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“Dr. Short and Global Environmental History”

Ruma Chopra, Professor of History at San José State and winner of the 2019 NACBS-Folger Fellowship, on researching at the Folger Shakespeare Library for her forthcoming book, “Before Darwin: Early Modern Transitions in the Understanding of Climate”

Dr. Thomas Short’s nearly 1000-page assessment of the relationship between climates and diseases stands out as a gem in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. Published in 1749, his two-volume history, A general chronological history of the air, weather, seasons, meteors, &c. in sundry places and different times, correlates astronomical and climatic conditions to a variety of diseases in the world by placing hundreds of scattered episodes in one chronological sequence. Dr. Short’s spatial orientation – akin to map-making -  adds a critical dimension to our understanding about the process of globalization, the focus of my book project, “Before Darwin: Early Modern Transitions in the Understanding of Climate.”

We associate the eighteenth and nineteenth century West with plantation slavery, revolutionary upheaval, industrialization, and European colonization across the globe. But this era, which ended with a second European wave of colony-grabbing in Africa and Asia, shared another critical dimension, one that complicates the picture of our typical cast of industrialists and the imperialists. This dimension of empire was so fundamental and obvious as to have passed unnoticed. Put simply, European colonizers in India and Africa, in the Caribbean islands, as well as in Canada, waged a silent war with diseases in unfamiliar climates. In an age before central heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, and other amenities that remove people from the natural world’s direct and immediate influence, people were literally “surrounded” by the natural elements in ways that seem alien to most of us today. Widely-held beliefs about climate’s effects on bodies created worries: Heat and cold could “invade” bodies; they could cause diseases and influence behavior in ways that appeared entirely possible. In the words of  the French hygienist Jean-Christian Boudin, bodies could only adapt by turning “Hottentot in Southern Africa and Eskimo in Antarctica.” This price of acclimatization was too high. Dr. Short’s work, an eighteen-year project which placed diseases as well as earthquakes, hurricanes, and meteors in the same chronological and spatial framework, suggests an exhaustive effort at planetary order, an attempt to impose an intellectual system on inherently untidy phenomenon. 

Thomas Short's table pulls the world into one chronological frame

Ironically, the environment’s central relationship to empire and to early modern thought structures requires excavation and not merely explication. Illuminating this history poses formidable challenges because no records have been preserved with the convenient keyword of “nature” or “climate.” Yet, climate is ubiquitous in documents relating to exploration, nationalisms, missionary expeditions, transplantations of people, military recruitment, and longevity. It appears in personal documents such as love letters and diaries, in shared correspondence such as missionary records, and in widely circulated natural histories. “Before Darwin” involves a creative and exhaustive filtering, a retrieval and an analysis that exposes moments in which climate played an essential role.

Thomas Short describes environmental extremes in Jamaica and Germany for 1688 

This project has taken me to various archives in the Caribbean, as well as in London and Oxford. The collections at the Folger stand out as especially important for conceptualizing the framework of “Before Darwin.” First, because the sources range from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, they allowed me to explore hard-to-prove shifts in cultural emphasis. Second, the variety of sources on hand ­– almanacs, travelogues, calendars, essays on natural history and longevity as well as physicians’ comprehensive histories – provided an avenue to consider climatic metaphors from vantage points not readily available in other archives. Curators, fellows, onsite presentations, and regular tea-and-cookie breaks created a wonderfully rich and collaborative experience.

In a recent review of Alexander von Humboldt’s Selected Writings, Joyce Chaplin rightly notes that  environmental history is not “thrillingly new.” Early modern historians have deeply investigated how ideas about the climate, and the environment generally, shaped the West’s encounters with the world. Charles J. Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967) established why theories of “airs, waters and places” need to be considered in their own right. “Before Darwin” draws upon these foundational efforts to explore how conceptions of human fallibility and even death interconnected with ideas about global climate. Dr. Short’s work points to one of the reigning paradigms used to imagine peoples and places in faraway places: what connected us globally was our frailty to diseases and our vulnerability to catastrophe. 

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