from tropical storms, to in excess of 155 miles per hour, the base for today's definition of a category-five storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. In addition to pounding winds and driving rains, the most dangerous element of hurricanes is often the storm surge, floodwaters that can exceed twenty feet in height. In most years, roughly a dozen tropical storms develop in the region, about half of which become hurricanes, but the number can vary considerably from one or two to more than twenty. Hurricanes sometimes move up the eastern seaboard of the United States and strike the mid-Atlantic and New England states. They are most common and most destructive, however, among the islands of the Caribbean basin and the low-lying coastal areas of the South Atlantic coast of North America and along the Gulf of Mexico. Although individual locations can go for years, even sometimes decades, between major storms, it is a rare year that some part of the Greater Caribbean is not hit, and several hurricanes can strike within a short period. Jamaica, for example, endured five hurricanes in seven years in the early 1780s. South Carolina experienced two major storms within two weeks in September 1752.1
Hurricanes were an entirely new phenomenon for colonists in the seventeenth century. Although western Europe occasionally experienced storms of great intensity, such events did not compare to the frequency or ferocity with which hurricanes struck the Greater Caribbean. The storms quickly became a defining element of life in the region, and shared risk from them linked South Carolina and the West Indies into a well-defined hurricane zone in the eyes of contemporaries. Edmund Burke wrote that Carolina "is the only one of our colonies upon the continent which is subject to hurricanes." The great naturalist Mark Catesby likewise stated that South Carolina represented the edge of the hurricane zone. Hurricanes ended in Carolina, according to Catesby, with "Virginia not having often much of it."2
Colonists got their first taste of the power of the storms nine months after establishing a permanent settlement on St. Christopher in early 1624. These initial settlers erected a small fort and a few rudimentary dwellings and planted some tobacco and provision crops, but "upon the nineteenth of September came a Hericano and blew it away." The relative lack of physical development limited the economic damage from hurricanes in the early years of settlement. Finding adequate provisions and shelter concerned early colonists on St. Christopher far more than calculating the value of their lost tobacco, and the same was true for other colonists in the early decades of settlement.3
That changed with the emergence of sugar and rice plantations in the mid-seventeenth century (sugar) and early eighteenth century (rice). Sugar plantations represented large and complex economic enterprises by the standards of the day. In addition to the fields and labor needed to grow the cane crop, producing sugar itself required mills, boiling houses, curing houses, trash houses, storehouses, and distilleries to crush the canes, transform the liquid into sugar or rum, and prepare it for shipment to markets in Europe or North America. At the end of the seventeenth century, Sir Dalby Thomas estimated the cost of establishing a one-hundred-acre plantation at £5,625: £1,250 for fifty slaves, and almost £4,000 for "Land, Houses, Mills, Vessels &c., All other Tools and Implements." Edward Long estimated the capital value of a three-hundred-acre Jamaica plantation in the 1770s at £10,017: Land and crops were valued at £2,970 sterling, one hundred slaves at £3,570, the sugar works and equipment at £2,463, and sixty cattle at £1,014. These investments created substantial profits and made sugar planters the wealthiest colonists in all of British America. Profits were greatest at the start of the sugar revolution in the middle of the seventeenth century, but successful plantations in the mid-eighteenth century still generated annual returns of roughly 10 percent, depending on the particular island.4
Eighteenth-century rice production involved smaller, but still significant, capital investments. Planters and their slaves generally grew rice on swampy lands along the rivers that cut across the coastal lowcountry. To do so, they cleared and drained the land and constructed a series of embankments, ditches, and reservoirs to control the flow of water from nearby freshwater rivers and streams. Later, planters constructed even more elaborate systems of embankments, canals, trunks, and floodgates to take advantage of the rising and falling of tidal rivers in order to flood their fields. Irrigated fields boosted production, but whether planters employed freshwater reservoirs or tidal flows, such environmental manipulation was costly. Simply clearing an acre of land cost roughly eight shillings and six pence. One estimate from the later part of the eighteenth century suggested that draining the fields and building the necessary infrastructure cost an additional £1 to £4.20, making it far more expensive than other types of farm operations on the mainland. Establishing and operating a rice plantation also required a significant amount of labor. Contemporaries generally agreed that between thirty and forty laborers were required for successful rice production. One observer stated that, including the cost of purchasing slaves, £2,476 was necessary to establish a two-hundred-acre lowcountry plantation. Although less profitable than sugar, rice still created great fortunes: Probate inventories indicate that nine of the ten richest men in mainland North America on the eve of the Revolution were lowcountry planters.5
|Colonists got their first taste of the power of the storms nine months after establishing a permanent settlement.|
Hurricanes posed several similar threats to the sugar and rice plantations of the region. First, the storms regularly laid waste the valuable crops themselves. Sugar grew on a staggered fourteen- to eighteen-month schedule: Canes were planted between September and January for the harvest the following February through June. Hurricanes struck a few months before the start of the harvest, greatly damaging the mature canes. "The canes and other objects of culture are the first to be blown away" by the storms, which left the "surface of the earth . . . truly bared." "Whole fields of sugar canes [were] whirled into the air, and scattered over the face of the country," wrote one observer. "The cane fields appear as if a roller had passed over them," noted another. Although planters attempted to salvage whatever they could, under- or overripe cane had little value, and unless crushed quickly, was almost worthless.6
Hurricane season overlapped with the actual harvest season for rice. As Henry Laurens [a wealthy South Carolina planter and merchant] indicated, the storms routinely flooded rice fields, often ruining the year's crop. "Ye violence of the rain and wind" accompanying a 1724 hurricane resulted in flooding that "damnified some of the Indian corn and rice" in South Carolina. Henry Laurens reported, "The ripe Crops of Rice have suffer'd very much all along the Sea Coast" from a 1769 hurricane. "Rotten rice, ded Hogs, Calves poultry, rats & Insects, are enough to make a well man sick," one Georgia overseer wrote following a hurricane in the early nineteenth century. The Charleston merchant John Guerard noted that what little rice survived the September 1752 hurricanes proved almost worthless. "A great deal pounding away to powder," Guerard wrote of the rice, "wch is a natural consequence by its being so long weather beaten & lying in the water wch to be sure softened the grain and causes it to moulder away under the force of the Pestle."7
Hurricanes also caused extensive damage to the elaborate infrastructure needed to grow and process the crops. Sugar plantations, with their windmills, boiling houses, and other buildings were particularly vulnerable to damage. "Furious Hurricanes," Sir Dalby Thomas wrote at the end of the seventeenth century, "not only does the Crops an Injury, but sometimes tumbles down and Levells their Mills, Work-Houses, and strongest Buildings." One traveler to the region wrote that, during storms, "windmills are swept away in a moment; their works, their fixtures, the ponderous copper boilers, and stills of several hundred weight are wrenched from the ground, and battered to pieces." Losses from a 1733 hurricane in Montserrat included thirty of the thirty-six mills on the island, "the other Six . . . much shatter'd, having lost their Veins and Round Houses," along with significant damage to "most of the Boiling-Houses, and the Sugar in them, which was considerable." In the lowcountry, the storms often damaged or destroyed the complex series of gates and embankments used to control the flow of water onto rice fields. Henry Laurens wrote that on one of his plantations, one-third of his rice lands "suffer'd by Salt Water breaking over the Banks," damaging the fields during a 1769 storm.8
In addition, hurricanes routinely claimed the lives of African slaves whose labor generated the wealth of the colonies. Many slaves died during the storms, crushed beneath falling buildings or drowned in rising floodwaters. Others perished in the weeks following the storms due to a lack of adequate food and shelter or to disease associated with such shortages. Following the 1772 hurricane in the Leeward Islands, a British military officer reported to London that "we are in sad distress for want of Negro provision." An October 1780 hurricane in Jamaica claimed the lives of hundreds of slaves in the western parishes of Hanover and Westmoreland. The Kingston Gazette reported that two hundred slaves died on the Blue Castle plantation when a boiling house in which they sought shelter collapsed. One planter stated that a "very considerable quantity of provisions" was destroyed during the storm, and combined with sickness linked to those shortages, "he . . . lost eight valuable slaves." There are no exact statistics of the number of slaves who perished during hurricanes, but it is clear that the storms, and their lingering effects, often killed dozens of slaves, sometimes hundreds, and occasionally thousands of slaves on plantations throughout the Greater Caribbean.9
Finally, hurricanes destroyed ships and port facilities that were essential for conducting trade in the colonies. During the 1675 hurricane in Barbados, twelve ships in Bridgetown's harbor, "some of them laden with sugar, were driven ashore and broken to pieces." The 1712 hurricane shattered vessels in Kingston harbor, which afterward was "full of Wrecks ... and great Quantities of Goods and Dead Bodies float[ed] from Place to Place, as the Wind blew." A 1728 storm destroyed or damaged twenty-three ships in Charleston harbor and ruined over two thousand barrels of rice on ships or in city warehouses. The 1752 hurricanes in South Carolina smashed up the wharves and warehouses along the Cooper River that functioned as the colony's hub of trade and commerce. Damage and debris on Bridgetown's docks following the 1780 hurricane "greatly obstruct[ed] the shipping Business." Storms also claimed the lives of slaves held on ships prior to their disembarkation and sale. Some two hundred slaves perished in 1722 when a hurricane sank the slave ship Kingston that had recently arrived in Jamaica.10
Assessing the impact of such destruction on plantation production is difficult, especially for the seventeenth century, when systematic record keeping was less developed and what records were kept were often destroyed by later hurricanes. More complete and reliable records exist for the eighteenth century. John McCusker's adjusted export figures for the sugar colonies in the period 1698–1775 indicate significant losses in production for at least one year following a major storm. Exports of muscovado sugar from Jamaica, measured in hundredweights, for example, dropped from 257,422 cwt. to 138,424 cwt. in the aftermath of the 1722 hurricane, rose slightly to 207,841 cwt. in 1724, before regaining pre-hurricane levels in 1725. The 1733 hurricane affected all the Leeward Islands, but production appeared most disrupted in Nevis and Antigua. In the former, production dropped by almost 50 percent, from 70,132 cwt. to 37,709 cwt., and exports remained low for several years. Antiguan exports plummeted from 208,977 cwt. in 1733 to 96,172 cwt. in 1734, although planters there rebounded by 1735. Early reports that "one years Crop of Canes will at least be lost" as a result of the 1744 hurricane in Jamaica proved premature, but production did drop by more than a third in the year following the disaster. Jamaica and Barbados struggled for several years to recover from two hurricanes in early October 1780. Sugar production, already in decline as a result of the American Revolution, dropped even further in 1781, and sugar imports into England from the islands did not return to pre-hurricane levels until 1783. Rum exports provide additional evidence for the loss of agricultural productivity: 2,527 hogsheads of rum were shipped from Barbados in 1780, but exports plunged to just over 500 hogsheads in 1781 and remained at under 1,000 hogsheads until 1784, when the colony shipped 3,315 hogsheads to England.11
Hurricanes also affected rice production in South Carolina. The 1724 storm contributed to a drop in exports of over one and a half million pounds of rice (from roughly 8.6 million to 7 million pounds). The impact from two successive hurricanes in the fall of 1752 was particularly severe. The number of barrels of rice shipped from the colony dropped from over 82,000 barrels in 1752 to just over 37,000 barrels in 1753. Production jumped up again to 93,000 barrels in 1754.12
Not all hurricanes resulted in such major declines in production. Output in Jamaica and the Leeward Islands fell only slightly following the 1751 tempest. Likewise, the 1728 storm in South Carolina had little impact on rice production, and despite the loss of several thousand barrels on ships and in warehouses, overall exports actually rose slightly the following year. Moreover, a glance at export statistics highlights the overall volatility of plantation agriculture, as export numbers often rose or fell dramatically in response to a variety of different factors during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nevertheless, most hurricanes had a major impact on production: Plantation output fell, often by 50 percent or more for at least one year, while the impact of especially violent and destructive storms sometimes lingered for a second year.13
|Hurricanes routinely claimed the lives of African slaves whose labor generated the wealth of the colonies.|
The loss of valuable crops to hurricanes often had important short-term consequences for the supply and price of sugar and rice in the British Atlantic marketplace, depending on the extent of damage to individual colonies and the number of colonies struck during any given year. "I think there never was a fairer Chance for a good Price for our Sugars all this year," wrote Dr. Walter Tullideph, a Scottish planter in Antigua, following a destructive hurricane in 1751. This was especially true, he continued, "if Jamaica should have suffered much in the Storm," further reducing sugar supplies. Tullideph's instinct proved correct: London prices jumped as news of the hurricane spread and ships from the colonies arrived less than full. South Carolina planters "talk[ed] in a high Strain" of getting eighty shillings per hundredweight of rice after the 1752 hurricane destroyed that year's crop, and prices in Charlton rose to some of their highest levels in the eighteenth century.14
The potential disruption from a hurricane and its effects on prices meant that correspondents in England anxiously awaited word from the colonies each fall. The London sugar market fluctuated widely upon news of a hurricane in the Leeward Islands or Jamaica (the largest producers of muscovado sugar), often producing a sudden rise of between two and ten shillings per hundredweight, and timely information could mean significant profits for merchants selling sugar to metropolitan grocers and refiners. The same was true for the rice market (much of which was reexported). John Guerard wrote of one merchant house that received early news of the 1752 South Carolina storm and immediately sent out a rider to London, ahead of the regular post. The rider beat the post by three hours, and the merchants purchased 1,800 barrels of rice for export to Europe at a low price before news of the storm sent prices skyrocketing. Conversely, another merchant house sold off sugars they had stored, hoping to make some profit before a fleet loaded with sugar from the Leewards arrived in the London market. The ships docked in March 1745, bringing news of a major hurricane in Jamaica. Sugar prices, in turn, surged upward ....15
High prices for crops, however, did not always offset the losses wrought by the storms. Individual planters often found they were unable to salvage enough from storm-damaged crops to provide much income, in spite of high prices. The managers of the Codrington College plantations in Barbados reported in 1781 that the hurricane the previous year had resulted in a small sugar crop that was "very insufficient to pay the current expenses of the plantation, tho' the whole of it will be sold here at the enormous price of 40[s]/cwt." One major reason was that costs for plantation supplies rose along with prices for staples, as the storms destroyed not only sugar but also essential food and building materials. Provisions were "very scarce and deare" on Barbados in the aftermath of the 1675 tempest. Kingston vestrymen reported that the price of flour had risen from 18s 9d per barrel to £5 a barrel in the city following the 1722 hurricane.16
Slaves, who formed the majority of the population in all the colonies of the region, experienced the impact of such shortages most severely. One St. Kitts planter noted that twin hurricanes in 1681 "hath destroyed our provisions, and hath occasioned a sickly and scarce time amongst us," and similar crises followed hurricanes throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Colonial officials regularly solicited outside supplies of provisions, but until such food arrived in sufficient quantities, shortages and high prices limited slave diets. One Jamaican planter stated that the "scarcity of provisions" following the 1780 and 1781 hurricanes required him to purchase more food for his slaves, but he lacked "sufficient cash to supply such consumption." Six months after the 1751 hurricane in Antigua, Walter Tullideph informed one absentee owner that his plantation "reaped few or no Yams oweing to the Hurricane, but your negroes have been fed these 12 weeks past out of a potatoe peice [sic]," and later, some corn. In the meantime, planters pushed slaves to begin the immense task of rebuilding their plantations. Although sick and weakened slaves may have slowed some reconstruction efforts, the ability of many plantations to regain productivity as quickly as they did stands as a testament to the labor of African slaves, who worked in particularly difficult circumstances in the wake of the storms.17
1. See Jay Barnes, North Carolina's Hurricane History (Chapel Hill, 1995), 6–25; Ernest Zebrowski, Perils of a Restless Planet: Scientific Perspectives on Natural Disasters (New York, 1997), 229–43; Bob Sheets and Jack Williams, Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth (New York, 2001), 29–53.
2. Burke, Account of European Settlements in America, vol. 2, p. 241; Mark Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (London, 1731), xi.
3. Philip Barbour, ed., The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, 1580–1632 (Chapel Hill, 1986), vol. 3, pp. 228–29.
4. Thomas, An Historical Account of the Rise and Growth of the West-India Collonies, p. 18; Edward Long, History of Jamaica (London, 1774) quoted in Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery, 264–65; on sugar production, see Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 188–223; on profits, see J. R. Ward, "The Profitability of Sugar Planting in the British West Indies, 1650–1834," Economic History Review 31 (May 1978): 197–213.
5. Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998), 37, 147–58; Chaplin, An Anxious Pursuit, 227–76; Mart Stewart, "What Nature Suffers to Groe," 87–116; Sam Hilliard, "The Tidewater Rice Plantation: An Ingenious Adaptation to Nature," in Geoscience and Man, vol. 12: Coastal Resources, ed. H. J. Walker (Baton Rouge, 1975), 57–66; Russell Menard, "Slavery, Economic Growth, and Revolutionary Ideology in the South Carolina Lowcountry," in The Economy of Early America: The Revolutionary Period, 1763–1790, eds. Ronald Hoffman et al. (Charlottesville, Va., 1988), 265.
6. American Husbandry: Containing an Account of the Soil, Climate, Production and Agriculture of the British Colonies (London, 1775), vol. 2, p. 114; Charlevoix, A Voyage to North America, vol. 2, p. 291; John Stewart, A View of the Past and Present State of the Island of Jamaica (Edinburgh, 1823, repr. 1969), 44; Beckford, Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica, vol. 1, 130.
7. Governor Nicholson to the Duke of Newcastle, 25 Aug. 1724, CSPC, 214; Laurens to Henry Bright & Co., 21 Sept. 1769, Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 6, p. 140; Roswell King, quoted in Stewart, "What Nature Suffers to Groe," 138; John Guerard to William Jolliffe, 29 Dec. 1752, Guerard Letterbook, SCHS; Chaplin, An Anxious Pursuit, 241–42.
8. Thomas, An Historical Account of the Rise and Growth of the West-India Colonies, 20; Charlevoix, A Voyage to North America, 291; [Rev. Robert Robertson], A Short Account of the Hurricane that pass'd thro' the English Leeward Islands (London, 1733), 11–12; Laurens to John Rutherford, 13 Oct. 1769, Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 6, pp. 159–60.
9. D. Walsh to James Scott, 18 Sept. 1772, in Caribbeana: Being Miscellaneous Papers Relating to the History, Geography, Topography and Antiquities of the British West Indies, ed. Vere Langford Oliver (London, 1910), vol. 2, pp. 322–23; Kingston Gazette, in John Fowler, General Account of the Calamities Occasioned by the Late Tremendous Hurricanes and Earthquakes in the West-India Islands (London, 1781), 17; Petition of John Archer, Assembly Minutes, 12 Nov. 1782, Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica (Jamaica, 1802), vol. 7, p. 493.
10. Gov. Sir Jonathan Atkins to Sec. Sir Joseph Williamson, 13 Oct. 1675, CSPC, 294–95; James Knight, "The Natural, Morall, and Political History of Jamaica," vol. 1, p. 198, Additional Manuscripts 12418, British Library; David Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes, 1492–1870 (Boston, 1963), 43–44; South Carolina Gazette, 19 Sept. 1752; Guerard to Thomas Rock, 12 Dec. 1752, Guerard Letterbook, SCHS; Minutes of the Vestry of St. Michaels, 30 Mar. 1781, Barbados Archives, Black Rock; Weekly Jamaica Courant, 12 Sept. 1722, in Colonial Office Records [hereafter CO] 137/14/175–77.
11. Export figures are from John McCusker, Rum and the American Revolution: The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies (New York, 1989), 905–19; Governor Trelawny to the Duke of Newcastle, 4 Nov. 1744, CO 137/57/229. The account of sugar imported to England is found in Proceedings of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica on the Sugar and Slave Trade (St. Jago de Vega, 1792), Appendix I. These numbers show a decline of over 300,000 cwt., but they are aggregate figures for all the colonies and thus fail to capture the impact of Jamaica and Barbados specifically. For Barbados rum exports, see "Account of Rum Exported from the Port of Bridgetown, Dec. 1784," CO 28/60/181.
12. Historical Statistics of the United States, from Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C., 1975), vol. 2, 1192; see also R. C. Nash, "Trade and Business in Eighteenth-Century South Carolina: The Career of John Guerard, Merchant and Planter," South Carolina Historical Magazine 96 (1995): 6–29.
13. McCusker, Rum and the American Revolution, 906, 910, 912; Historical Statistics, vol. 2, p. 1192; Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes, 44.
14. Quoted in Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery, 439. On London sugar prices in response to the event, see Richard Pares, "The London Sugar Market, 1740–1769," Economic History Review 9 (1956): 254–70, esp. 266; John Guerard to Thomas Rock, 6 Nov. 1752, Guerard Letterbook, SCHS. For rice prices, see Peter Coclanis, Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Lowcountry,1670–1920 (New York, 1989), 106.
15. John Guerard to Thomas Rock, 3 Feb. 1753, Guerard Letterbook, SCHS; Pares, "The London Sugar Market, 1740–1769," 264.
16. Letter from Philip Glebe, 25 May 1781, Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, X series, vol. 33 (Attorney's Minutes), Rhodes House Library, Oxford University; John Blake to Henry Blake, 1 Nov. 1675, in Caribbeana, vol. 1, pp. 56–57; "Petition of the Vestry of the Parish of Kingston," 25 Jan. 1724, CO 140/18/n.p.
17. John Cordy Jeaffreson, A Young Squire of the Seventeenth Century: From the Papers of Christopher Jeaffreson (London, 1878), vol. 1, p. 279; Petition of John Jackson, 27 Feb. 1783, Journal of the Assembly of Jamaica (7): 570; Walter Tullideph to George Thomas, 25 Mar. 1752, in "Letters from a Sugar Plantation in Antigua, 1739-1758," ed. Richard Sheridan, Agricultural History 31 (July 1957): 21.