Andrew James John Mackenzie
an historiography
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Natural Disasters which led to Warfare

Social, economic and cultural influences have all been attributed to the outbreak of many wars in history. To many, the idea of natural catastrophes such as volcanoes, earthquakes and droughts leading to warfare is an absurd notion. Politicians, despots and uprisings are often seen as the main cause of warfare. However, in the case of the following conflicts, one of the main causes of warfare was as a result of a natural disaster.

Eruption of Thera, c. 1600 BCE
The explosion on the volcanic island of Thera, known today as Santorini, sent a whopping 24 cubic miles of Terra Firma into the air and into the sea, triggering a tsunami which swept across beaches across the Aegean Sea. It is alleged that this disaster helped unseat the great Minoan civilisation residing on the island of Crete. Indeed, not too soon afterwards, the Minoans were conquered by the Mycenaeans, a warlike race of Greek raiders which invaded the devastated region, taking advantage of the natural disaster which plagued them.

Earthquake at Sparta, c. 464 BCE
As mentioned before, warfare can often arise out of social and cultural disquiet and dissent. Coupled with a natural disaster, these same ill feelings can manifest themselves into open warfare. In the case of Sparta, this eventuality was especially true. The equals, fully established citizens of Sparta, were at odds with the helots, a subclass of the population with no rights and appalling working conditions akin to slavery. Following the chaos and tumult that resulted from the earthquake, the helots seized their chance to rise up and dethrone their oppressors.

Central Asian Drought, c. 350-450 CE
Following a major period of drought in their homelands and surrounding areas, the Huns of the Central Asian steppes travelled much and travelled far, traversing to warmer climates in Eastern and Southern Europe. Trampling other societies in their wake, the Huns targeted lands belonging to Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire itself.

A ‘climatic event’, c. 535-536 CE
According to the histories of Procopius, there were extreme weather events occurring between 535-536 CE following a dramatic cooling period:


During this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness... and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.

It was during these environmental events that various populations took to the countryside for land. Vandals, Moors and even mutinous Roman soldiers took to the road in search of sustenance and security, rebelling against the Byzantines and other such civilisations.

Central American Drought, 9th – 10th centuries
Frequently, in approximately fifty year intervals, the Classic Mayan civilisations were fraught with conflict, on account of regular droughts. Despite the lush rainforests, the Mayans were dependent upon freshwater sources. According to scientists studying sediment core samples, there were irregularities in the level of rainfall during the years of 760, 810, 860 and 910. It was during these years that the Mayan civilisation erupted in contracted civil warfare as populations vied with one another for food and water. Archaeological evidence demonstrates the existence of conflict in the country, fortifications and battle damaged human remains attesting to the warfare that erupted as a result of environmental upheaval.

Central Asian Drought, c. 1212-1213 CE
In the same way that drought affected the steppes of Mongolia in 350-450 CE, another environmental change had similar drastic effects on Mongolian and other Asian civilisations. In a period of climate change lasting between 1175-1300 CE, in which temperatures plummeted, massive tracts of foliage were devastated and prompted in a decimation of animal species. This downturn prompted Mongolian administrators in the newly conquered Chinese provinces to orchestrate various environmental policies designed to check against excessive environmental exploitation. These ensured that millions of Chinese and Mongolian citizens did not die of starvation.

Haiphong Typhoon, c. 1881 CE
In one curious turn of events, a typhoon, one of the worst on record, helped facilitate European imperialism, resulting in the conquest of Vietnam by France. A massive typhoon struck the northern Vietnamese city of Haiphong on 8 October 1881, boasting 115 mile an hour winds and 20 foot storm surges which engulfed the city in which over 300,000 people perished. Indeed, such was the power of the typhoon that:


there were six feet of water in the houses three and four miles distant from the sea shore.


Accounting for its apparent incompetence, French soldiers invaded the country, unseating its emperor in the process. The guerrilla resistance they encountered as a result of the hostile takeover was a foreshadow of later events in the twentieth century; Vietcong fighters proving their successors in later years.

Darfur Drought, c. 1983 CE – Present
Tensions and conflicts occurring in the region of Darfur can be attributed to the adverse environmental effects encountered in the 1980s. With the onset of major droughts in the region, competing tribal societies vied with one another over the scarce amount of resources available, breaking down traditional forms of dispute resolution due to governmental intervention. With the breakdown of social cohesion as a result of the drought, the situation manifested itself further, increasing levels of desertification and population displacement. Tensions eventually erupted into all out civil war and genocide in 2002 when settled tribesmen, the Sudan Liberation Army, fought with the ‘Arab’-dominated central government. Numbers of those deceased is believed to be well above 300,000.
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