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Senate House Library

Weather Notes: Cyclones, Colonialism and the idea of the Tropics


Written by
Elissavet Ntoulia, Associate Curator of Science at the Science Museum, Co-Curator of Weather Notes

Co-curator of the exhibition 'Weather Notes', Elissavet Ntoulia, explores the connections between climate and empire in Senate House Library's collections

Extreme weather and the disruption that can bring to human life have shaped much of humanity’s interest in weather and climate. Like today’s extreme weather events that are being analysed and broadcasted all around the world, often acting as reality checks for the current climate crisis, extreme weather phenomena of past centuries were equally observed, recorded, analysed and published to serve scientific as well as social, political and economic interests.

Two books from Senate House Library’s collections on display at the Weather Notes exhibition, part of Artangel’s A Thousand Words for Weather sound installation, exemplify the implications of devastating cyclones for the British Empire in the 1800s. Both written by British colonial officers to India, their subject is storms that had an immediate impact on mercantile and naval ships and overall colonial connectivity. India in the 19th century was ‘Britain’s continent, large and coherent enough to produce significant results’ for the imperial project in pursuit of universal scientific knowledge.

Navigating storms

Henry Piddington’s Sailor’s Hornbook for the Law of Storms, first published in 1848, was part of such efforts to systematise the study of the weather for pedagogical and practical purposes keeping mariners safe and colonial maritime trade uninterrupted. His hornbook’s main aim was to teach sailors how to avoid seasonal storms by providing tools for tracking the direction of the winds that caused them. These tools took the form of ‘horn’ or ‘storm’ transparent cards, one for the northern hemisphere with a counter clock-wise wind-direction and one for the southern with wind-direction shown to run clockwise. By providing a system for first-hand data collection, Piddington also hoped that those navigating the globe would contribute to the development of a ‘citizen’s science’ by sharing their collected data. However, this didn’t materialise during his lifetime as accurate collection of data was challenging without sailors entering the vortex of the storm.

A book with a folded out barometrical chart

A seaman from coastal Sussex, Piddington is also considered to have coined the term ‘cyclone’ to distinguish it from the generic ‘storm’. From the Greek word κύκλος, it highlighted the directionality of the wind and cyclone’s unique circular motion, “the coil of the snake” as he put it. However, neither he nor any other European were the first to possess such knowledge, as shown by pre-colonial pictorial representations of indigenous cultures in places that experienced cyclones. For example, archaeological excavations revealed ceramics of the Taino people of the Caribbean depicting a round face with spiralling arms towards opposite directions that closely resembles the contemporary meteorological icon for a hurricane. This suggests that “the Taino perceived the circulatory nature of the hurricane winds around an eye” long before Western science and used such knowledge to structure their lives and beliefs in relation to the seasonality, frequency and power of the storms.

There are suggestions that the Spanish word for hurricane, huracán, entered the Spanish vernacular from its indigenous use in Central and South America to describe malevolent forces and spirits believed to unleash their fury in the form of destructive winds. These knowledge systems were sidelined and even erased since the 15th century by the genocide of the indigenous peoples who held it and the subsequent colonial meteorological science shaped throughout the 19th century.

Taino depictions of a hurricane and the meteorological symbol for hurricanes

Charting extreme weather

Meteorological reports on the development of particularly devastating cyclones were necessary in order to understand the phenomenon, improve its prediction and prevent its damages in colonial life and infrastructure. The 1864 cyclone in today Kolkata was the first of   four severe cyclones between 1864 and 1874 in the Bay of Bengal that caused immense loss of life and property and its report by James Gastrell Eardley and Henry F. Blanford fuelled subsequent cyclonological research. The Report on the Calcutta Cyclone of the 5th October 1864 included atmospheric pressure data from the logs of ships stationed at different locations and taken at different times which proved challenging in establishing an accurate and conclusive explanation of the cyclone’s origin. The British Empire’s quest for a meteorological scientific discipline led eventually to the establishment of the India Meteorological Department in 1875 with Blandford as the first meteorological reporter to the Government of India.

A map charting a cyclone in Kolkata on 5 October 1864

The idea of the tropics

Storms named cyclones were understood within what was conceived as the ‘tropics’: an idea rather than a physical place connected to heat, moisture, disease and lethargy. As such could be distinguished by Europe as exotic, distant, other. The concept of ‘otherness’ allowed the colonists to assume superiority to the native peoples and their land which was associated with both opportunity and danger. This contradiction of the ‘torrid zone’ for 19th-century Europeans settlers is visualised in a parodic print by Abraham James and published by William Holland in London on 1st October 1800: underneath the languorous noons of napping, smoking and dancing lurks the horrors of disease and death for the settlers in Jamaica.

A print depicting a range of figures arranged in a semicircle representing 19th-century ideas of the effects of tropical climates on people

However, India didn’t fit neatly in this tropical concept as many of its regions do not experience tropical climate. Nevertheless, it was placed within the tropics as the three main cities (Calcutta, Madras and Bombay), where British administration and life were concentrated, experienced tropical climate. It has been noted that ‘India’s incorporation into the tropics was thus one way (among others) of defining its ‘’otherness’’ from Europe as well as stressing its interconnectedness with what was increasingly thought of, in contradiction to the northern and southern “temperate’’ zones, as the “tropical world’’’.

Today this concept of tropicality and its negative associations persist and take new meaning within the context of climate change and population growth. According to the State of the Tropics Report, by 2050 the tropical world will contain half of the world’s population. What would be the impact of upcoming cyclones for this expanding tropical world and its other half if we do not face the colonial past and its legacy?

If you want to learn more about the objects on display in Weather Notes, book an exhibition ticket to see the other objects on display on the fourth floor of Senate House Library (library members go free of charge) or view them in our online gallery. You can also book a place on our upcoming exhibition tour on 19 October, starting at 2:30PM. Further dates for tours will be announced throughout the run of the exhibition.