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Five ways weather changed the course of history

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Monday, November 14, 2016, 10:24 PM - Elections happen, governments come and go, and history marches on, leaving "what ifs" in its wake.

Out of all the many factors that go into deciding how that history unfolds, one that's often overlooked is one that's all around us: The weather itself.

We looked at five times, large and small, when the weather had a serious impact on politics and history.

A massive hurricane boosts a revolution

This unnamed storm, known locally as simply the Newfoundland Hurricane of 1775, was a terrifying monster that might have been an early turning point in an event that drastically altered the course of world history: The American War of Independence.

Cape Spear, Newfoundland. Photo: Alana Barnes.

Cape Spear, Newfoundland. Photo: Alana Barnes.

The first shots between British troops and the American rebels were fired in April of that year. Though the British would have had a distinct manpower advantage at that time, at least in terms of overall population, it also had the wide gulf of the Atlantic Ocean separating it from the 13 colonies, making reinforcement costly and long in coming. Once France and Spain entered the war on the American side, British ships had to run a bloody gauntlet before even reaching the fighting.

But an early, heavy blow to English shipping and trade came in August of 1775, when this major hurricane raged off the coast of Newfoundland. We don’t have any idea of its precise strength, but sources say its winds would have been strong enough to whip up a storm surge of some 10 metres. 

By the time it was done with the area, around 4,000 lives had been lost, most of them at sea, making the storm the eighth deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. To this day it remains Canada’s deadliest natural disaster. Environment Canada says its considered a factor in the American Revolution as “most of” the lives lost would have been British, and it also claimed some navy ships alongside commercial vessels.

Hurricane Juan fails to disrupt an election

This storm left a scar in the cultural memory of the Maritimes when it made landfall in Nova Scotia in September 2003.

At least eight deaths are attributed to this storm, which also caused widespread property damage and power outages, and may have knocked down as many as 50-100 million trees across the province.

Juan wasn’t that powerful when it hit Prince Edward Island, but its winds of 139 km/h, with higher gusts, were devastating, damaging homes and boats and leaving many Islanders without power….all coming the night before the 2003 provincial election.

Here’s how the storm affected the island’s politics: It apparently proved that voters on the Island are some of the most determined in Canada. A look back in the Guardian newspaper says election workers had to clear debris from polling stations, voters had to steer clear of fallen power lines, and many even voted by candlelight in districts where energy had not been restored.

The result? The turnout in that election was an astonishing 83 per cent. Not only is that high by Canadian standards, it was fewer than two percentage points lower than the previous election, which was NOT held in the wake of a crippling hurricane.

A chilly day kills a president

Back to the United States, only this time to 1841, when the country was still relatively young, but by then was well established, with the American Revolution and the War of 1812 well behind it.

Enter William Henry Harrison. He was himself a veteran of the War of 1812, having commanded the troops that penetrated Upper Canada as far as the Chatham area, where he defeated an alliance of the British and First Nations soldiers. 

Battle of the Thames. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Battle of the Thames. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Other military feats in the U.S. midwest no doubt bolstered his reputation as a war hero, and likely factored into his victory in the 1840 election, winning with 53 per cent of the vote.

Shortly after, he earned his place in presidential history with a couple of firsts: He became the shortest-serving U.S. president, on account of being the first one to die in office.

Here’s where the weather comes in: Then, as now, U.S. inaugurations take place a few months after the election that precedes them. Harrison’s was in March, and he made sure everyone who attended knew what was on his mind with an inauguration speech of more than 8,400 words (which the New York Times says is the longest in history) that took two hours to deliver.

March in Washington, D.C., is not famous for being tropical, and Harrison was 68, an advanced age for the time. History.com says he even declined to wear a hat and coat. It all added up. The new president developed pneumonia and died on April 4 -- though the Times says there’s evidence the pneumonia was secondary to another infection, made worse by poor medical care.

Death of Harrison. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Death of Harrison. Source: Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know what kind of president Harrison would have been, but the death of the leader of a rapidly growing continental power wouldn’t have been without its effects on history.

Lightning forces China to turn inward

By the 15th Century, China was already an ancient civilization, and the early days of the Ming Dynasty promised a new age of expansion and prosperity. The emperor Zhu Di intended to show his power by construction a massive palace complex in the heart of Beijing, which he intended as his new capital.

It was enormous. After years of construction, a titanic effort that required up to a million labourers and resources from across the massive empire, the Forbidden City came to span more than 180 hectares, with almost a thousand individual buildings. It was a massive display of power and authority -- but it seemed the heavens weren’t impressed, as lightning from a powerful storm sparked a fire that burned down three palaces and killed several people in 1421.

The emperor took it poorly, and the incident was a factor in a backlash among the mandarins and other more conservative forces of the imperial court that preferred China look inward. 

As the lightning struck, China was introducing itself to the world rather forcefully, spearheaded by seven massive voyages by fleets of enormous junks known as Treasure Ships. Travelling all across the Indian Ocean, they expanded Chinese trade and influence to India, the East Indies, parts of the Middle East and most of Africa’s west coast.

But the ships required huge amounts of resources to build and maintain. In the political mood after the fire in the Forbidden City, they were considered more trouble than they were worth, and counter to a new doctrine of that saw no value in establishing relations with the world. By 1433, the fleets were no more, and China increasingly lagged behind western nations for centuries.

A cyclone helps create a new country

In November 1970, a powerful cyclone formed in the Indian Ocean and slowly gathered strength. In its path was the low-lying East Pakistan and surrounding parts of India.

If you’ve never heard of East Pakistan, that’s because that was the former name of what is now Bangladesh. Following the partition of India in the 1940s, the area became part of Pakistan, and was ruled from Islamabad.

This wasn’t a suitable arrangement, and political tensions had been running high even before the arrival of the cyclone, known to history as the Bhola cyclone. Though certainly not the most powerful storm on earth, it took a direct hit on a part of the subcontinent with poor infrastructure, and very low lying land prone to flooding at the best of times. By the time the storm was done with East Pakistan, some 500,000 people -- that’s half a million -- had been killed there and in neighbouring India.

The government in Islamabad badly mishandled the relief efforts in the aftermath, and for many, it was the last straw. Tensions erupted into full-blown warfare between pro-independence forces, and the central government in Pakistan. When it was over, Bangladesh had won its independence, though it would remain prone to destructive cyclones due to its low-lying terrain.

SOURCES: Environment Canada | The Guardian | CBC | New York Times | History.com | IFLS | PBS | International Business Times

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