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El Niño and the Human–Environment Nexus: Drought and Vulnerability in Singapore, 1877–1911

Part of the Palgrave Series in Indian Ocean World Studies book series (IOWS)

Abstract

This chapter brings a climatic perspective to the study of Singaporean history by exploring the impacts of the strong El Niño inspired droughts of 1877, 1902 and 1911. The narrative focuses on unpacking the nexus of nature-inspired versus human-induced vulnerability to drought within the contexts of colonial urbanisation and looks at the short-to medium-term impacts of the events on society. It also explores how such events inspired new questions about the climate and regional teleconnections, as a wealth of evidence became available due to the increasingly connected nature of scientific institutions, scientific literature, and communications systems across the Indian Ocean World (IOW). By exploring the region climatically, this chapter connects with the others collated here to show how, despite the regional and national differences, the experience of climate-induced environmental disaster can provide a shared narrative across the IOW.

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Fig. 8.1
Fig. 8.2

Notes

  1. 1.

    Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History (London: Penguin, 2018); Edward A. Alpers, The Indian Ocean in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Peter Boomgaard, A World of Water: Rain, Rivers and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007); Richard Hall and John Stravinsky, Empires of the Monsoon: A History of the Indian Ocean and its Invaders (London: Harper Collins, 1996); K.N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  2. 2.

    Greg Bankoff and Joseph Christensen (eds.), Natural Hazards and Peoples in the Indian Ocean World: Bordering on Danger (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); James F. Warren, ‘Weather, History and Empire: The Typhoon Factor and the Manila Galleon Trade, 1565–1815,’ in Anthony Reid and the Study of the Southeast Asian Past, eds. Geoff Wade and Li Tana (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), 183–220.

  3. 3.

    Yen Li Loo, Lawal Billa, and Ajit Singh, ‘Effect of Climate Change on Seasonal Monsoon in Asia and Its Impact on the Variability of Monsoon Rainfall in Southeast Asia,’ Geoscience Frontiers, 6, 6 (2015), 817–23.

  4. 4.

    Rosanne D’Arrigo, Edward R. Cook, Rob J. Wilson, Rob Allan, and Michael E. Mann, ‘On the Variability of ENSO Over the Past Six Centuries,’ Geophysical Research Letters, 32, L03711 (2005), 14; Michael E. Mann, R.S. Bradley, and M.K. Hughes, ‘Long-term Variability in the ENSO and Associated Teleconnections,’ in ENSO: Multiscale Variability and Global and Regional Impacts, eds. H.E. Diaz and V. Markgraf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 357–412.

  5. 5.

    Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses,’ Critical Inquiry, 35, 2 (2009), 197–222; Richard Grove, Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History, 1400–1940 (Cambridge: White Horse Press, 1997); Richard Grove and J. Chappell, El Nino: History and Crisis: Studies from the Asia–Pacific Region (Cambridge: White Horse Press, 2000).

  6. 6.

    Mike Hulme, Weathered: Cultures of Climate (London: Sage, 2017).

  7. 7.

    Edward R. Cook, Kevin J. Anchukaitis, Brendan M. Buckley, Rosanne D. D’Arrigo, Gordon C. Jacoby, and William E. Wright, ‘Asian Monsoon Failure and Megadrought During the Last Millennium,’ Science, 328, 5977 (2010), 486.

  8. 8.

    Allan, ‘ENSO and Climatic Variability,’ 4–5.

  9. 9.

    Rob Allan, ‘ENSO and Climatic Variability in the Past 150 Years,’ in ENSO: Multiscale Variability, eds. Diaz and Markgraf, 3–55.

  10. 10.

    Ibid., 36–41. For an overview, see: Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001).

  11. 11.

    Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘Connected Histories: Notes Towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia,’ Modern Asian Studies, 31, 3 (1997), 735–62.

  12. 12.

    Joëlle L. Gergis and Anthony M. Fowler, ‘A History of ENSO Events Since AD 1525: Implications for Future Climate Change,’ Climatic Change, 92, 3–4 (2009), 368; W.H. Quinn, D.O. Zoff, K.S. Short, and R.T.W. Kuo Yang, ‘Historical Trends and Statistics of the Southern Oscillation, El Nino, and Indonesian droughts,’ Fishery Bulletin, 76, 2 (1978), 672–3.

  13. 13.

    Gergis and Fowler, ‘ENSO Events,’ 375.

  14. 14.

    Robert J. Allan, Joëlle Gergis, and Rosanne D’Arrigo, ‘Placing the AD 2014–2016 “Protracted” El Niño into a Long-term Term Context,’ The Holocene, 30, 1 (2020), 103.

  15. 15.

    A drought is today defined as more than 15 consecutive days with less than 1 mm of rainfall registered at a climate station.

  16. 16.

    A small sample of this extensive literature includes: Boyin Huang, Michelle L’Heureux, Zeng-Zhen Hu, Xungang Yin, and Huai-Min Zhang, ‘How Significant was the 1877/78 El Nino?,’ Journal of Climate, 33, 11 (2020), 4855; Deepti Singh, Richard Seager, Benjamin I. Cook, Mark Cane, Mingfang Ting, Edward Cook, and Mike Davis, ‘Climate and the Global Famine of 187678,’ Journal of Climate, 31, 23, (2018), 9445–67; J.M. Lough, K.D. Anderson, and T.P. Hughes, ‘Increasing Thermal Stress for Tropical Coral Reefs: 1871–2017,’ Scientific Reports, 8, 6079 (2018), 1–8; Patricio Aceituno, Maríadel del Rosario Prieto, María Eugenia Solari, Alejandra Martínez, Germán Poveda, and Mark Falvey, ‘The 1877–1878 El Niño Episode: Associated Impacts in South America,’ Climatic Change, 92 (2009), 389416; C.F. Ropelewski and P.D. Jones, ‘An Extension of the Tahiti-Darwin Southern Oscillation Index,’ Monthly Weather Review, 115 (1987), 2161–65.

  17. 17.

    Paul Erdkamp, Joseph G. Manning, and Koenraad Verboven (eds.), Climate Change and Ancient Societies in Europe and the Near East: Diversity in Collapse and Resilience (Cham, CH: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); Robert Wasson, Arupjyoti Saikia, Priya Bansal, and Chong Joon Chuah, ‘Flood Mitigation, Climate Change Adaption, and Technological Lock-in in Assam,’ Ecology, Economy and Society—The INSEE Journal, 3, 2 (2020), 83–1–4; I. Kelman, J.C. Gaillard, James Lewis, and Jessica Mercer, ‘Learning from the History of Disaster: Vulnerability and Resilience Research and Practice for Climate Change,’ Natural Hazards, 82 (2016), 12943; Andrea Janku, Gerrit J. Schenk, and Franz Mauelshagen, (eds.), Historical Disasters in Context: Science, Religion and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2012); Uwe Lübken and Christof Mauch, ‘Uncertain Environments: Natural Hazards, Risk and Insurance in Historical Perspective,’ Environment and History, 17 (2011), 1–12.

  18. 18.

    ‘Sarawak,’ The Straits Times (13 Oct. 1877), 2; ‘Java News,’ Singapore Daily Times (14 Dec. 1877), 3. See also: Chapters by Gooding and Ventura, this volume.

  19. 19.

    Sam White, Christian Pfister, and Francis Mauelshagan, ‘Archives of Nature and Archives of Societies,’ in The Palgrave Handbook of Climate History, eds. Sam White, Christian Pfister, and Francis Mauelshagen (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 27–36.

  20. 20.

    1819 was the year that East India Company representative Stamford Raffles negotiated a settlement treaty with Temenggong Abdul Rahman to establish a British settlement at Singapore.

  21. 21.

    http://www.weather.gov.sg/climate-climate-of-singapore/ [Accessed: 15 Apr. 2021].

  22. 22.

    Cook et al., ‘Asian monsoon failure,’ 486–9.

  23. 23.

    Straits Settlements Government Gazette (hereafter: SSGG) Municipal Progress Report for May 1911 (28 July 1911), 1117.

  24. 24.

    Annual Abstract of Meteorological Observations for Kandang Kerbau Hospital, Singapore, 1877.

  25. 25.

    Annual Abstract of Meteorological Observations for Kandang Kerbau Hospital, Singapore, 1902.

  26. 26.

    Qianfeng Wang, Jianjun Wu, Tianjie Lei, Bin He, Zhitao Wu, Ming Liu, Xinyu Mo, Guangpo Geng, Xiaohan Li, Hongkui Zhou, and Dachuan Liu, ‘Temporal-spatial Characteristics of Severe Drought Events and Their Impact on Agriculture on a Global Scale,’ Quaternary International, 349 (2014), 15. Data for 1877 are not available.

  27. 27.

    Rudolf Brázdil, Andrea Kiss, Jürg Luterbacher, David J. Nash, and Ladislava Reznícková, ‘Documentary Data and the Study of Past Droughts: A Global State of the Art,’ Climate of the Past, 14 (2018), 1916.

  28. 28.

    C. Joon Chuah, Beatrice H. Ho, and Winston T.L. Chow, ‘Trans-boundary Variations of Urban Drought Vulnerability and Its Impact on Water Resource Management in Singapore and Johor, Malaysia,’ Environmental Research Letters, 13 (2018), 074, 011; Nick Brooks, W. Neil Adger, and P. Mick Kelly, ‘The Determinants of Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity at the National Level and the Implications for Adaptation,’ Global Environmental Change, 15, 2 (2005), 151–63.

  29. 29.

    C.B. Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Fraser and Neave, 1902), II, 504, 547–8.

  30. 30.

    Fiona Williamson, ‘Responding to Extremes: Managing Urban Water Scarcity in the Late Nineteenth-century Straits Settlements,’ Water History, 12, 3 (2020), 251–63.

  31. 31.

    Brenda Yeoh, ‘Urban Sanitation, Health and Water Supply in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Colonial Singapore’ Southeast Asia Research, 1, 2 (1993), 147.

  32. 32.

    Brenda Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: NUS Press, 2003), 207.

  33. 33.

    The Straits Times (4 Sep. 1902), 4.

  34. 34.

    Cited in: James F. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore, 1880–1940 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 261.

  35. 35.

    SSGG, Administrative Report of the Singapore Municipality 1901, Appendix M: Minutes by the Municipal Engineer, 28 Nov. 1900.

  36. 36.

    Yeoh, ‘Urban Sanitation,’ 149.

  37. 37.

    Lim Tin Seng, ‘Land from Sand: Singapore’s Reclamation Story,’ BibioAsia, 13, 1 (2017), 16–23.

  38. 38.

    ‘Singapore’s Water,’ The Straits Times (27 Mar. 1912), 7.

  39. 39.

    ‘Municipal Commission,’ The Straits Times (22 Nov. 1902), 5.

  40. 40.

    National Archives, Kew, London (TNA, UK) CO273/309, Despatch 266, Straits Settlements, Anderson to Lyttelton, 20 June 1905.

  41. 41.

    Swee-Hock Saw, ‘Population Trends in Singapore, 1819–1967,’ Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10, 1 (1969), 41.

  42. 42.

    Straits Times Overland Journal (19 Apr. 1877), 11.

  43. 43.

    Yeoh, Contesting Space, 175–212; Yeoh, ‘Urban Sanitation,’ 143–72.

  44. 44.

    Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 262.

  45. 45.

    Anon, ‘News of the Fortnight,’ Straits Times Overland Journal (28 Apr. 1877), 7; Nemo, ‘Variorum,’ The Straits Times (28 Apr. 1877), 4.

  46. 46.

    Anon, ‘Tuesday 1 May,’ The Straits Times (5 May 1877).

  47. 47.

    Warning Voice, ‘Cholera,’ The Straits Times (14 Apr. 1877), 4; Anon, ‘Fortnight’s Summary,’ Straits Times Overland Journal (28 Apr. 1877), 1.

  48. 48.

    Straits Times Overland Journal (18 Oct. 1877), 17.

  49. 49.

    The limited reports for 1877 might be attributed to the illness and absence of Principle Chief Medical Officer (PCMO) for the Straits Settlements, H. L. Randall, during May and June, his role not filled until Acting PCMO Thomas Irvine Rowell took over on 1 July.

  50. 50.

    W.R. Gray, ‘Criminal Prison Report 1877,’ published in: Singapore Daily Times (9 July 1878), 3.

  51. 51.

    Anon, ‘The Stamford Road Stream,’ Straits Times Overland Journal (12 May 1877), 9; Anon, ‘Victoria Street Drain,’ Straits Times Overland Journal (21 July 1877), 9.

  52. 52.

    Wellcome Trust (hereafter WT): WA28.JM2 S89 1902–7, The Straits Settlements Medical Report for 1902, 1.

  53. 53.

    SSGG Hospitals Report 1911; Hospitals Return Annex Z17. Given the propensity for many inhabitants to avoid hospital, one might assume that the actual numbers of cases were higher than reported.

  54. 54.

    Anon, ‘One Less Per Day,’ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (3 June 1911), 7.

  55. 55.

    Buckley, An Anecdotal History, II, 737; Yeoh, ‘Urban Sanitation,’ 158; Anon, ‘The Water Famine,’ Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (11 Sep. 1902).

  56. 56.

    SSGG 1877 Rice imports into Singapore 1876, 285.

  57. 57.

    SSGG 1877 Appendix U11, 145; SSGG 1878 Appendix U17, 150.

  58. 58.

    SSGG 1903 Report on trade 1902, Appendix, 27.

  59. 59.

    SSGG 1903 Report on the trade of the Straits Settlements for the year 1902, Appendix, 25.

  60. 60.

    S. Robert Aiken, ‘Runaway Fires, Smoke-haze Pollution, and Unnatural Disasters in Indonesia,’ Geographical Review, 94, 1 (2004), 60; ‘Sourabaya revisited,’ The Straits Times (25 Sep. 1902), 2.

  61. 61.

    SSGG Oct. 1912, Trade 1911, Appendix, 12, 14, 16. It should be noted however that gambier and tapioca were already on a decline, with many estates brought over to the more profitable para rubber.

  62. 62.

    ‘Price of Rice,’ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (11 Sep. 1911), 4.

  63. 63.

    The Straits Times (27 Jan. 1912), 9.

  64. 64.

    TNA, UK CO277/11, f.109. Return of the population of Singapore (2 Apr. 1877); Saw, ‘Population trends,’ 41.

  65. 65.

    SSGG 2 Nov. 1877, 741–3.

  66. 66.

    W.J. Simpson, Report on the Sanitary Condition of Singapore (London: Waterlow, 1907), 6.

  67. 67.

    Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 5, 261.

  68. 68.

    Straits Times Overland Journal (19 Apr. 1877), 4.

  69. 69.

    Nemo, ‘Variorum,’ Singapore Daily Times (2 May 1877), 3; ‘The Water Supply,’ The Straits Times (22 Dec. 1877), 6.

  70. 70.

    SSGG, 5 July 1878, Medical Report for the Prisons, 1043.

  71. 71.

    The Straits Times (30 Aug. 1902), 4; ‘Water Famine,’ The Straits Times (3 Sep. 1902), 5.

  72. 72.

    ‘The Water Famine,’ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (11 Sep. 1902), 164.

  73. 73.

    The Straits Times (4 Sep. 1902), 4; ‘Municipal Meeting,’ The Straits Times (28 Feb. 1903), 5.

  74. 74.

    ‘Effects of the Weather,’ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (11 Mar. 1911), 7.

  75. 75.

    The Straits Times (11 Sep. 1911), 6. With some irony, the regional impacts of the drought may have led to more coolies arriving in Singapore than normal just when the drought started in earnest, as they fled drought-related hardship (and political conflict) in other countries, especially China. See: The Straits Times (24 Mar. 1911), 6.

  76. 76.

    The Straits Times (6 Sep. 1902), 4.

  77. 77.

    SSGG, J.F.A. McNair, ‘Report by the Colonial Engineer on the Timber Forests in the Malayan Peninsula, 21 June 1879’ (3 Oct. 1879), 893–903; National Archives of Singapore (hereafter: NAS), Nathanial Cantley, ‘Map of the Island of Singapore. Annexure to Report on the Forests of the Straits Settlements’ (1882): Media image no. 20050000974-0093_TM000020_000028_TM.

  78. 78.

    C.C. James, Drainage Problems of the East (Bombay: Times of India Office, 1906), 224. This was also the case in other British colonies. After an especially severe drought in 1890–91, Hong Kong’s Surveyor General requested the Hong Kong Observatory furnish a study of almost forty years of rainfall records to establish patterns for predicting potential future droughts.

  79. 79.

    See also: Chapter by Gooding, this volume.

  80. 80.

    Henry F. Blanford, ‘On the Barometric See-saw between Russia and India in the Sunspot Cycle,’ Nature, 21 (1880), 477.

  81. 81.

    Charles Todd (with H.C. Russel and R.L.J. Ellery), ‘The Meteorologist: Droughts in Australia,’ The Australasian (29 Dec. 1888), 40. See also: Ruth Morgan, ‘Prophecy and Prediction: Forecasting Drought and Famine in British India and the Australian Colonies,’ Global Environment, 13, 1 (2020), 95–132; Richard Grove and George Adamson, El Niño in World History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2018).

  82. 82.

    Archive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (hereafter ABAAS): Papers of Committees, 1896–1912, ff.225r-226r, 225r&v. ‘Memorandum on a Proposal for Dealing with Meteorological Questions Affecting the British Dominions beyond the Seas,’ 2 June 1905.

  83. 83.

    ABAAS: Papers of Committees, 1896–1912, ff.223r-4v. ‘Draft Memorandum, in further explanation of the proposal for dealing with Meteorology of the Colonies and Dependencies, for the Information of the Secretary of State,’ 2 June 1905.

  84. 84.

    Ibid, f.223v.

  85. 85.

    These gatherings were the forerunner of the Conference of Empire Meteorologists which became a formal entity in 1919 with the first meeting of the Conference of Meteorologists of British Dominions: Martin Mahony, ‘For an Empire of ‘All Types of Climate’: Meteorology as an Imperial Science,’ Journal of Historical Geography, 51 (2016), 32.

  86. 86.

    An interesting article was published in Singapore in 1878, drawing connections between oceanic currents, weather, and global teleconnections. See: ‘Extract from an American Paper,’ Singapore Daily Times (16 Jan. 1878), 3. The colony also received copies of scientific journals and books. In 1911 alone, the Raffles Museums and Library received 100 new texts on subjects of scientific interest, some donated from worldwide museums and institutions including the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Science, Manila and the Geological Institute, Mexico: Supplement to the SSGG 23 February 1912, No. 4., ‘Annual Report on the Raffles Museum and Library for the Year 1911,’ 3.

  87. 87.

    NAK CO 273/541 ff.9r-13r ‘Memorandum on a pamphlet entitled “A Meteorological Department for Malaya” by Sir George Maxwell and Herbert C. Robinson,’ (1927), 3.

  88. 88.

    ‘Influence of Forests on Drought,’ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (13 Oct. 1911), 9. On soil erosion, see: Fiona Williamson, ‘Malaya’s “Greatest Menace”? Slow Onset Disasters and the Politics of the environment c. 1920–1950,’ International Review of Environmental History, 4, 2 (2018), 45–68; ABAAS Sectional Transactions—E.E.P. Stebbing, ‘The Encroaching Sahara: Increasing Aridity in West Africa,’ Printed Material for the Annual Meetings held in Leicester, Aberdeen and Norwich, eds. O.J.R. Howarth, P.W. Jewson et al. (1935–36), 54.

  89. 89.

    ‘The Agricultural Bulletin,’ The Straits Times (28 Sep. 1911), 6.

  90. 90.

    ‘Malacca,’ The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (26 Mar. 1895), 10; A.M. Skinner, ‘Straits Meteorology,’ Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 12 (1883), 245–55.

  91. 91.

    See also: Fiona Williamson, ‘Weathering the British Empire: Meteorological Research in the Early Nineteenth-century Straits Settlements,’ The British Journal for the History of Science, 48, 3 (2015), 475–92.

  92. 92.

    George Adamson, ‘Imperial Oscillations: Gilbert Walker and the Construction of the Southern Oscillation,’ in Weather, Climate and the Geographical Imagination: Placing Atmospheric Knowledges, eds. Martin Mahony and Sam Randalls (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), 4366; Ruth Morgan, ‘Southern Skies: Australian Atmospheric Research and Global Climate Change,’ Disaster Prevention and Management, 30, 1 (2021), 47–63.

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Williamson, F. (2022). El Niño and the Human–Environment Nexus: Drought and Vulnerability in Singapore, 1877–1911. In: Gooding, P. (eds) Droughts, Floods, and Global Climatic Anomalies in the Indian Ocean World. Palgrave Series in Indian Ocean World Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-98198-3_8

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