Tag Archives: American Musem of Natural History

Archive adventures in the US

I was in the USA for 2 weeks September-October on a hunt for more archival sources related to the historic eruptions of La Soufrière. I had never been to America before so I got distracted by all the ‘bigness’ of pretty much everything compared to where I grew up and lived in the UK.

I had two aims:

  1. Obtain copies of the diaries of the American Barrister Hugh Keane from the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, VA and;
  2. Obtain field notebook copies of the American Geologist Dr Edmund Hovey from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

I have to say, I was very impressed with what I found.

My first stop was the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. I was well aware of the rich history the city and the state itself so I was expecting great things.

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One of the entrances into the Virginia Historical Society archive.
Hugh Keane was a barrister in St Vincent in the early 1800s, but his family had been on the island since the late 1700s. His diary entries were in most part short (and small) but he does write on the 30th April about the beginings of the 1812 eruption.

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Interesting, if not annoying to transcribe, handwriting for a diary (Mss1 K197 a 3-30)
Although this is what I came for I did run into a few issues. One is the handwriting, in which I need to take a paleography course at The National Archives in London for (online thankfully). Another was I actually took most of the pages at a wrong angle (oops) making it harder to transcribe. Another is the language and abbreivations he uses. And a big one is that he doesn’t give a day-to-day running commentary on the eruption. Either Hugh was too busy to watch it (he was a barrister during the slavery era) or he got bored of it. Hopefully his entries will provide helpful insights in what the volcanic processes and hazards were, if not to gain an idea what the responses were.

In any case, I got what I went for so I was happy with that. For Edmund Hovey’s collection I did not know what to expect. All I knew was that he was ordered by the American Museum of Natural History to investigate the eruptions of Pelée and Soufrière.

Dr Edmund Hovey was a geologist and at the time, assistant curator in the palaeontology section of the museum.

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Statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the entrance of the musuem.
Once I got to the room where the collection was held (after getting briefly lost in the museum naturally), the curator assisting my search showed me the list of what they had. It looked exciting. A small cool collection was artifacts that Edmund brought back from Martinique:

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A stack of 9 fused glasses retrieved from St Pierre, Martinique. A pyroclastic density current killed approximately 20,000 people. 1 man survived in a prison cell (AMNH: MPA018).
I got more excited when I opened up the field notebooks:

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First page of one of Edmund’s field notebooks (AMNH: Box 2, Item 17)
Anyone who has done a geoscience based degree or course, knows how important a field notebook is. I was quite impressed with the level of detail Edmund went into, like a true geologist: time, date, location, and detailed descriptions of the geology and any hazardous phenomena. If this was part of an assignment today he would get high marks on descriptions but not so much on sketches. At the beginning of each notebook he would also note down the adminstrative hierarchy (Governor, adminstrator, executive council etc.) and if he was accompanied by anyone. The most surprising find for me (and the most critical) was that he interviewed and gathered statements of those who observed volcanic activity. Reading these statements, another very important aspect became apparent, he was including more voices than the ‘white elite’ men. He spoke to black men and women whose voice I had so far not been able to read (granted he called them negroes and negresses but I guess that was the language at the time).

My most favourite statement, that I will share with you all, was from a surviour of a pyroclastic density current that flowed down the eastern flank of the volcano over the Orange Hill Estate House. People survived in a rum cellar, whilst a number died in the corridor leading to the cellar and the estate manager, his wife and nephew died on the verandah.

A cook told me that trash in front of cellar and some of the houses were set on fire by the hot stones. Taylor (who is a very intelligent black man) and the others said that the “cloud rolled down from the Soufriere along the ravines, struck the sea, burst into flames foof, foof, foof, and at once turned back toward the sugar factory striking the building with great force and forcing shut the heavy doors and the heavy wooden shutters of the window openings. Heat was very oppressive. Air suffocating. Smelled of sulphur (rotten eggs, one said). For four or five minutes it seemed as if everyone would die from suffocation and cries for water were heard on all sides. Then the air cleared a bit, though the rain of dust and stones continued”.

From all information gathered from my trip, I can understand the volcanic hazards better: what, where, when and their impacts. They will also help inform impacts on the agricultural and society, where possible.

Jazmin

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I like to thank the Royal Geographical Society for funding.