The 1902–3 eruptions of the Soufrière, St Vincent
The villages of Frasers, Morne Ronde, Campobello and Gramacoo were all destroyed.
During 1901, the first signs of unrest at the Soufrière volcano were noticed: small earthquakes were felt, first by the people who lived on and around the flanks of the volcano, and during April 1902 there were reports of increasing numbers of earthquakes, rockfalls and landslides.
In May 1902, the volcano of St Vincent entered into a violent eruption that sent ash high into the atmosphere, and cascades of pyroclastic density currents and lahars down the volcano flanks, and into the drain-ages that dissect the northern parts of St Vincent. After reaching a culmination on May 7th, 1902, the volcano had later outbursts in May, September and October 1902, and a final explosion in March 1903.
The rapid onset of the May 1902 eruptions caught many people unaware and contributed to the high death toll. But other factors also came into play.
The most marked distinction in response to the eruption was between those on the Windward (Eastern) and the Leeward side of the island. Both were impacted equally by the but the majority of those on the Leeward side had responded to the precursory activity on May 6th and moved out of ‘harm’s way’ by the morning of the 7th of May.
This was attributed to the clearer line of site to the initial explosive activity of the volcano on the Leeward side and the assumption on the Windward side that the ‘dark clouds’ were meteorological rather than volcanological.
Governor Llewellyn’s report of the eruption noted that at Georgetown and the ‘Carib Country’ on the windward side no signs of anything unusual occurred and the people there did not realise any danger until about midday on the 7th when the volcano was in full eruption. The sugar works were busy finishing up the crop and the people were all at work when suddenly the atmosphere became dark; sand and stones began to fall and the air was full of electricity. It is believed that at least 1,600 persons lost their lives between 2 pm and 3 pm (Blue Book, 1902, 8113).
On the Leeward side, there were few estates north of Chateaubelair and it is likely that the population of Morne Ronde had already become anxious as a consequence of precursory earthquakes (Cox, 2004). Morne Ronde had been adversely affected by flooding and landsliding following the 1898 hurricanes, and the local population were already unsettled and negotiating for new lands.
Sea-based evacuations were also easier on the Leeward side of the island since there were established passenger canoe services between Chateaubelair and Kingstown, as well as trading and fishing boats (Musgrave, 1891).
On the Windward side, things were a little different. Here, the summit of the volcano was not directly visible, and news of the state of the volcano would come from people who took the rough track from Georgetown to the Leeward side. (Anderson and Flett (1903) reported the stories of some fish-sellers, and similar accounts are common elements of local memories.
‘At that time she [ her mother] told me that in 1902 when the Soufrière exploded her mother was living in Point Village in a thatched house. Her mother and her grandfather and other siblings were living there. When the ash started falling like rain, she said in 1902, people used to walk from Georgetown to Leeward, and they would sell fish. A man had a donkey and when he was going over to Leeward he saw what was happening with Soufrière, so he came back and told the people that the Soufrière was going to erupt. Some people took heed and some didn’t.’
[[Female interview, Fancy, 2014]]
‘She [her guardian] told me that she had visited the La Soufrière before 1902 and she never went back. As a youth I told her about the deep lake that was there with blue water, she told me that before she visited it in 1902 it was not like that. She would say as soon as you reach the hill there was a big pool of blue water before you. She says this is how they suspected an eruption. In fact, her relatives were the ones who were crossing the hill. They came from the Leeward end and sold fish. There was a funeral over by Georgetown, her relatives came over, brought fish, came to the funeral and were going back for fish to come back. They used to have Nine Night praise and Third Night Praise for the dead. So they were going to that and as soon as they reached the top of the hill they saw the lake steaming. So they divided into two groups, some went back to warn the folks at Lot 14 and Langley Park, and some went to the Leeward end to warn those there to move, because the whole thing is on fire. But it was heavy steam coming from it. It was steaming heavily so they warned people. She said some of the folks who died at Lot 14 if they had taken heed, many of them would not have died’.
[[Female interviewee Sandy Bay, 2014]]
On the morning of May 7th, normal activities including milling and heating of sugar had already commenced on the Windward Estates. On the Leeward side, evacuations were already occurring in response to the initial activity.
During the 1898 Hurricane a protocol was established for sharing and providing information relevant to taking self-protective measures (Powell, 1898) and similar lines of communication and information sharing were used during the initial stages of the eruption (Blue Book, 1902; Anderson and Flett, 1903). However, no official orders to move were given.
By the time of the unrest on the morning of May 7th, the Governor of the Windward Isles, Sir Robert Llewellyn who was usually resident in Kingstown had elected to leave the island for a pre-arranged visit in St. Lucia. Thus, all the movements of the population through the 6th–7th of May should be regarded as self-evacuation.
Together these circumstances meant that during the climactic phase of the eruption in the afternoon of May 7th, the majority of the ca. 1600 casualties were those people living and working on and around the estates in north-eastern St Vincent (see 4.4; (Blue Book, 1903, P97). In contrast to those killed by the hurricane, whose names are recorded in the National archives in Kew, we have not been able to find specific data on those who died. The demographics of those hospitalized with burn injuries (56 men, 98 women and 40 children; (Blue Book, 1903, P10) attest to the fact the deadly currents moved through a variety of places associated with a range of daytime activities on the Estates and environs. For example, ‘They have said that from Lot 14 there is a guy who, when the message came, he stayed back because he was cooking, and he stayed back to bring the food. He sent his wife and the rest of his children in front of him’ [Female interviewee, Langley Park, 2014].
The contrast in the number of the casualties between the eruption of 1812 and 1902 may reflect the different scale of the eruptions (with 1902 being larger); the larger population and the (somewhat) better auditing of human lives lost in 1902; and it may also reflect the more distributed population across the estates, with people working on smaller fields perhaps closer to the path of pyroclastic density currents. The time of the day of the eruptive climax (in the middle of the working day, as opposed to the 1812 eruption, which is inferred to have reached its peak overnight) may also have meant that workers were caught out in the open, in hazardous locations.
She was living to the bottom of the village. She and my grandmother were very good friends. She had burns all over her back, neck, hands and feet. She said she was 10 years old when the volcano erupted in 1902. She was hiding under a copper, some iron things. You have a lot of them around the country, people used to use them for making cassava farine.
[[Female interviewee, Sandy Bay, 2014]]
Self-evacuation continued to be a response to renewed eruptive activity throughout 1902–3, and the lack of employment in the devastated areas meant that with each eruption the number of people receiving rations from a central location temporarily increased; particularly as the repeated episodes of activity over the eleven months were long enough to have begun the process of re-growing crops, that was then thwarted by further ashfall.
Within hours of the first major eruption on May 7th, it became clear that there were large numbers of casualties. On May 23rd, the Governor reported that 1295 had perished outright (a number that Anderson and Flett, 1903, suggested was ‘certainly an under-estimate), that 70 more had died in hospital from their injuries, and 200 were missing, giving a total of 1565 presumed killed by the eruption.
The Number of casualties published in the annual Colonial Reports indicates that 1327 deaths were registered as having been due to the eruption of the Soufrière during the financial year 1902–1903 (Colonial Reports, 1903a). This figure did not include numbers of refugees who later died of dysentery, or anthrax (Colonial Reports, 1903a; Blue Book, 1903, P63).
The accounts of the expenditure of the Soufrière eruption fund at the time shows that casualties were still being buried in some numbers through early and middle 1903 (Supplementary Table 2), but it is not clear whether these were the recently perished; late accounts from outlying districts, or the burial of remains discovered long after the fatal event.
In the immediate aftermath of the eruption, the majority of the injured and dead were from the Windward coast north of Georgetown. From the available information, residents of the Leeward coast north of Chateaubelair which was also badly affected by the eruptions had either fled or taken refuge before the inundation by pyroclastic flows; and consequently casualties there were fewer.
Marquees and military hospital tents were quickly erected on the grounds of the hospital in Georgetown to cope with casualties. 221 people were treated for severe (191) and mild burns by the 20th June, of whom 79 died from their injuries (Blue Book, 1902).
The temporary hospitals were removed by 3rd July 1902. Admissions to Hospital in the years 1902–1904 were the highest on record (901; Colonial Records, 1903a), although the rates of mortality and the patterns of disease were not notably different from the preceding years, with the exception of respiratory conditions. 93 deaths due to respiratory disease were recorded in the years 1904–1906, compared to only 35 in the years 1908–1910 (Colonial Reports, 1911). During the 1979 activity of the Soufrière, cases of asthmatic bronchitis showed a marked increase during the two weeks of explosive volcanic activity (Leus et al., 1981).
Historical analysis of the careful records from events even N100 years ago can provide insights into disaster risk reduction today. This analysis demonstrates that the devastating immediate effects of explosive volcanic eruptions can be mitigated by responses and actions in the face of their occurrence.
In the case of the 1902–03 eruptions of Soufrière St. Vincent, the long term impacts were complex. Those who were able to act on the early visible signs of eruption saved their lives by moving. The repeated explosions through late 1902 and 1903 hampered relief and recovery efforts and prompted further population movement (both internal and external displacements).
Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that the integration of relief efforts from the volcano with an ongoing program of development at the time improved the effectiveness of the response, at least in the short term. Analysis of the measurable economic effects of the 1902–1903 eruptions of the Soufrière of St Vincent suggests that it acted to accelerate the decline of the sugar industry on St. Vincent, but that recovery in other commodities occurred within one or two years.
The detailed analysis of the impacts of the eruption also points out the value of relatively small measures (e.g. the rapid growth and provision of plug plants) in enabling populations to adapt and cope with the environmental shock.
However, no strong evidence was found for a substantive long-term change in the framing of disaster risk preparedness by either the local population or policymakers, even in the light of two in-tense high impact events such as the 1898 hurricane rapidly followed by the 1902 eruption of St. Vincent.
Explosive volcanic eruptions on St Vincent have occurred repeatedly. Each time, ash fallout and pyroclastic density currents have affected broad swathes of the northern half of St Vincent, causing damage to crops, livestock and infrastructure, and the death and displacement of large numbers of people, notably in 1902.
One legacy of the 1902–3 eruptions were the oral histories of this eruption, which probably had a significant impact on the rapid response – and self-evacuation – of the affected communities to eruptions of April 1979 (e.g. Robertson, 1995). Although patterns of production have changed significantly, the patterns of settlement on St Vincent are not qualitatively very different from those in 1902, or 1979; and many communities on the northern leeward and windward sides of the island remain at risk both from the hazards of living on the flanks of a steep-sided tropical island; as well as being within reach of an active volcano.
Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 356 (2018) 183–199
We thank librarians and archivists at the British Library, the Royal Commonwealth Society and Cambridge University Library, the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, the St Vincent and the Grenadines National Archives, the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, the Natural History Museum, London, and the British Geological Survey for facilitating access to their collections.
We acknowledge the very helpful support of many people and agencies on St Vincent, and of our collaborators across and beyond the STREVA project, and, in particular, Professor Richie Robertson, UWI Seismic Research Centre and Dr Paul Cole, University of Plymouth, for discussions.
We also thank Jim Gardner and two reviewers for their efficient handling of the paper. This work was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through the Increasing Resilience to Natural Hazards programme [STREVA project, Grant numbers NE/J020001/1, NE/J020052/1], NERC IOF grant NE/ M017621/1, and NERC and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund grants NE/P016014/1 and AH/P007600/1.