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Seasonal rainfall variability in southeast Africa during the nineteenth century reconstructed from documentary sources


Analyses of historical patterns of rainfall variability are essential for understanding long-term changes in precipitation timing and distribution. Focussing on former Natal and Zululand (now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa), this study presents the first combined annual and seasonal reconstruction of rainfall variability over southeast Africa for the 19th century. Analyses of documentary sources, including newspapers and colonial and missionary materials, indicate that the region was affected by severe or multi-year drought on eight occasions between 1836 and 1900 (the rainy seasons of 1836–38, 1861–63, 1865–66, 1868–70, 1876–79, 1883–85, 1886–90 and 1895–1900). Six severe or multi-year wet periods are also identified (1847–49, 1854–57, 1863–65, 1879–81, 1890–91 and 1892–94). The timing of these events agrees well with independent reconstructions of 19th century rainfall for other parts of the southern African summer rainfall zone (SRZ), suggesting subcontinental scale variability. Our results indicate that the relationship between El Niño and rainfall in southeast Africa was relatively stable, at least for the latter half of the 19th century. El Niño conditions appear to have had a more consistent modulating effect upon rainfall during the 19th century than La Niña. The rainfall chronology from this study is combined with other annually-resolved palaeoclimate records from mainland southern Africa and surrounding oceans as part of a multi-proxy rainfall reconstruction for the SRZ. This reconstruction confirms (i) the long-term importance of ENSO and Indian Ocean SSTs for modulating regional rainfall; and (ii) that summer precipitation has been declining progressively over the last 200 years.

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  1. Natal Witness, 29 November 1861

  2. Natal Witness, 19 September 1862; ELM, ASA 4.1, 94, Müden, Natal, 1865–1905

  3. e.g. NMS Mission Archives, A1045-130-3, Ommund Oftebro, 31 December 1861; USPG D25a, Bishop McKenzie, Kwanaqua, Zululand, 26 January 1863

  4. Natal Witness, 21 October 1862

  5. NMS Mission Archives, A1045-130-13, Hans Schreuder, 12 January 1863; NMS Mission Archives, A1045-139-14, Tobias Udland, 15 January 1863; Natal Witness, 6 February 1863

  6. Natal Witness, 5 December 1862

  7. Natal Witness, 2 January 1863

  8. Natal Witness, 27 March 1863

  9. e.g. Natal Witness, 18 October and 25 October 1895

  10. NMS Mission Archives, NMT March 1896 Vol. 51., Ole Steenberg, 8 January 1896; Hermannsburger Missionsblatt 43/6, Hermannsburg 1896, 58–61

  11. e.g. Natal Witness, 4 October 1895

  12. KCAL KCM 98/75/7/1–3 Thomas Groom. File 7. Diaries 1895

  13. Natal Witness, 8 August 1895

  14. Hermannsburger Missionsblatt 43/6, Hermannsburg 1896, 58–61

  15. e.g. Hermannsburger Missionsblatt 44/3, Hermannsburg 1897, 48–9; USPG D114, S.M. Samuelson, St. Paul’s, Zululand, 28 November 1895; ABCFM, Harvard, Houghton Library, 15.4, vol. 13, Henry Bridgeman, Umzumbe station report, June 1896

  16. e.g. Hermannsburger Missionsblatt 44/7, Hermannsburg 1897, 148–50; NMS Mission Archives, A1045-140b-7, Nils Braatvedt, 8 December 1896

  17. e.g. NMS Mission Archives, A1045-140b-7, Markus Dahle, 31 October 1896; ABCFM, Harvard, Houghton Library, 15.6.2, vol. 1., Zulu, East Africa, Woman’s Board of Missions 1886–1899, Laura Mellen, Esidumbini, 13 October 1897

  18. NMS Mission Archives, A1045-140b-7, Nils Braatvedt, 8 December 1896; Hermannsburger Missionsblatt 44/7, Hermannsburg 1897, 148–50

  19. USPG E51b, S.M. Samuelson, Polela, 30 June 1896

  20. Natal Witness, 19 October 1897

  21. Natal Witness, 17 November 1898

  22. Natal Witness, 21 January 1899; Natal Witness, 21 February 1899

  23. Hermannsburger Missionsblatt 48/2, Hermannsburg 1901, 17–18

  24. Natal Witness, 8 June 1900

  25. USPG E55b, C. Johnson, St. Augustine’s, Zululand, 30 January 1900

  26. Natal Witness, 8 June 1900

  27. Natal Witness, 12 February 1891

  28. e.g. Natal Witness, 9 and 19 February 1891

  29. Natal Witness, 31 March 1892

  30. e.g. Natal Witness, 28 November 1893

  31. Natal Witness, 27 and 29 November 1893


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This research was funded by Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant number F/00 504/D. We extend our thanks to the three expert reviewers, to the archivists for access to collections of materials, and to Stan Stanier for designing the ENSOAfrica database used for the storage of documentary evidence. RN is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant PZ00P2_154802).

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Correspondence to David J. Nash.

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Nash, D.J., Pribyl, K., Klein, J. et al. Seasonal rainfall variability in southeast Africa during the nineteenth century reconstructed from documentary sources. Climatic Change 134, 605–619 (2016).

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