by Sam White
Harvard University Press, 361 pp., $29.95
“We are starved! We are starved!” the sixty skeletal members of the English colony of Jamestown cried out in desperation as two ships arrived with provisions in June 1610. Of the roughly 240 people who were in Jamestown at the start of the winter of 1609–1610, they were the only ones left alive. They suffered from exhaustion, starvation, and malnutrition as well as from a strange sickness that “caused all our skinns to peele off, from head to foote, as if we had beene flayed.” Zooarchaeological evidence shows that during those pitiless months of “starving time” they turned to eating dogs, cats, rats, mice, venomous snakes, and other famine foods: mushrooms, toadstools, “or what els we founde growing upon the grounde that would fill either mouth or belly.” Some of the settlers reportedly ingested excrement and chewed the leather of their boots. Recent discoveries of human skeletons confirm the revelation of the colony’s president, George Percy, that they also resorted to cannibalism: “Some adventuringe to seeke releife in the woods, dyed as they sought it, and weare eaten by others who found them dead.” When one man confessed under torture to having murdered and eaten his wife, Percy ordered his execution.
That happened a mere three years after the first adventurous group of Englishmen arrived in Jamestown. From the beginning, it was a struggle for subsistence. Most of the settlers fell ill only a few weeks after landfall in May 1607. One colonist recalled that “scarse ten amongst us coulde either goe, or well stand, such extreame weaknes and sicknes oppressed us.” The corn withered in the summer drought, and as the flow of the James River waned in the unrelenting heat, salt water encroached from the sea, depriving the settlers of their main source of fresh water. Nor was divine assistance forthcoming. The Quiyoughcohannock Indians, scarcely better off, beseeched the Englishmen to intercede and ask their powerful God for supernatural intervention. But when the colonists’ prayers seemed to bring only more suffering instead of rain to Jamestown, the natives concluded that the Christian god must be a vindictive one, and their relations with the colonists deteriorated.
By September 1607, half the colony’s members were dead. “Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, and some departed suddenly,” Percy later recalled, “but for the most part they died of meere famine.” The next winter months would prove equally deadly. “It got so very cold and the frost so sharp that I and many others suffered frozen feet,” another witness wrote, adding that the cold was so severe that “the river at our fort froze almost all the way across.”
Fresh groups of colonists arrived in 1608 and 1609, but steady attrition and the “starving time” of 1609–1610 pushed the settlement to the brink. In June 1610, when the two ships arrived with provisions for the emaciated survivors, it seemed too late. Jamestown’s leaders announced to the settlers that they would all return to England by way of Newfoundland. “There was a general acclamation, and shoute of joy,” one person remembered. They set sail on June 17, but the next day, when they reached the small settlement on Mulberry Island along the James River just a few miles away, they sighted another boat, working its way up the river with news that an English relief fleet was on its way with more settlers and enough provisions to last a year. That chance encounter saved the colony of Jamestown. “God would not have it so abandoned,” one settler wrote. The following winter proved less harsh, and by 1614 colonists had begun lucrative exports of tobacco. In 1619 the Virginia House of Burgesses would hold its first assembly in Jamestown.
The brutal story of Jamestown scarcely fits the pageant of success that students are often taught in the condensed version of early American history that starts in 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and then jumps to the Pilgrims’ safe landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and their peaceful celebration of the first Thanksgiving the following year. But in his deeply researched and exciting new book, A Cold Welcome, the historian Sam White focuses on the true stories of the English, Spanish, and French colonial expeditions in North America. He tells strange and surprising tales of drought, famine, bitterly cold winters, desperation, and death, while anchoring his research in the methods and results of the science of climate change and historical climatology. In doing so, he erases what C.P. Snow, the British physicist and author of The Two Cultures, considered the damaging cultural barrier and “mutual incomprehension” estranging humanists and scientists from one another.1 “Historians can, and must, embrace this science,” White counsels.He weaves an intricate, complex tapestry as he examines the effects both of climate—meteorological conditions over relatively long periods of time—and of weather—the conditions of the atmosphere over a short term—on vulnerable colonists in North America in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The half-century that led up to the founding of permanent settlements saw, as White notes, “one of the steepest declines in Northern Hemisphere temperatures in perhaps thousands of years.”
His fresh account of the climatic forces shaping the colonization of North America differs significantly from long-standing interpretations of those early calamities. Edmund S. Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975) contains a lengthy assessment of the reasons why the Jamestown colonists experienced their “Lord of the Flies” fate. Morgan faults the poor organization and direction of the colony but most of all points to sociological and psychological factors, especially the indolence of the colonists and the large number of “gentlemen” among them who were averse to descending to ordinary labor. “He that will not worke, shall not eate,” John Smith warned them to little avail.2 A Cold Welcome does not replace these well-grounded interpretations but rather supplements them by shining a spotlight on a wholly different dimension: the timing of these colonial enterprises, which ensnared them in what came to be known as the Little Ice Age.
As climatologists define it, the Little Ice Age was a long-term cooling of the Northern Hemisphere between 1300 and 1850. They locate maximum cooling in the early seventeenth century, just when European settlers were attempting to establish colonies in North America. To reconstruct past climate, scientists use indicators called climate “proxies,” such as ice cores, tree rings, and lake-bottom sediments that they analyze for indications of past temperatures and precipitation. In addition, zooarchaeologists examine animal bones to see what settlers ate, while bioarchaeologists study human skeletons to probe health and nutrition.Climate proxies also provide important evidence of volcanic activity. Between the 1580s and 1600 large tropical volcanic eruptions spewed dust and sulfates high into the atmosphere, dimming sunlight, cooling Earth’s surface, and causing oscillations in atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Eruptions in Colima, Mexico, in 1586, in Nevado del Ruiz in present-day Colombia in 1595, and especially the huge Huaynaputina eruption in the Peruvian Andes in 1600 helped produce shockingly cold decades.
Even before colonists departed from Europe, their lack of reliable information about the extremes of weather in the Little Ice Age was compounded by fatal misconceptions linking geographical latitudes with climate. Educated in the work of the classical Greek geographer Ptolemy, for whom climate and latitude were synonymous, Europeans assumed that they would find a relatively mild climate in North America, since Britain lies latitudinally north of the continental United States and Paris north of Quebec, while Spain lines up with New Mexico. The confusion sowed by those misleading notions would doom many of their enterprises.
During those harrowing decades, European countries—England and Spain in particular—also suffered from freezing winters, cold, wet summers, intense rain, flooding, ruined crops, famine, outbreaks of disease, plague, and spikes in mortality. In the mid-1590s, William Shakespeare found poetry in the capricious climate of the age:...MUCH MORE