In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Natural Disasters in Early Modern Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Theory and Historiography
  • Literature Reviews and Surveys
  • Edited Volumes and Special Issues
  • Natural Hazards in the Pre-Columbian World
  • Natural Hazards in the Maya Area
  • Hurricanes: General Studies
  • Hurricanes: Regional and Case Studies
  • El Niño/La Niña (ENSO)
  • Insects as Pests
  • Disease and Epidemics
  • Disease and Ecology
  • Early Modern Sources and Texts

Latin American Studies Natural Disasters in Early Modern Latin America
Charles F. Walker, Stuart B. Schwartz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0258


Since the 1970s, the study of “natural disasters” has generated extensive literatures in a number of scientific and social scientific fields as well as in cultural studies and the humanities. The field is by nature interdisciplinary, as environmental historians build from and dialogue with the sciences, while microhistory owes a great deal to anthropology and literary analysis. One achievement is the discovery of a variety of new sources, ranging from data-sets and other quantitative material to first-hand accounts. Large-scale disasters raise questions about causes, comparative vulnerabilities, and the reactions by state and society. Not surprisingly, contemporary disasters foster research on historical catastrophes. Massive earthquakes such as those that struck Mexico in 1986 or Haiti in 2010 prompted renewed attention to seismology, while droughts and floods turned attention to climate change. Much of the scholarship reviewed here contributes to debates about vulnerability, the environment, and society in contemporary Latin America. These works also participate in the recurrent debate about whether disasters are “natural” or man-made. Virtually every scholar stakes a place somewhere in the middle, stressing and exploring the relationship between natural hazards and human behavior. Included are only a highly selective sampling of works that may be useful to researchers interested in the Early Modern era and particularly in Latin America, as well as a small number of theoretically and methodologically influential works on Europe and global history. Nonetheless, the focus is on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. The selections incorporate older work, both classics and lesser-known publications, and a strong selection of more contemporary scholarship in this rapidly growing field.

Theory and Historiography

The literature on disasters in colonial Latin America has benefitted from and contributed to a number of debates about the relationship between climate and society. Particularly influential in the creation of this field were French scholars such as Fernand Braudel, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Jean Delumeau. Since the 1960s, an extensive literature began to suggest cultural and sociological approaches to the effects of calamities of various types on individuals and societies. The classic book Sorokin 1968 combined human and natural explanations for catastrophes. Barkun 1986 explored the relationship between disasters and millenarian movements. Subsequently, a theoretical approach questioning the relationship of natural phenomena to societal vulnerabilities and resilience in the production of calamities has developed, as can be seen in Oliver-Smith 2019, García Acosta 2000 (and the author’s many other publications), and Bankoff 2003. Scholarly debates about climate fluctuation and specifically the Little Ice Age (1300–1850) opened new terrain for environmental historians. Fagan 2000 provides a highly readable overview of the Little Ice Age. Parker 2013 offers a stirring history of the role of climate in the 17th century, while White 2017 examines the impact of climate on the European conquest of North America. Martin 2011 (cited under El Niño/La Niña (ENSO)) offers an account of the development of meteorology before the Enlightenment, particularly valuable for discussions of scientific method.

  • Bankoff, Gregory. Cultures of Disaster: Societies and Natural Hazard in the Philippines. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203221891

    A leading modern theorist of disasters, he has become a major exponent of societal “vulnerabilities,” rather than the hazards themselves as the cause of catastrophes. His own work concentrates on the Philippines, including its experience as a Spanish colony prior to 1898.HEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE

  • Barkun, Michael. Disaster and the Millennium. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

    A political scientist suggests millenarian movements have often been generated by physical or social disasters that caused apocalyptic thinking. More a political and anthropological than an environmental study.

  • Fagan, Brian. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300–1850. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

    This popular history of the Late Holocene cooling climate, the “Little Ice Age,” is careful not to make climate a determinate of history, but an important factor and possible influence in a wide variety of human actions. The evidence and examples presented are mostly drawn from Europe and the Northern Hemisphere, but the book is useful for Latin Americanists for its presentation of the general climatic conditions of the period.

  • García Acosta, Virginia, ed. Estudios históricos sobre desastres naturales en México. Mexico City: CIESAS, 2000.

    Five excellent state-of-the-field essays by leading scholars as well as valuable introduction by García Acosta and Antonio Escobar. The essays cover theoretical approaches to disasters (García Acosta), the drought–famine relationship in colonial Mexico (Luz María Espinosa Cortés), historical approaches to natural disasters, the 18th and 19th centuries (América Molina del Villar), 19th-century agricultural crises (Escobar), and social sciences and disasters (Jesús Manuel Macías).

  • Oliver-Smith, Anthony. “What Is a Disaster? Anthropological Perspectives on a Persistent Question.” In The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective. 2d ed. Edited by Anthony Oliver-Smith and Suzana Hoffman, 18–34. London: Routledge, 2019.

    Concerned primarily with social science theories and definitions of contemporary catastrophes, a leading scholar in the field seeks to define the terms and concepts used to analyze disasters. He underlines a Western cultural bias in defining and studying disasters and discusses the idea that a disaster is not an abnormal physical phenomenon, but is the result of political and social policies and considerations that preceded or persisted during and after the event.

  • Parker, Geoffrey. Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

    A return to the great debate on the “crisis of the 17th century.” It focuses on the global effects of the “Little Ice Age,” and an intense ENSO cycle in the 1640s, as a crucial force for upheavals. Deeply researched and documented, but mammoth in size and detail, readers can access the author’s well-written synthesis in his “Crisis and Catastrophe: The Global Crisis in the Seventeenth Century Reconsidered,” American Historical Review 113.4 (2008): 1053–1079, and the accompanying forum.

  • Sorokin, Pitirim Aleksandrovič. Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1968.

    A classic book in this field on the social and psychological effects of all kinds of catastrophes by the Russian emigre sociologist. In a way, his conflation of anthropogenic and “natural” catastrophes previewed current tendencies among historians and social scientists.

  • White, Sam. A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674981331

    Using the effects of the Little Ice Age to explain the hardships and failures of Plymouth and Jamestown for English settlement, the author also looks at the French settlement in Quebec and the Spanish in New Mexico and the ways in which the struggle for survival and competition for resources due to climatic conditions precipitated conflicts with indigenous peoples.

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