In the absence of oral histories, analyses of historical documents held in missionary and colonial archives offer an invaluable opportunity to fill knowledge-gaps about societal responses to extreme climate events. Documents describing, for example, social change, technological adaptation, narrative and myth with respect to rainfall variability can be used to investigate how different sectors of society responded to, and articulated knowledge about, periods of unusual climate. When interpreted within the wider context of social, economic, political and demographic changes over time, such information can provide a guide to where the most critical sensitivities to future climate change may lie.
In addition to their potential for providing insights into climate impacts upon society, documentary sources also contain valuable direct and indirect information on weather that can be used for climate - especially precipitation - reconstruction. The majority of climate models for southern Africa depend upon instrumental meteorological data. However, with the exception of parts of South Africa, these data have only been collected systematically since the late19th century. Document-derived weather information can be used to extend the instrumental record and, critically, identify climate extremes. The resulting chronologies of climate variability can be used to form a meteorological framework within which any societal changes can be viewed.
The majority of documentary sources relating to Madagascar, Malawi and South Africa that contain references to climate stem from European missionary or colonial archives. These include materials which collectively span the 19th century, written by missionaries, explorers, botanists and government officials.
Among the most important are the collections of unpublished documents preserved within archives in Aberdeen, Birmingham, Edinburgh, London, Oxford (UK), Coromandel (Mauritius), Berlin, Hermannsburg (Germany), Boston (USA), Durban and Pietermaritzburg (South Africa), Lilongwe (Malawi) and Stavanger (Norway).
Download the list of documentary sources (pdf).