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Inventing DisasterThe Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood$
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Cynthia A. Kierner

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781469652511

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469652511.001.0001

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Devastation without Disaster

Devastation without Disaster

(p.14) 1 Devastation without Disaster
Inventing Disaster

Cynthia A. Kierner

University of North Carolina Press

The English colony established at Jamestown in 1607 was a disaster by any modern measure. Famine, disease, hurricanes, and violence killed roughly three-quarters of the 4,200 settlers who arrived there by 1622. This chapter argues that contemporaries viewed neither Jamestown nor the specific calamities that occurred there as disasters in the modern sense and that most public discussions of the colonists’ sufferings instead characterized them as either signs from God or (less commonly) the results of human mistakes or malfeasance. This pre-modern response to adversity had two related consequences. First, interpreting calamities within a providential framework elided human agency as the cause of suffering and therefore precluded temporal efforts to prevent future tragedies. Second, when famines and disease, hurricanes and earthquakes, were divine portents, they evoked horror or wonder, but not the human-centered emotions that would animate later responses to such calamities.

Keywords:   climate, disease, famine, Jamestown, religion, Virginia

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