Edition 29 November 2018, by Benjamin Roberts
When climate change is mentioned, we often believe it is a modern phenomenon. However, during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, severe climate change caused extremely cold winters and wet summers. Historians often refer to it as the ‘Little Ice Age’ and Dutch painters like Hendrick Avercamp captured the cold winters with idyllic scenes of frozen canals and cheerful ice-skaters. However, according to environmental historian Dagomar Degroot, the weather in the seventeenth century was anything but idyllic. In The Frigid Golden Age. Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720 he sheds new light on the erratic drop in temperatures during the sixteenth and seventeenth century and shows how the changes in climate had detrimental effects on early modern society, long before the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century and the rise in greenhouse gases in the twentieth century. Contrary to popular thought, the Georgetown University professor argues that the extremely cold winters were not the problem, but points out that the colder and wetter summers were. They caused crop failures and were ultimately responsible for famines, political and religious turmoil, epidemics, refugees and wars. Based on a wide range of sources, from personal diaries to ship records – which provide the most exact data on temperature and wind changes – Degroot describes vividly how the seafaring Dutch were able to adapt and actually profi t from the changing weather conditions. When it came to fighting a war on the home front, the Dutch were able to defend themselves better during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) against the Spanish forces by fl ooding low-lying farmland. The Spanish were forced to fi ght in cold and wet conditions, while they excelled only in drier and warmer conditions.
The Dutch also profited economically from changing wind directions. During the Little Ice Age there were more easterly winds, instead of the usual westerly winds, which sped up the travel time for ships of the Dutch East India Company, or VOC, which sailed westwards from Dutch ports. They then sailed south, where they picked up winds at the equator that brought them to the refreshment colony at Cape Town before continuing their journey to the Far East. In the seventeenth century, the company’s directors were acquainted with the concept ‘time is money’ and gave bonuses to crews that arrived and returned as soon as possible. Too much time at sea could lead to disaster, but also to changes in demand and prices. Ironically, towards the end of the century, when the climate started to warm up and become more stable, the Dutch lost their edge in trade to the English. Degroot argues that the Dutch were able to adapt to changing weather conditions better than other countries and suggests the Dutch Golden Age might not have been so golden if not for these climatic changes, so that climate change is not always bad thing. However, with the current prognosis of climate change by the end of the twenty-fi rst century, Degroot fears the severe weather of the Little Ice Age could be exceeded by a factor of two or three. And that outcome does not look golden. Dagomar Degroot, The Frigid Golden Age. Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720