Colonial New England: The Cold Was Their Power
THE FIRST AND most important environmental fact about New England is that it was cold — much colder in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than today. . . a period in the Earth’s history which climatologists call the “little ice age.”
Ocean temperature off the coast of New England were three degrees centigrade colder in the eighteenth century than in the mid-twentieth. In the coldest years of the 17th century, the water temperature off New England approached that near south Labrador today. The Puritans complained of “piercing cold,” and salt rivers frozen solid throughout the winter. One wrote that many lost the use of fingers and feet and: “some have had their overgrown beards so frozen together that they could not get their strong-water bottles into their mouths.”
But after the first few years, this cold climate proved to be a blessing. It created an exceptionally healthy environment for settlers from northern Europe.
Insect-borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever were less dangerous than in southern settlements. Water-born infections including typhoid fever dysentery were much diminished by the cold temperature of Massachusetts Bay. Summer diseases such as enteritis, which were the great killers of children in the seventeenth century tended to be comparatively mild. . . These New England advantages were only relative; terrible epidemics would develop throughout this region. But average rates of mortality were far below most other places in the Western world.
At the same time, the cold climate also had other cultural consequences. It proved to be exceptionally dangerous to immigrants from tropical Africa, who suffered severely from pulmonary infection in New England winters. Death rates of Blacks in colonial Massachusetts were twice as high as Whites’ — a pattern very different from Virginia where mortality rates for the two races were not so far apart, and still more different from South Carolina where White death rates were higher than those of Blacks.
So high was mortality among African immigrants that race slavery was not viable on a large scale, despite many attempts to introduce it.
Slavery was not impossible in this region, but the human and material costs were higher than many wished to pay. A labor system which was fundamentally hostile to the Puritan ethos of New England was kept at bay partly by the climate. . . .
Cool temperature and a variable climate created an immensely stimulating environment for an active population. European travelers repeatedly observed with astonishment the energy of the inhabitants. One visitor noted that New England children seem normally to move at a full run. Another remarked that their elders invented the rocking chair so they could keep moving even while sitting still. These impressions have been empirically confirmed by the new science of biometeorology which measures the animating effect of variability in atmospheric pressure and ozone levels. It finds that the New England climate was in fact immensely stimulating to human enterprise. . . .
The climate was rigorous but healthy and invigorating. The land was challenging but rewarding. For Historian Arnold Toynbee, New England was the classical example of a “hard country” which stimulated its inhabitants to high achievements through a process of “challenge and response.” The vitality of this regional culture owed much to its physical setting.
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Source: an excerpt from Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer; transcribed by Volkish; emphasis ours