This chapter explores how the factors that made the colonies vulnerable to natural hazards intersected with conceptions of race and the perceived ‘natural’ order of colonial society to shape British responses to disaster in the era of slavery. It argues that, above all, the British response to disaster prioritised the restoration of the region’s racial hierarchy and its extractive industry. To achieve this, colonial officials resorted to coercion and tactics informed by Britain’s approach to domestic poor relief, and on occasion they also resorted to violence. The chapter shows that, in the post-abolition era when planters felt increasingly caught between African-Caribbeans fighting for their freedom and hostile politics in Britain, more than ever they sought to use disaster as a crisis they could exploit to shore up the crumbling certainties of Caribbean life.
The conclusion briefly goes beyond 1907 to examine British responses to a hurricane in British Honduras (Belize) in 1931. It shows how a marked change was beginning to emerge in the twentieth century; colonised people were beginning to construct their own formalised responses to disaster. What is more, complaints with British response were beginning to feed through into anti-colonial demands. Beyond this, the conclusion looks to the future. It argues that reparations for the ecological damage done to the Caribbean during colonialism are due because the vulnerability-inducing conditions discussed at length in this book are still rendering it vulnerable in the present day.
This chapter is divided into two halves. The first looks at how British colonial society evolved in the Caribbean, from a number of settler colonies with tenuous footholds on a scattering of islands into one of the main wealth producers of the British Empire by the middle of the eighteenth century. It looks at how the plantations and slave labour came to be the central pillars around which these colonies were organised. The second half of the chapter looks at how in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this emergent and deeply unequal society encountered disaster. Specifically, it looks at how these threats were conceived of and prepared for by colonists and enslaved who already faced a multiplicity of other deadly hazards. By comparing British responses to the Jamaican earthquake of 1692 and the ‘Great Hurricane’ of 1780, this chapter argues that even though they were geographically separated from the European enlightenment, those in control of the Caribbean, connected as it was to the Empire, began to see its hazards less providentially and more scientifically, albeit much more slowly than those in Europe. Where prayer had been the primary response to what were considered visitations of God’s wrath, disasters, interrupting trade and conflict as they regularly did, increasingly became seen as events in which individuals and on occasion, the state, could intervene and mitigate.
This chapter looks at how British responses to disaster adapted both to the post-emancipation era and the unprecedented change that it brought with it. It argues that responses to disaster still retained their overwhelming focus on the restoration of order and productive industry, but shows that, if anything, the racial rhetoric deployed in this process displayed a marked intensification from the era of slavery. Crises created moments in which African-Caribbean people could truly test the boundaries of their freedom, and in which white elites, smarting from the loss of power occasioned by emancipation, were more concerned than ever about controlling and policing those limits. Simultaneously, as the nineteenth century progressed, it reflected a growing colonial preoccupation with managing the growth of the African-Caribbean population. The language and methods of British domestic poor relief were increasingly deployed in the Caribbean, both shaping and, crucially, limiting the distribution of relief.
This chapter establishes the temporal and geographical context for the book. It sets out how the book intends to study disaster from a critical, interdisciplinary perspective and how that sets it apart from the existing, sparse literature in this area. Beyond this, the introduction also gives an overview not just of the archival material used for the book but the use of an ‘against-the-grain’ approach to interpreting it.
Negotiating relief and freedom is an investigation of short- and long-term responses to disaster in the British Caribbean colonies during the ‘long’ nineteenth century. It explores how colonial environmental degradation expanded the impacts of natural phenomena such as hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and made the inhabitants of these colonies more vulnerable to such disasters. Both the edicts of the colonial officers on the ground and those arriving from Parliament drove the response to these events in a direction that initially prioritised the restoration of colonial control and ‘fiscal prudence’ ahead of the relief of the suffering. When attention shifted to relief, it quickly became a complex negotiation between the wealthy, white few who sought to recoup all their losses and a Parliament whose influence was waning and who were increasingly distrusted. All the while, both parties, fearing a contestation of their power, contended with having to provide some relief to the African-Caribbean population. There they sought to balance a desire to avoid conflict with reigning in the idea that the state could provide charity. As a result, heavily conditional aid and restrictions on freedom became hallmarks of this third aspect to the process of negotiation relief. That this pattern played out continuously in the long nineteenth century is a reminder that in the Caribbean the transition from slavery to waged labour was not a clean one. Times of crisis brought racial and social tensions to the fore and freedoms once granted were often quickly curtailed.
This chapter explores the impact British colonialism had on the Caribbean environment. It argues that both the model of intensive plantation agriculture and the haphazard urban settlements that came to characterise British Caribbean society rendered the islands more vulnerable to the acute hazards considered in this book. It shows that these vulnerabilities, deforestation, the lack of self-sufficiency and the fragile inadequate construction of most Caribbean property, to name just a few, are not only something historians can observe with hindsight, but were readily raised by those who visited and lived in the Caribbean. Consequently, this chapter explores why these apparent vulnerabilities were never addressed and the societies engineered with so little resilience. It argues that, broadly speaking, because the British never saw the region as a place for permanent, developed white settlement they never deemed it worthwhile to invest the time, effort and capital there to build resilience.
The final chapter examines the long-term aspects of British responses to disaster. Specifically, it examines the relationship that planters and the colonial officials in the Caribbean had with the Colonial Office and Parliament. Notoriously indebted and working to increasingly shrinking margins as the nineteenth century progressed, Parliament was the primary port of call for planters looking to secure financial aid to rebuild disaster-stricken colonies. Yet, as this chapter shows, securing aid was never straightforward. Parliament was reticent to spend large sums of money on island colonies that over the course of the nineteenth century appeared to be diminishing not just in profitability but in their general importance to the Empire at large. By examining transatlantic correspondence and parliamentary debates, this chapter shows that those same perceptions of the Caribbean environment outlined in the first chapter, and the racial conceptions of order integral to the British responses outlined in the third and fourth chapters, played a large role in shaping and ultimately circumscribing the financial aid provided by Parliament. As the century came to its end, this chapter shows that Britain’s declining influence in the Caribbean, along with increased media scrutiny, brought the geopolitics of disaster and the optics of British responses into a new harsh light.
Expansion in manufacture, design and access, 1851–1904
This chapter demonstrates that the expansion of spectacle manufacture and changing features of spectacle design had a decisive influence on medical practitioners’ inability to assert control. As a result of mass manufacture and a more uniform, well-fitting frame, the accessibility and functionality of spectacles reached wide acceptance. The chapter investigates how the scale of spectacle manufacture and dispensing was an obstacle in the way of medical attempts to encroach on and monopolise vision testing and spectacle dispensing. This, I suggest, complicates medical definitions of normalcy, abnormalcy and disease and challenges the parameters devised by medical practitioners in the 1850s. This chapter draws heavily upon material culture and explores the specificities of design to highlight how manufacture developed and how certain design features – particularly the spectacle frame’s side-arms – enhanced frames’ overall usability. It argues that medical definitions of ‘normalcy’/‘abnormalcy’ were too simplistic and failed to capture the diversity of visual capacity in Victorian Britain. Indeed, the scale of spectacle manufacture affected medical practitioners’ ability to claim and exert their area of expertise. Here, the chapter teases out some of the peculiarities of visual aids, and their adaptability for mass manufacture, in comparison to other forms of assistive devices and prostheses.
The conclusion draws together the thread of technology and medical intervention woven through each chapter. It examines how technology mediated the Victorian experience of seeing, both by determining the parameters of ‘sight’ and by subverting medical categories and control. It looks forward to demonstrate how the blurred boundaries between different expertise – medical, optical and experiential – influenced twentieth-century spectacle dispensing until the Optician’s Act 1958, and beyond. It argues that the book’s approach to vision measurement – which shapes bodily capacity – connects recent work in sensory history to growing trends in disability history, which both explain sensory capacity as a varied, contextual and subtle continuum. Assistive technologies let us explore how technology and the environment in which it is used influence how bodily capacity is understood and responded to. The rapid expansion of Victorian industry, urbanisation and medical investigation offers an ideal case study. Medical knowledge and the degree to which it was accepted determined the levels at which certain capabilities were normalised. Concurrently, visual aids alleviated the symptoms of sight loss and in turn recategorised blindness as loss of sight incapable of amelioration through technological means.