Settlers know: Meredith McKittrick, ‘Talking about the Weather: Settler Vernaculars and Climate Anxieties in Early Twentieth-Century South Africa’, Environmental History, 2017

18Oct17

Abstract: This article reconstructs popular ideas about climate and climate change among early twentieth-century white southern Africans. The environmental history literature on South Africa and other settler societies has focused on the global connections formed by scientific elites as well as indigenous resistance to colonial policies. In assuming a largely homogeneous white intellectual world, this literature has overlooked the variety and longevity of settler vernaculars that drew on European and African folk traditions, direct experiences with semiarid landscapes, and ideas about weather and climate that circulated transnationally. Many, perhaps most, southern African settlers believed that diminishing rainfall threatened the long-term existence of “white civilization” in the region, and they continued to believe this for decades, despite multiple government reports insisting it was not so. Archival accounts, letters to the editor, and even testimony offered to government commissions reveal the ideas and theories that underpinned this persistent belief in declining rainfall. The stories that southern Africa’s settlers told about the weather, and their commitment to forms of knowledge rejected by their “experts,” open windows into an intellectual world that joined together town and country, educated and uneducated, Afrikaner and British. This article recreates a time when little was known for certain about the climate history of empire’s outposts and when there was little unanimity on the significance of individual weather events.



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