An historical peep at past eruptions
As we reflect on past eruptions while trying to come to grips with the uncertainties that face us today, we have to take into account the state of the societies and matters such as communications and technology. We know very little about the 1718 eruption. St. Vincent was then owned and occupied by so-called “Yellow and Black Caribs” and a few French farmers who were allowed to settle on the western side of the island. In 1812 the eruption started on April 27. It was about 8 years since the lands of the indigenous people sent into exile were officially taken over by the government and sugar cultivation put fully into operation on those lands. In 1902 the eruption started fully on May 7, with a period of calm from May 18, followed by eruptions again on September 3, which were larger than those of May 7. Others followed on October 15 and 16, a slight eruption on October 29 with calm prevailing until March 23, 1903 when there was another violent eruption. Life returned to normalcy shortly after with schools opening a few days after. In 1979 we had already set our sights on independence later in the year and were able to do that by October 27. The evacuation camps were closed in Mid -June and schools reopened on June 22.
Serious floods in 1896 and perhaps the most severe hurricane the colony ever experienced, in 1898, preceded the 1902 eruption. By 1902 the total dominance of the estates was being gradually reduced with the start of a government land settlement scheme in 1899. The firm of Alexander Porter owned most of the estates in the Carib Country area. They included Tourama, Lot 14, Waterloo, Rabacca, Orange Hill along with Mt. Bentinck, Three Rivers, Sans Souci, Adelphi, and Richmond. The 1899 land settlement scheme covered most of North Leeward, estates in the Cumberland and Linley Valleys and Richmond Hill, Park Hill, and New Adelphi. In 1901 Clare Valley and Questelles were added. Because of the eruption, parts of Campden Park estate and Rutland Vale were purchased from eruption funds for settling refugees, with Questelles and Clare Valley also being used for that purpose. The name ‘Carib Village’ in Campden Park is part of this story. Porter sold his estates after and they were bought by Walter Barnard of St. Lucia.
Communication left much to be desired. The people of Fancy and Owia were in complete isolation. It was not until the British ship, the ‘Indefatigable’ reached that area on May 11 that they had any human contact. The ship landed goods and found out that the people had not been in communication with Georgetown since May 7. The Army Medical Corps attempted to land personnel at Georgetown to relieve the two doctors and a nurse stationed there, but could not do so because of the huge swells in that area.
One thing that has surprised many people with the present eruption was the amount of ash deposited in Barbados. On the first day of the eruption in 1902, 2 million tons of dust fell on Barbados, with the Imperial Commissioner of Agriculture based there even suggesting that it might possibly improve the texture of the soil. In 1812 the noise of the volcanic explosion was so loud that armed forces were called out in Antigua, the authorities fearing that they were under attack.
Among the early victims in 1902 were Alexander Fraser and his wife who were plantation owners. Fraser owned the Camden Park estate and might have been managing, or had interests in the Orange Hill estate. The story told about him is that he and his wife were sheltering in a cellar/room with the estate labourers. They left after a while because they could not stomach the scent and were later found dead. Victor Sutherland at whose shop the labourers found refuge at Overland, was found dead, having fallen off his horse. Although the cause of his death was not given, it was most likely associated with the eruption.
Two early sufferers were a nine year old Carib girl and a ‘negro’ boy. The boy was hit by a large stone, received a wound to his scalp and later developed tetanus; was taken to the hospital but died. The girl who had been carrying a wooden tray on her head was hit by a large stone that fell on it, breaking the tray and fracturing her head, leaving her unconscious for 2 days. She regained consciousness but lost hearing and speech, which fortunately she regained after 18 days. There were, of course, many other sad stories.
One of the most challenging issues in a crisis like that of 1902 is the period of resettlement after. In 1902 the indigenous people were targets with efforts made to resettle them in Jamaica and elsewhere. They protested and were assisted in their protest by some members of the clergy, including Reverend Newlands who chaired the protest meeting, Methodist minister James Darrell, a member of the Legislative Council, J. Elliot Sprott, and lawyer C. J Simmons. I will deal with this next week along with the plight of the Morne Ronde Caribs.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian