Climate: past and future crisis
Tiny temperature drops have led to global chaos throughout the century, including in Taiwan
By Michael Turton / Contributing Journalist
In the 17th century, about a third of the world’s population died.
Geoffrey Parker, in his monumental book on this terrible century, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the 17th Century, details the climatic catastrophes that have overwhelmed Europe, Asia, India and the Americas. Japan experienced its coldest spring ever in 1616, snowfall in Fujian in 1618, and successive waves of drought and floods in India and Europe in the 1620s-30s destroyed crops. in numerous countries.
One of the “years without summer”, 1628, followed 1627, the wettest summer in Europe for 500 years. The 1640s were a time of terrible floods, droughts and cold weather around the world, as evidenced by global tree ring data. In Scandinavia, 1641 was the coldest year on record.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The second half of the century continued the cruelties of the first. Throughout the northern hemisphere, 1675 is remembered as another “year without a summer”. In 1683-1684 the Thames froze for weeks and bull-baiting shows were held on the ice. Between 1650 and 1680, Russia’s population plunged as crops repeatedly failed in the face of the coldest periods from autumn to spring in the past 500 years and incessant plagues and wars.
From China to Catalonia, famine and plague reigned. The populations of towns and cities plunged, taxes evaporated, wars, revolutions and revolts broke out, land and sea were the haunt of bandits and pirates, and cannibalism, infanticide and suicide stalked poor people. Municipal records across Europe tell the same story of young men lost in war and populations decimated by pestilence and pillage.
At least our science, the direct descendant of the Enlightenment investigation, which Parker says was prompted in part by the succession of crises, does not blame the witches (900 defendants were massacred in southern Germany only after an episode of freezing weather in 1626) or comets.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Many sources of evidence show that after 1645 the sun’s output fell, a period known as the Maunder Minimum. The period between 1638 and 1644 saw 12 huge volcanic explosions around the Pacific, filling Earth’s atmosphere with dust and cooling the planet. Plagues and wars did the rest of the damage.
And then there were the taxes.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Koo Hui-wen (古慧雯) in “Weather, Harvests, and Taxes: A Chinese Revolt in Colonial Taiwan” describes how a locally occurring global phenomenon generated the famous Kuo Huai-yi (郭懷一) Revolt. Around the world, the succession of failed harvests led the indebted to rise up in the face of taxes (especially new ones to finance the constant war) and debts that could not be paid, fueling the toll of death and destabilization.
In the case of Taiwan, according to Koo, the local Han farmer Kuo had received loans in the form of pepper from the Dutch to finance the sugar plantation, but 1651 was dry in Taiwan and the sugar harvest was poor. The loans could not be repaid. Longstanding problems with tax collection and debt were used to rally other farmers, and in 1652 the Han staged their largest revolt of the Dutch era.
The climate crisis has also fueled unrest in less direct ways. A series of crop failures accompanied by food disturbances in the 1630s in northeast Asia led Manchurian rulers to conclude that they must “invade China or perish”, as Parker put it. Tree-ring data shows that 1643-44 were the coldest years in East Asia between 800 and 1800, with temperatures falling by more than 2°C on average throughout the period from mid-century. In 1640, northern China experienced its worst drought in 500 years.
The Manchurian invasion in 1644, partly a product of the climatic crisis, intensified the ongoing dissolution of the Ming. In Taiwan, this disorder and this destruction are experienced as a loss of markets: in 1650, the price of venison shipped across the Taiwan Strait collapsed. The Dutch had sold monopolies on the trade in deer products, but even after colonial authorities cut payments, many Han monopoly holders ended up in jail for unpaid debts, Koo describes. The revolt had to look like an inviting alternative.
A poll tax begun in 1639 added to the already unpayable tax burden. Dutch soldiers began to prey on civilians, extorting payments in cash or kind, beating them, and breaking into homes to rob them. This generated bitter resentment.
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) crushed Kuo’s revolt. They fielded veterans against the Han farmers: about 60% of their soldiers and sailors were actually of German origin, many of them the detritus of a floating population adrift by the savage Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648.
In Taiwan, we focus on the Dutch era as part of Taiwan’s history – partly because we often fail to contextualize Taiwan’s history against the world events that drive it – but for Spaniards and the Dutch, Taiwan was part of an overall strategy to monopolize trade along the Chinese coast and the entire corridor from the Moluccas (now the Moluccas Islands in Indonesia) to Japan, as described by Jose Eugenio Borao in “Episodes of Intelligence Gathering” in the “Manila-Macau-Taiwan Triangle” during the Dutch Wars.”
In 1618 the Dominican emissary Bartolome Martinez, after a trip to Macao to buy munitions and warn the Chinese not to send ships to Manila that fall, suggested in 1619 that the Spaniards set up a fort at Pacan (probably Beigang in present-day Tainan) to assist in regular Dutch blockades of Manila and to protect trade with China.
This would have made Taiwan an appendage of Manila and its markets, and perhaps the Spanish and not the Dutch would have colonized Taiwan. Perhaps today Taiwan would be considered one more island of the Spanish Philippines. Instead, in 1623, the Chinese offered the Dutch a move to Taiwan, and the rest was history.
In Europe, the terrible century was beginning. In 1640, the Spanish and Dutch again went to war, and this time the Dutch expelled the Portuguese from Malacca and took the Spanish fort of Keelung (with cannons taken from Malacca) the following year.
In 1641, Portugal became independent, Phelim O’Neill and Rory O’Moore, heavily in debt, led the Irish in revolt after a bad harvest, the Nile fell to the lowest level ever recorded, and 12 years of drought began in the Canada. Rockies. Spain itself began a decade ravaged by revolts, soaring food prices, endless social unrest and equally endless war.
All these anxieties were caused by a tiny drop in solar radiation combined with volcanism that caused temperatures to vary by only 1 to 2°C for a century.
Isn’t there a famous goal that calls for limiting temperature change to 2°C?
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by longtime resident Michael Turton, providing incisive commentary informed by three decades of living and writing about his adopted country. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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