Please join us for our next Providence College Seminar in the History of Early America when we welcome:
Cynthia A. Kierner
Professor of History
George Mason University
Benevolent Empire: The Great Lisbon Earthquake and Disaster Relief in British North America (chapter 4 from her forthcoming book Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from Jamestown to Johnstown)
**Please note that this is a lecture on a chapter from her forthcoming book rather than our usual working paper seminar format.**
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Ruane Center for the Humanities LL05
1 Cunningham Sq
Providence, RI. 02918
Because of the lecture format, there is NO pre-circulated paper. Light refreshments will be provided.
For questions, parking information, or to be added to the seminar distribution list, please contact Prof. Steven Carl Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Prof. Sharon Ann Murphy (Sharon.Murphy@providence.edu).
Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from Jamestown to Johnstown is a cultural history of the idea of disaster and responses to calamities ranging from shipwrecks and fires, on the one hand, to more seemingly “natural” phenomena, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, on the other. Such calamities have occurred since time immemorial, but our own contemporary response to these challenges—what one historian has called “a new code of calamity etiquette”—is a relatively recent development. My project traces the gradual coalescence of this modern culture of disaster over three centuries, in the British Atlantic world and then in the independent American republic. A pivotal point in my story is the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which many scholars see as the “first modern disaster” because it resulted in the world’s first international relief effort and a rebuilding of the ruined city according to scientific planning principles. In Britain and its colonies, Lisbon was also a turning point in expectations for post-disaster philanthropic efforts, the subject of this chapter.
Focusing primarily on five episodes—fires in Boston and Montreal in 1760 and 1765, respectively; a flood in Virginia in 1771; major Caribbean hurricanes in 1772 and 1780—this chapter draws on newspapers, official records, pamphlets, and other sources to examine the rhetoric and realities of imperial disaster relief, from Canada to the West Indies, amid increasingly volatile relationships within the British Empire. The king’s widely publicized gift of £100,000 in disaster relief to Lisbon encouraged Britons to see their nation and its leaders as uniquely benevolent, heightening colonists’ hopes for relief from London when calamity struck their own communities. After fires, floods, and hurricanes, colonists invoked sensibility, benevolence, and the bonds of empire, exploiting dense networks of transatlantic, intercolonial, and local connections in search of assistance from government officials, merchants, and others. Outcomes of these efforts varied, especially as imperial benevolence became a tool of statecraft deployed to mitigate colonial discontent, strengthen imperial bonds, and solidify a shared sense of British national identity.
Britons typically provided some assistance to colonial disaster victims, but the relatively small sums they provided were at least initially less practical remedies for dire situations than symbolic performances of benevolent authority. In 1766, in the midst of the Stamp Act controversy, George III personally sent £500 in relief (and a marble bust of himself) to victims of a fire that had ravaged Montreal, an important commercial center in newly conquered French Canada. By contrast, Parliament allocated the extraordinary sum of £120,000 to the loyal island colonies of Jamaica and Barbados for relief in the aftermath of the ruinous hurricanes of October 1780. This strategic offering was early evidence of the new approach to imperial governance—one that coupled centralized authority and humanitarian benevolence, and one that differed dramatically from official responses to disaster in post-revolutionary America.
Sharon Ann Murphy