Hurricane Maria One Year Later: “Big Water” and the Spectre of Colonialism

By Christopher M. Church

As those on the eastern seaboard of the United States take stock of Hurricane Florence’s damage, we also approach the anniversary of another great storm. One year ago this week, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and the island still has not recovered. Many have suggested this to be a failure particular to this presidential administration. While the Trump administration has done little to alleviate the problem, and has in many ways made it worse, I suggest considering a much longer historical perspective that uncovers what it means to be a colony-holding republic. My own research looks at the French Caribbean, where there are uncomfortable parallels between disasters in the nineteenth century and those in the present-day. Despite rhetoric demanding assistance for compatriots in the colonies, action and attention often fell short and led to unnecessary human suffering.

At the close of the nineteenth century, France and the United States were deemed the “sister republics,” being two of only three such democracies in the world prior to the First World War. Yet, seemingly contrary to their revolutionary democratic values, they both built expansive colonial empires. Purportedly founded on the revolutionary values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, France’s “empire without an emperor” extended across five continents by the century’s end and was second in size only to Great Britain’s. Meanwhile, under the guise of protecting the world from European interference, the United States established its own colonial footholds in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Polynesia. Over the twentieth century, the United States grew into the world’s leading overseas colonial power, inheriting the mantle from Britain and France. Environmental catastrophes, disaster relief practices, and colonial exploitation entangled over that same time frame, worsening the suffering of human beings at the hands of nature.

After hurricane Maria plunged Puerto Rico’s citizens into misery in September 2017, charities across the United States led fundraising campaigns and sent relief to the island. And yet, assistance to Puerto Rico—a colonial territory annexed in 1898—paled in comparison to the aid given to those regions considered to “properly” belong within (and not to) the United States. Texas and Florida, both of which experienced their own destructive and deadly hurricanes in 2017, had each received nearly ten times the amount of raw federal dollars to spend on infrastructure like roads, power lines, and emergency preparedness between 1990 and 2009. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico was on the verge of bankruptcy due to predatory banking practices. Texas and Florida received three to four times the number of federal workers and about twenty times the amount of private donations in the immediate aftermath of their hurricanes. To add insult to injury, meanwhile, the news media spent far less time covering Hurricane Maria than it did hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Overall, the predicament of Puerto Rico, inhabited by Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens but ignored by the polity, smacked of late nineteenth-century colonial attitudes. When Donald Trump ineloquently explained the difficulty of aiding Puerto Rico, saying that it was “surrounded by water, big water, ocean water,” he inadvertently echoed a sentiment expressed over one hundred years ago by French business elites.

Boats run aground a beach in Martinique.
Photo of the Hurricane of 18 August 1891, Martinique.

In 1891, the French Caribbean island of Martinique, itself a colony of citizens like Puerto Rico, was wracked by a hurricane that devastated the island’s crops and left its population without food, clean water, or shelter. Martinique had been inhabited by black citizens of France—former slaves who had been granted full citizenship rights with the Constitution of 1875. However, like Puerto Ricans today, Martinicans were treated as second class citizens in France, despite showcasing their command of the French language and their firm understanding of republican values in their bid to be assimilated as a proper department (the French equivalent of statehood). Coupled with repeated environmental disasters, France’s colonies in the Caribbean endured declining sugar profits, economic hardship, and underinvestment in infrastructure and social welfare. Faced with Antilleans’ demands to be treated as full citizens of France, metropolitan politicians and businessmen turned a blind eye to their plight. Fiscally, they considered it irresponsible to incorporate the colony into the nation, because they saw it as a drain on the mainland economy (an argument akin to those made today about Puerto Rico receiving more federal funds than it provides). As the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux—a city laden with wealth from the slave trade and plantation system—explained in 1891, “It would be a mistake … if we considered Martinique to be a French department, ignoring the profound divergences created by its geographical, physical, and agricultural situation.” In other words, Martinique was surrounded by “water, big water, ocean water.”

The parallels between the Caribbean’s colonial past and its present are uncanny, and I am sad to say that my historical research into disasters resonates strongly with the events of the past year. Disasters in the French Caribbean were met by two countervailing forces: 1) a republican language of citizenship affirming that everyone in the French Caribbean—no matter their race or socioeconomic background—were members of the French nation with equal rights under the law; and 2) an economic calculus of disaster that held the French Caribbean at arm’s length because of its declining sugar industry, while at the same time making horrific decisions about disaster relief by pulling on a long legacy of racism and colonial exploitation.

And today those two forces are still at work. Despite fundraising banquets with patriotic accoutrements, telethons espousing common citizenship, and presidential photo-ops involving airborne paper towels, the death toll in Puerto Rico was colossal: several orders of magnitude higher than official reports indicated. And its already paltry coverage in the media has dwindled to virtually nothing. As in Martinique a century before, short-term awareness of Puerto Ricans’ suffering has not and will not be sufficient to turn the tide of years of underinvestment in public infrastructure, economic exploitation, and predatory banking practices. Parts of Puerto Rico have gone without power and clean water for the past year, and it has become painfully clear that nearly three thousand individuals lost their lives to the confluence of nature’s wrath, colonial injustice, and governmental indifference.

With the presidential administration denying Puerto Rico’s terrible suffering on the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, just as another hurricane makes landfall on U.S. soil, it behooves us to remember our republican values and turn a critical eye toward how and why humanitarian aid is either granted or withheld. As the past echoes in the present, the United States and its citizenry (both continental and insular) should consider the ways France failed to fulfill its revolutionary promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a century ago. When it comes to catastrophic suffering at the hands of calloused politicians and businessmen, we have much to learn from the annals of history.

Christopher M. Church is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean (Nebraska, 2017), which was recently awarded the Alf Andrew Heggoy Prize by the French Colonial Historical Society.

Title image: Hurricane Maria near peak intensity, moving north towards Puerto Rico, on September 19, 2017.

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