Thinking About the Halifax Explosion in a Time of Climate Change

One hundred years ago today the Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax harbour, killing approximately 2,000 and leveling part of the city. In commemoration of this terrible event Jacob Remes has provided us with a post that contextualizes the explosion within the connected discourses of climate change and disaster history.

By Jacob Remes

On December 6, we will commemorate the centennial of the Halifax Explosion. A hundred years ago, the Norwegian merchant ship Imo, contracted to Belgian Relief, and the French munitions ship Mont Blanc collided in the narrows of Halifax harbour. The collision sparked a fire on the Mont Blanc, the fire sparked an explosion, and the explosion destroyed roughly a quarter of the city, maimed and blinded about 9,000 people, and killed just under 2,000 more.

halifaxexplosion1

A view across the devastation of Halifax after the Halifax Explosion, looking toward the Dartmouth side of the harbour. Source: NSARM, Negative Number DNDHfxExplosion-2.

As the centennial of the Explosion approached, the world seemed to be beset by an unusual number of disasters. Just since the start of the fall term, Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston; an earthquake in central Mexico killed 370 people just a week after a stronger earthquake had killed almost 100 in Chiapas; wildfires terrorized swathes of California; Hurricanes Irma and especially Maria swept across the Caribbean, devastating Barbuda, Saint Martin, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico; and an earthquake in Iran killed about 540 people. (There were almost certainly other disasters that I am leaving out.) What has the Halifax Explosion—“the biggest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb,” we are told, over and over—to do with these apparently natural disasters? As disaster scholars have been arguing for decades, there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Hazards, of meteorological, seismological, or human origins, intersect with human-built society to create disaster. While there are certainly differences among disasters, there is much in common between a hurricane and a munitions ship explosion.

The Halifax Explosion is usually told in the context of Canadian history. It was, as several textbooks and syntheses tell us, when “the war came home.” For a generation familiar with the Heritage Minutes, it is a story of heroism, when Vince Coleman sacrificed himself at his telegrapher’s station waiting for a passenger train to acknowledge his warning. Others have told the story as part of Maritimes history, or naval history, or social work history, or labour history.

When we tell the story today, we cannot help but tell it in a time of climate change. We have already begun to see more climate disasters. New evidence shows shifting patterns in European seasonal river flooding. We suffer more and worse heatwaves and droughts. A greater proportion of precipitation is arriving in extreme weather events. This creates the irony of, as Raghu Karnad put it about this summer’s devastating Indian monsoons, “floods in drought season.” While it remains unclear what effect climate change is having on tropical cyclones (i.e. hurricanes), it appears that warming oceans strengthen a greater proportion of storms to especially dangerous levels. Moreover, the chronic effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and degraded natural reefs, make communities more susceptible to flooding from both rain and storm surge. In short, even before we factor in development choices, unsafe urbanization, and new communications technologies that expose us to more and more breathless disaster coverage, climate change has created a new era of more frequent and worse disasters. In turn, the politics of climate has shifted the discourse around disaster.

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The headline of the Halifax Herald the day after the Explosion. Source: Halifax Chronicle-Herald, http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/1172057-the-halifax-explosion-could-it-happen-again

What, then, does the story of the Halifax Explosion tell us about our contemporary moment of climate disaster? As my doctoral advisor, Gunther Peck, likes to say, we ought not look for strict historical analogies to understand the contemporary world; rather, history can suggest questions we can ask of our own world.

How does class shape the experience of disaster? The experience of the Halifax Explosion was deeply classed, and attention to how it was can attune us to how to think about class in contemporary disasters. For some—sailors on nearby ships, the longshoremen unloading the SS Picton at the Sugar Refinery Dock, workers at HM Dockyards, women performing domestic labour in their kitchens—the Explosion tore apart their workplaces. For the heroic longshoremen, their workplace culture of solidarity led them to stay at the ship, trying to cover up the explosives they were handling in order to save their friends and neighbors. For others, it was the classed geography of Halifax’s residential neighborhoods that shaped the experience of the disaster. Richmond, the most devastated neighborhood, mostly housed the families of railroad workers, skilled tradesmen, and other working-class Haligonians. The material and cultural resources they had in the Explosion’s aftermath were shaped by their class and their jobs. Finally, as Suzanne Morton showed in Acadiensis in 1989, the rebuilding was a moment of significant class struggle, as building tradesmen squared off against the Halifax Relief Commission.

Today, these observations about Halifax might lead us to notice how class shapes the experience of contemporary disaster. Class remains a crucial way of understanding the uneven experience of disaster. We can note how some workers—for instance hotel workers—experience hurricanes as workplace disasters. (We should also consider how hourly workers experience workplace and transit closings very differently from salaried workers, since they are much less likely to be compensated for missed shifts.) Attention to the geography of Halifax might also prime us to see the classed geographies of contemporary disaster, noting how working-class neighborhoods are more likely to flood that richer neighborhoods. Residents of New York City’s public housing were disproportionately affected by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, for instance, both because of their coastal location and their dilapidated conditions. And activists are already raising alarms about workplace safety and other rights for the largely immigrant workforce rebuilding Houston after Harvey.

How does a nation operate in disaster? One of the most famous stories to come out of the Halifax Explosion is the response of Massachusetts. Shaped by wartime alliance and especially by the large diaspora of Nova Scotians who had migrated to the Boston States, Massachusetts sent the equivalent of $700,000 in aid. While the Massachusetts response can be remembered disproportionately—the invented tradition of Nova Scotia sending a tree to Boston in thanks is a particular peeve of mine—it created a cross-border political community, as Haligonians made claims on the governor of Massachusetts and Massachusetts residents wrote to Halifax authorities with demands. (We can also see something similar with Newfoundland, then, of course, still a distinct British colony without a formal connection to Nova Scotia.) Such a transnational view of the Explosion can help us to see how even as recently as 100 years ago the nation-state was not settled or uncontested, but rather how migration and the cultural and familial connections migration built created communities that did not fit neatly into state boundaries.

These questions might help guide our thinking about the mainland American response to the devastation of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. Puerto Ricans are second-class American citizens; although they carry U.S. passports and can freely settle on the mainland, while in the island they cannot vote for president, have no voting representation in congress, and have limited self-government. To pursue their interests, they must rely on their cousins and siblings on the mainland to elect and lobby their representatives. This citizenship-at-a-remove has had dire consequences for the U.S. federal response to Maria, which has been grossly negligent. But the devastation is also reshaping both Puerto Rico and the mainland. Puerto Ricans have been moving to the mainland in considerable numbers for fifteen or twenty years, driven by colonial underdevelopment; now that migration is accelerating considerably, with an estimated 168,000 Puerto Ricans migrating since Maria. The political, social, and cultural effects of this mass migration both on the island and in mainland cities like Orlando are still unknown, but the history of the Massachusetts-Halifax Relief Committee can suggest some questions to ask about the disaster and relief politics of diasporic communities.

How do disaster aid recipients demand and build power? The Halifax Relief Commission was established by the federal and provincial governments as an organization above politics. Its three members and large staff were supposed to dispassionately distribute the largess of the Canadian, American, and British Imperial peoples guided by the highest standards of scientific charity, city planning, and business efficiency. Yet recipients were able to build and maintain power within the relief system through a variety of subtle means; they demanded aid, but aid on their own terms. As I have alluded to, they did so through formal organizations like unions, through their friends and relatives in the Boston States, and through quieter means like rejecting proffered aid and subverting social workers’ investigations. In short, the intended progressive technocracy of the Relief Commission was not entirely successful because aid recipients developed ways to undermine it.

This is a story that looks familiar to historians of the welfare rights movement and to scholars of contemporary humanitarian relief. Global humanitarian relief operations, especially but not only after disasters, are presented as charity, in which global experts distribute aid to supplicants, rather than to rights-bearing citizens. (I am grateful to my colleague Meg Satterthwait for this formulation.) As a normative matter, we need to think about how to build humanitarian organizations and interventions that preserve and create democratic accountability. This is not just a question of justice but a question of practicality. Anthropologist Roberto Barrios describes how in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduran communities that organized to demand relevant aid, held relief organizations to local account, and said no to proffered help had better outcomes that communities that merely accepted what was given and where aid workers were accountable primarily to funders instead of recipients. Noticing how post-Explosion Haligonians worked to demand aid on their own terms can help us see how victims of today’s climate disasters have done the same thing.

The centennial of the Halifax Explosion is a time for local and national memory and commemoration. But it can also be a time to think more broadly and use the history of the Explosion to aid our analysis of contemporary climate disaster.


Jacob Remes is an assistant professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. He is the author of Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

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About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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