A first-time author tracks the 1775 hurricane that pummeled America’s Eastern seaboard, echoing the patriotic storm in the colonies.
After forming over Africa’s west coast, the Hurricane of Independence touched down on September 1 in New Bern, N.C., where it killed 200, and then proceeded to Norfolk, Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, Newport and, having morphed into merely a violent rainstorm, on to New York City and Boston. Sometime around September 10 a second tempest (erroneously thought to be the tail end of the first hurricane) roared ashore in Newfoundland, killing thousands and devastating seaside communities and the British cod industry. Williams dubs this the “Codfishermen’s Hurricane,” and he uses the progress of both storms to examine the developments in the various colonial regions on the eve of the Revolution: the evenly divided Patriot/Tory town of Norfolk’s fear of a British-inspired slave rebellion, the hurricane’s destruction of the Annapolis statehouse dome, the drenching of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Washington’s assumption of command of the Continental Army in Boston. But for the facts of the hurricanes themselves, Williams offers little new for even casual students of the Revolution, but he charmingly uses the hurricane as a window through which to view the psychology of the Enlightenment; the beginning of scientific inquiry and the demystification of popular superstition, captured in the persons of wealthy Virginia planter and amateur scientist Landon Carter, future Yale president Ezra Stiles and, of course, Benjamin Franklin; and the lingering suspicions among most that the hurricane reflected heaven’s judgment on the political upheaval. But what was God saying? Was the tempest a punishment against the tyrannical master or a rebuke to the rebellious subjects? In agreeable prose, Williams recovers the victims’ speculation on the hurricane’s meaning and its almost poetic commingling of the natural and moral worlds.
An unusual and affecting take on the American colonies at the precipice.