“a salubrious, saline exhalation”: Fog and Health in Colonial Newfoundland and Nova Scotia

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Canadian coastal histories, which considers intersections of nature and culture along the saline shores of the land and tidewaters currently known as Canada, the country with the world’s longest coastline. Guest-edited by Sara Spike.

This post is also part of a series based on presentations that would have taken place at the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting at Western University in London, Ontario (June 1-3).

Just a few pages into his 1765 Concise Account of North America, Major Robert Rogers was contemplating the enigmatic fogs along the coasts of Newfoundland. Written for a general readership in Britain, the volume introduced the land, waters, and natural resources of Northeastern North America, highlighting points of interest and advocating for further colonization. The already long-famous fogs of the Northwestern Atlantic were an obvious topic for Rogers. Atlantic Canada is one of the foggiest places on Earth thanks to a unique convergence of geographical and climatic conditions that cause warm and cool air to meet over the ocean, creating vaporous low-lying clouds that can veil the coasts for hours or days at a time. But in the mid-eighteenth century, their origins were far less clear.

Samuel Holland, A General Map of the Northern British Colonies in America (1776), Library of Congress.

Common knowledge held that the Newfoundland fogs emanated from the “lakes, swamps and bogs, with which the island abounds,” but Rogers also wondered about another possibility as he tried to make sense of these fogs, which seemed to differ from those he knew at home in New England. Perhaps, he speculated, the production of Newfoundland fogs was “owing to the vast shoals of fish and sea-animals which frequent these coasts, whose breath, warmth, and motion, occasion vapours to rise from the sea.” This could explain why, “notwithstanding the almost perpetual fogs here, the air is wholesome and agreeable to most constitutions, which would hardly be the case if they sprung from bogs, swamps, and fresh-water lakes.”1

In his 1786 Account of the Present State of Nova Scotia, written to assess the prospects of the colony for settlers, Samuel Hollingsworth noted a similar tension between his learned experience of fog in Britain and the fogs he encountered on the other side of the North Atlantic. They are “remarkable for not producing the same disagreeable effects upon the human body, as is observable of fresh water fogs; the influence of the latter often producing the most dangerous diseases, even upon persons that are otherwise healthy, and, to the consumptive or asthmatic, present death. The reason of this difference is, no doubt, to be accounted for, from their different origin; and a particular investigation of the matter is foreign to our purpose.”2

Death rows the Thames during the “Great Stink” of London in the summer of 1858. (Punch, July 10, 1858)

Rogers and Hollingsworth, with differing levels of curiosity, each struggled to communicate their experiences on the coasts of Northeastern North America as their encounters with fog pushed untenable scientific theories to their limits. At the time, fogs were associated with miasma. Well after the emergence of germ theory in the mid-nineteenth century, disease was believed to be carried in poisonous clouds of gas emanating from decomposing matter and frequently emerging from lakes, rivers, and especially in the stench of swamps and bogs.3 Without an alternative model of disease available to them, these men laboured to make the mysterious coastal fogs fit into the paradigm of miasma theory. They each insisted on the received knowledge that “fresh water fogs” were inherently dangerous and speculated about alternative sources for these more benign North Atlantic vapours. For Rogers, this included the possibility that as he stood on the shore, he was swathed in the very breath of sea creatures, part of an intimately interconnected imaginary of the natural world.

The fogs of Atlantic Canada baffled European fishermen, early settlers, and other visitors and even challenged firmly held beliefs about the nature of disease and the relationship between the human body and its environment. As Anya Zilberstein has shown in A Temperate Empire, the climate, imbued with racist notions of civilization, was a key category of difference for settlers in northeastern North America, and anxieties about the weather drove efforts to change the environment through appropriate colonial settlement.4

These descriptions of fog were written by men who contributed to colonization and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in North America (Rogers as a brutal military officer, Hollingsworth as a promoter of settlement)—they were not politically neutral. In their discussions of fog, these writers incorporated a particularly coastal aspect of the natural world into the production of settler colonial discourse. Fog was frequently used as a device to narrate and dramatize the strangeness and difference that Europeans experienced on the coasts of the Northwestern Atlantic.

Photo Sara Spike

Into the nineteenth century, the healthful properties of the region’s fogs were still being remarked upon, even as the dense, veil-like clouds were also acknowledged to be frightening, dismal, infuriating, and the cause of deaths both dramatic and mundane by shipwrecks, spoiled food, and the infections that spread from open wounds in unrelenting damp.

William Moorsom was a British Army captain and engineer stationed in Halifax in the 1820s. Arriving in the summer of 1826 amid what he was repeatedly told was an unusually warm, foggy season, Moorsom was astonished by the weather and wrote that “for the first fortnight after my arrival, I existed in an atmosphere which I can only compare to a vapour-bath.” He described a warm, dense fog and a daily temperature of 85F (29C), which he likened to the opening of a safety valve on a distant steam engine—a simile that marked the experience as both familiar and utterly strange, even unnatural. With fog “dripping from every sprig and every leaf,” Moorsom noted in particular the effects of the fog on the cultured society of Halifax: the dampness caused mildew to grow on papers and books, it ruined cigars, over time moisture made leather boots stiff, and he also expressed concerns about its “fatal influence” on recently imported ladies’ hats of the latest fashions.5

Despite these drawbacks, Moorsom was also quick to differentiate this Nova Scotian fog from the ones he knew at home in Britain, what he called “the orange-coloured, smoke-flavoured cloud, which, in a London November, is wont to lead astray all wandering damsels and stage-coachmen.” In contrast, the fog in Nova Scotia, although bewildering, was “still considered by the inhabitants as a salubrious, saline exhalation.”6

Photo Sara Spike

Not only was the Nova Scotian fog not dangerous to those who breathed it in, it was actively healthy. The ladies were relatively unconcerned about their hats because, as they whispered to Moorsom, nothing “was considered so effectual for the attainment or perfection of a fair complexion.”7 This was perceived to be a healthy fog, produced by the open ocean, in contrast to the poisonous smog of industrial production Moorsom knew at home. Elsewhere he declared, “I prefer the climate of Nova Scotia to that of England, simply because … a much larger portion of the pure air of heaven may be inhaled within a man’s lungs.”8

Fog is ubiquitous in Atlantic Canada, a presence that has drifted in and out of countless historical moments and experiences. There are many dramatic stories to be told about maritime disasters, but the presence of fog has also shaped life and culture on these coasts in a variety of more subtle ways. In this example, emotive responses to fog expressed some of the difference that Europeans experienced on the coasts of Northeastern North America. Highlighting the healthfulness of these unusual fogs was part of integrating the region into a worldview that supported the transformations of settler colonialism.

Feature Image by Sara Spike.

[1] Robert Rogers, A Concise Account of North America: Containing a Description of the Several British Colonies on That Continent, Including the Islands of Newfoundland, Cape Breton, &c. (London: J. Millan, 1765), 8.
[2] S. Hollingsworth, An Account of the Present State of Nova Scotia (Edinburgh: William Creech, 1786), 14.
[3] On miasma, see for example, Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006).
[4] Anya Zilberstein, A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). See also Christopher M. Parsons, A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
[5] William Scarth Moorsom, Letters from Nova Scotia: Comprising Sketches of a Young Country (London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1830), 13–14.
[6] Moorsom, 13–14. On the London fog, see Christine L. Corton, London Fog: The Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2016).
[7] Moorsom, 14.
[8] Moorsom, 155.
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Sara Spike

Sara Spike, PhD, is a cultural historian of rural communities and coasts in Atlantic Canada. She is an Instructor in the History Department at Dalhousie University. She lives in rural Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki, where she is writing about the cultural history of fog in Atlantic Canada.


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