Narratives of nineteenth century drought in southern Africa in different historical source types


Single- to multiple-year drought episodes posed significant challenges for agrarian communities across southern Africa during the nineteenth century and hence are widely recorded in a variety of historical documents. However, the ways in which droughts are articulated, and the focus of individual accounts, vary considerably between different authors and historical source types. This study draws on a range of documentary source types—specifically newspapers, letters, reports and diaries—to explore the varied narratives associated with three protracted droughts (those of 1861–1863, 1876–1879 and 1895–1897) that affected large areas of the subcontinent. The analysis spans four case study areas—present day KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), Lesotho, Malawi and the southern Kalahari (Botswana and South Africa)—which were investigated as part of different interdisciplinary projects. We explore issues common to all case study areas, including (i) how specific drought events are framed and (ii) what is and is not reported about individual droughts across different source types. We conclude that different source types in the subcontinent may be more or less appropriate for addressing the specific objectives of historical climatology, particularly in relation to historical drought. Sources such as newspapers and weather diaries are rich in qualitative and quantitative observations suitable for the reconstruction of temporal and spatial patterns of weather and climate, as well as climate-related natural disasters. In contrast, letters, reports and personal journals, especially those written by missionaries, provide additional qualitative narratives through which to investigate the vulnerability of past societies and economies to climate variations, and to explore past discourses and social representations of climate. While studies of this kind have been published for European and American source types, this is the first systematic exploration of documentary sources for the historical climatology of Africa. It should therefore provide a guide for climate history studies elsewhere in the continent, or other regions where written records are absent prior to the arrival of European colonists.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    National Library of Scotland Dep.298/139 Livingstonia. Instructions to Lake Nyassa Mission Party from Foreign Missions Committee of the Free Church, with concurrence of Committee of Reformed Presbyterian Church.

  2. 2.

    Natal Witness, 13 September 1861

  3. 3.

    Natal Witness, 27 September 1861

  4. 4.

    Natal Witness, 24 October 1862

  5. 5.

    Natal Witness, 19 January 1863

  6. 6.

    Leselinyana La Lesotho, 3 November 1863, p.3 (translated from the original Sesotho)

  7. 7.

    Natal Witness, 19 September 1862

  8. 8.

    USPG D25a, Bishop Colenso, Maritzburg, 28 September 1861

  9. 9.

    LMS Correspondence 32–5-B, R. Moffat, Kuruman, 1 December 1862

  10. 10.

    USPG E9a, R. Robertson, Kwamagwaza, 7 April 1862

  11. 11.

    PEMS Africa Australe FBN4 Mf.199. L.J. Cochet, Hébron. 6 February 1863 (translated from the original French)

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    ELM, ASA 41, 94, Müden/Natal, 1865–1905

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    LMS Correspondence 32–5-A, J. McKenzie, Bamangwato, 27 June 1862

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    Killie Campbell manuscript 98/6/1/3. John Cardell Blamey. Farm Stats/Weather 1850–1862, Diary 1871, Diary 1872.

  15. 15.

    Little Light of Basutoland No 2 February 1877, p.1

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    WMMS South African Correspondence FBN6 Mf 189. J. Parsonson, Thaba Nchu, 24 July 1877

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    National Library of Scotland Ms.7904 Livingstonia. Summary of Instructions and Hints for 1878 (by James Stewart)

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    National Library of Scotland Ms.7906/11–20 The Late Mr. Gunn’s Diary at Livingstonia

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    Natal Witness, 3 November 1876

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    USPG E31, J. Jackson, Amanvazi, Zululand, 31 October 1876

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    Killie Campbell manuscripts, Natal Almanac (1876) The Natal Almanac, Directory and Yearly Register 1877 (includes diary entries by James Erasmus Milkley, from Newstead, Curry’s Post). P. Davis and Sons, Pietermaritzburg.

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    Natal Witness, 29 January 1878

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    Natal Witness, 5 December 1895

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    MHS, Mission Archives, A1045-140b-8 Steenberg, 15 August 1896 (translated from the original Norwegian)

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    ELM, Missionsblatt 43/6, Hermannsburg 1896, 58–61 (translated from the original German)

  26. 26.

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We extend our thanks to the staff at all of the archives listed in Table 1, and to Stan Stanier for the creation of the ENSOAfrica database used to code and organise historical materials. Finally, we thank the three anonymous reviewers whose thoughtful and constructive comments greatly improved the manuscript.


The primary archival work for this study was undertaken as part of British Academy Small Research Grants APN 29960, SG-35582 and SG-40838, and Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant F/00504/D.

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Correspondence to David J. Nash.

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Nash, D.J., Klein, J., Endfield, G.H. et al. Narratives of nineteenth century drought in southern Africa in different historical source types. Climatic Change 152, 467–485 (2019).

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