I am known for not writing things down. So sitting down to blog (I think I am going to go with my friend’s suggestion and say ‘volog’) about my first fieldwork season is 3 weeks late.
So, I am in staying on an old plantation estate house called Queensbury, on the island of St Vincent, also known as Youloumain or Hairoun to the Garifuna, the indigenous population who live in the north, where the volcano that I am studying, La Soufrière, resides.
The name La Soufrière is an interesting one. Besides sharing the same name as the volcanoes on Guadeloupe and St Lucia (which can be very confusing looking up for journal articles), it has had a few other names with different meanings, which I have come across in my archival research studying the volcano’s historic eruptions of 1812 and 1902. For a time, it was called ‘Souffrir’, the French word for ‘suffer’, which would be very fitting for the volcano, as it has impacted the society in big ways. The name then changed slightly to ‘Souffrier’, where we can see the corruption of the word taking place. When it eventually became the name we know today, its meaning was ‘the sulphur mine’. But to a number of Vincentians today, it simply means ‘the sulphurer’. In the 1700s archive documents, the volcano was called ‘Morne a Garou’. Morne Garou is the general name given to the overall northern mountain range in which the volcano resides, so the name has persisted. However, Morne a Garou means ‘Dreary Spirit’, which could mean it is related to how the Kalinago and Garifuna perceive the volcano. Indeed, the word ‘volcano’ and its varying hazards do not appear in their language, unlike ‘hurricane’ (‘bebeidi’), where Europeans got the word from when they came to the West Indies and experienced them for the first time. Not being in their language, it could mean that the perception of volcanism was not of nature or physical, perhaps it was spiritual. But I am getting off track here, it is something I want to explore further beyond the PhD.
The point is, with my archive research so far, Soufrière has been seen, written, drawn and painted about in varying ways. Stemming back to Daniel Defoe’s skeptical description of the 1718 eruption, which had perhaps been exaggerated for the Mist Journal to attract readers (in fact, a lot of his work was believed to be ‘made up’), to William Turner’s painting of the 1812 eruption (also exaggerated), to the accounts of Mr McDonald, a landowner on St Vincent during the 1902 eruption, and finally, of the re-telling of people’s experiences of the 1979 eruption, the volcano, although creating experiences called ‘mismatch effect’ (different experiences for the same hazardous event), has been inspiring people.
I do not know about you, but Turner’s and Marlow’s paintings have some similarities.
Those who have described the volcano have romanticised the raw power of its natural beauty. During Defoe’s and Turner’s time, this was commonplace. But even for the later eruptions, Soufrière has been viewed as a primal agent of Mother Nature, blissfully in slumber between eruptions, attracting visitors from around the world to admire its luxuriant forests and animals, including the allusive Vincentian parrot (that I am determined to see before I leave), to swim in its crater lake and overall, to take it for granted. It is not until the precursory earthquakes, or even as late as the first actual explosion, that people realise that the volcano is a serious threat to their safety.
My research is reconstructing the events of 1812, 1902 and 1979 using descriptions of the lay-public (and scientists for the 1902 and 1979 eruptions), and its impacts on the society, agriculture and settlements. For 1812, as volcanology as a discipline had not fully materialised, using descriptions to interpret the volcanic phenomena takes skill. But more skill is needed to understand the handwriting (I am getting there!)
From this, comes the more challenging part, and that is how the Vincentian population responded, coped, mitigated and recovered, and determining the patterns of adjustment and adaptation. This, while placing their reactions and the volcanic eruptions themselves, within the social and wider historical context.
As for me being on St Vincent, this place is not unfamiliar to me. I came here 2 years ago for my masters research on volcanic risk perceptions of the volcano (which inspired me to do the PhD) and my family are from here. My grandfather was born in Barrouallie and was a shark catcher (he has scars to prove it) before heading to the UK like a number of Caribbean migrants back in the 60s and 70s. I am part of the De Freitas clan, Portuguese indentured servants from Madeira that along with Indian indentured servants, were brought to the island to replace the then emancipated slave population. I do find it interesting that having family from volcanic islands and regions (on my father’s side I am part Cameroon), I have become a volcanologist. Not a typical volcanologist mind you, I will be the first to admit that if I am given a volcanic rock or thin section I could not tell you anything! I am one that sees the volcano’s historic and social significance. The purpose of my fieldwork season is to gain archive and oral history insights of the 1979 eruption, so when I get back to the UK in May/June, I can start to compare and contrast my findings for 1812 and 1902, and build a holistic overview of how Vincentians and Soufrière have come to live together. Which has been awesome to see unravel.
One of the best parts are the stories. To boil the PhD down to its most simplest, it is to bring the stories of the three eruptions to life. To show how much of a profound impact volcanism can have on us that live with them. How they drive people towards or away from religion and spirituality. To make people think what is the most important in life. To change the course of politics. To inspire geoscientists of the past, present and future. Even to find love! (Yes, I have a story of the 1979 eruption that created a few love affairs in the evacuation centres). Volcanoes are not just a natural phenomenon that destroy and create all in their path, they are a focal point of societal change.
That is all for now, I shall leave you with a handful of photos I have taken so far of my time here.