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.
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. Continue reading