Tag Archives: history

Doing historical volcanology

So every year I say I should do more blogging…we will see how that goes. But in the mean time, I asked Twitter for some ideas of what to write and got this suggestion from my friend and fellow PhD volcanologist Geoff Lerner (he is doing some awesome stuff out in New Zealand, do check out his Twitter!)


So using inspiration from Geoff…I’m going to attempt to give a general overview of how historical volcanology works.

dog and book gif

To begin: how did we come to know about the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius, and the destruction of Pomepii and Herculeum? The observations of Pliny the Younger. He was a man who lived in the distant past who observed a volcanic eruption. We also have countless volcanology studies about the eruption (and others that happened since). We also have unearthed archaeological sites and artefacts. Thanks to all this evidence, we now know that this eruption happened and its impacts on the surrounding society.

…and I guess we have the movie now?

A historian is a person who researches past events that relate to humans through narratives. Volcanologist one way or the other look at past volcanic eruptions…so you could say we are “Earth” historians.

Look I just googled “history gif” and I do not know why it is of an animated iceskater okay?

Volcanology in itself is diverse and researchers come from all different backgrounds: geology, petrology, geophysics, engineering, geochemistry  – I labelled here a number of “physical” science disciplines. In volcanology we are increasingly seeing the inclusion of the “social” sciences when exploring the impacts of volcanism on an exposed population.

Historians use tangible (sites, objects, instruments, remains) and intangible (memories, narratives, indigenous knowledge) artefacts. So a historical volcanologist uses tangible and/or intangible artefacts to understand past volcanic events from the human perspective. For me, I have mainly used intangible artefacts, with written records in archives and interviewing people remembering an eruption. Archaeologists are particularly good at using tangible artefacts, with plenty of research out there of looking at deep past volcanic events and their impacts on early human civiliations.


If a volcanologist looks at past volcanic events, combining the understanding of how people responded to the event within the historical and social context, with the scientific understanding of volcanism, it provides a richness and numerous perspectives of the story of an eruption that may not have been captured if doing a single disciplinary approach. Looking at the past, we can see how much the volcano and the society that live around it, have changed or not. Further social volcanology studies for a given volcano would benefit from the historical perspective in this way. Furthermore, a “traditional” physical volcanology study would complement a historical volcanology study and vice versa. One or the other could find things the other had not found before, which could lead to a fuller picture of what happened!


So to end this post I have compiled a little checklist I have gained during my PhD doing a historical volcanology project:


  1. Whatever “physical” science approach to volcanology you use, think outside of the box of how it would be beneficial to the society who has to live with the particular volcanic region you are researching;


2. This is important for every volcanologist – do your research on your volcano: its past activity, current activity, what signs and hazards it is known to produce and any probablitic scenarios of any potential future impact on society;

3. And now we take it up a notch: do your homework on your volcano in the context of the society who had to live with it. Here I mean the social and cultural significance of the volcano, what they knew and do not know about it, and perhaps most importantly (if using intangible artefacts): what language was used to describe what they saw and felt about the volcano? In times of activity would be a priority, but if you have the time (and money) look at quiet periods too;


4. And now, if you are looking at a historical eruption and you want to see what is in the archives* ask yourself: has the language to describe any volcanic phenomena associated with the volcano, similar or different to the present? You will need to be very aware that in the past, especially before the modern notions of “volcanology” as a science, people were very descriptive when observing volcanic activity (think “curtains of fire”, “it grew dark during the day”, “we heard rumblings” and so on);

*Using archives first requires identifying a collection: in most places this is available online, others it requires contacting the specific department and arranging a visit to see what is there. If a collection may prove useful, be prepared to go down some rabbit holes and not come back up for a while…it takes perseverance to find what you are looking for.

rabbit hole
Actual representation of what it is like doing archival work

5. Be respectful of the words written/spoken, objects etc. of those who are no longer here. As a volcanologist, and as a scientist, you can interpret what was observed with rigour but never dismiss other people’s own interpretations when they were within the moment, observing a phenomena they may have never witnessed before. Like all disasters, volcanic eruptions induce stress and anxiety (usually temporarily, but sometimes longer), occurring in their own social and cultural context that is different from your own;

6. Be extra mindful when researching volcanoes in countries that were colonised/occupied. I say this because written records that have survived are usually of one dominant “voice” and many others have either been manipulated or silenced. For my investigations into the 1812 and 1902-1903 eruptions of La Soufrière, I found that the voices of women, children, African slaves, freed persons of colour and indentured servants were almost entirely absent or manipulated (the experiences of myself, my family and POC friends allowed me to have a trained eye to stereotypical/racist language and behaviour). I tried to correct this by doing my interviews for the 1979 eruption by including men and women of varying ages and ethnicities – remember: each voice who provided a narrative is valid as many people experienced these violent events with their own education, experiences and perceptions;

7. Seek out local historians, they may know information that you could not find. I have been in contact with a local Vincentian historian who has been super helpful in pinpointing locations that no longer exist on maps today – then of course give credit where credit is due;

8. Lastly, give back! I have used documents from multiple archives in 3 different countries, all have had a dedicated curator/librarian to help me find what I needed and are super keen to help in anyway possible. As a way of saying thanks and to provide knowledge for any future researcher, give a copy of your finished work to the archive you used. For public dissimination, certainly put the country whose volcano you are researching first – you may be as creative and collaborative as you like!

Historical volcanology has been a new and exciting avenue to me, I have learned a lot about the volcano, the country, its people and myself. I know people say “leave the past in the past” but how else would we know how to better ourselves as a people and know how far we have come in living on this dynamic planet?

To embrace the future…why not start with the past!



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.

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.

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.

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:

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:

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.



I like to thank the Royal Geographical Society for funding. 

Volog no. 2

Cannot believe a month has gone by already! I would say it has gone very well so far.

I have adjusted to the weather, got 7 out of 8 guard dogs to not bark at me every time I leave and return to the house, I am just about coping with mosquitoes and sand flies biting me and I have not been homesick yet.

The work is going well. With help from the archivist, I have obtained copies of documents related to the 1812, 1902 and 1979 eruptions. Things that, along with items from the Yorkshire Museum, British Library and The National Archives, will help piece my project together. There have been items here which completes a paper trail that began in London. In those moments, I definitely said to myself, “Oh, so that is what happened!”

One example was within the Windward Island governor dispatches for 1903, held by The National Archives, where there was a proposal brought forward by an estate owner, Mr Alexander Porter, to repair a canal in the ‘Carib country’ (lands in the north of the island), as a result of damage caused by the 1902 eruption. Over here in St Vincent, I found that in 1907-1908, the proposal was approved and the method of payment and employment to reconstruct the canal was discussed.

I am relatively new to using archives for research but I do have to say, besides overcoming the ‘calming’ process (ironically is not calming at all), it is quite fun. I feel like I am on a treasure hunt!

Besides the archive, I have managed to talk to people about what they remember of the 1979 eruption. So far, all in their own way have been insightful and I believe what they have to say will benefit my project. One thing that had not occurred to me, but now will need to consider, is the movement of people during the eruptions. I have come across the general evacuation routes of people for 1812 and 1902, but with the interviews, I can demonstrate that it is not that straightforward. It depends on people’s social networks (a factor in resilience) and the household’s mobility.

For instance, I spoke to a man from Chateaubelair. He told me that he was inside and heard someone yelling, “Soufriere! Soufriere! Soufriere is acting up!” he then went outside to see what the fuss was about. When he saw the rising ash plume, 6 miles from the town, he, his wife, and his son, walked approximately 4 miles to an evacuation centre in Barrouallie, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. On the other hand, another man living in Chateaubelair, drove his family to a friend in Prospect, approximately 13 miles away from the volcano. He then returned to volunteer with the ambulance service in transporting sick people to Kingstown.

All in all, the stories that people have provided is helping me understand individual and household level responses and actions. I am finding it incredibly enjoyable and honored to hear these stories, I hope I can do more work like this beyond the PhD!

April will be a month to look forward to, I have more people to talk to, (hopefully) more archive items to view and I get to volunteer with the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) during the volcano awareness week, which is being organised with the Red Cross, the Seismic Research Centre of the University of the West Indies and, STREVA. Will be nice to see some familiar faces!

That is all for now


From bloodthirsty Black Caribs, an inadequate loan application to a Bajan government laboratory: my first visit to the National Archives.

The London Underground can be confusing if you venture on an unfamiliar route. I got a train from Milton Keynes Central to London Euston…with about a 20 minute delay stuck at Watford Junction. When I reached Euston I used my amazing sense of logic and looked up Kew Gardens on the underground map. Then I thought “I’m going to get lost aren’t I?”

Just one big "nope" for my brain.
Just one big “nope” for my brain.

And once I managed to get on the District Line from Embankment to my amazing surprise (2 stops later) that I did indeed, get a little lost. In hindsight, I should have asked someone sooner rather than later. But my pride got the better of me and it also got a little bruised. Anyway, after 3 hours I eventually arrived, registered and stuff then after ordering some of the maps, photos and documents I wanted to see and some lunch, my hunt on historic St. Vincent and Martinique began. The first document I picked up was from 1764, 46 years after the first recorded eruption of La Soufriére and it was…well…a little bit racist. I mean yes, distinguishing from the ‘Yellow’ Caribs and ‘Black’ Caribs is needed due to the origin of these 2 indigenous people (‘Yellow’ referring to those of South American descent and ‘Black’ referring to those of escaped African slave descent) but…saying the Black Caribs are “bloodthirsty…will molester and pillage our settlements” (it referred to them as Negros in a separate sentence) is one huge call for the racist card. In all fairness, it is what you would expect from the first British Imperialist settlers to a Caribbean island. Would have been better though if the gentleman who wrote it, a Mr. Richard Tyrrell, could have had a little bit of sympathy as to why the indigenous population may come to try and swade slaves to turn on their masters? (those were his words in the document, not mine).

Categorsied was the number of slaves, number of houses in each settlement, condition of the soil and the amount of cocoa, tobacco and coffee in tonnes. Because priorities.
Categorsied was the number of slaves; number of houses in each settlement; condition of the soil; number of nearby rivers and the amount of cocoa, tobacco and coffee in tonnes. Because British Empire priorities.

The whole excuse to enslave and/or kill the Caribs aside, the document itself was insightful. Firstly was the startling realisation that I finally solved the now non-existent Quassyganna Town conundrum I had from last year: it is in fact where the capital of Kingstown is now located. So I essentially viewed the capital in its infancy. That was exciting.

I love a good map and a good puzzle. Here I got both.
I love a good map and a good puzzle. Here I got both.

Secondly, the reference of the soil being: “black near the sea and red inland” is possibly an early description of the noticeable volcanic black sand which is characteristic of the island (and others in the Lesser Antilles region) and the red soil possibly being the various pyroclastic deposits from pre-Soufriére centres (I am open to people telling me otherwise…I am no expert. But look at the geological map anyway).

From Geotermica Italiana (1992) in: Robertson (2005).  I have placed a red box around the area that has been drawn by Mr. Tyrrell.
From Geotermica Italiana (1992) in: Robertson (2005).
I have placed a red box around the area that was drawn by Mr. Tyrrell.

Thirdly, at this point in historic St. Vincent, the island was occupied by: the indigenous Caribs in the North to the East; the French were situated in the West and the British in the south. This tells me quite a bit about the evolution of the settlements in these places and agricultural practices (once I look into them further). All in all, if you overlook the racism it was a lovely starting point. The next part in my hunt took me to 1831, 19 years after the 1812 eruption. In terms of detail and scale, it was not what I was looking for but knowing the names and locations of the settlements and outlines of the rivers and the volcano was useful. And a big bonus: “Kingstown, formerly Quassyganna.” Woo! I was way ahead of the non-existent location game but nice to see it in print!

Old and tattered. Just how an old map should be.
Old and tattered. Just how an old map should be.

The next document I jumped forward 99 years to 1930, which was 28 years after the 1902 eruption. Before getting to the map, I had to wade through 2 years worth of correspondence regarding a loan application from the Colonial Development Department. It all started with the letter from whoever was looking at the application and wrote “this will simply not do.” I like to imagine this is what funding bodies first say in rejecting applications. Once that was sorted, I got a little slap on the wrist from a security guard for leaning on the map…my bad. All part of the learning experience!

I'm a small person and this was a big map...and my logic was off so yeah, I leaned on it. But the map is fine, so calm down security guard.
I’m a small person and this was a big map…and my logic was off so yeah, I leaned on it. But the map is fine, so calm down security guard.

Like the 1831 map it lacked the detail and scale I required but the outline of the rivers and settlements was useful. The addition of outlining the whole mountain range, roads and crown lands was a nice plus. And all the other things that went into this map:

The application may have been inadequate, but the map detail was pretty good.
The application may have been inadequate, but the map detail was pretty good.

Next…the next one was special (albeit a little bit morbid). It was a photo album with black and white photographs produced by J.C. Wilson, who photographed scenes from the aftermath of the 1902 eruptions of La Soufriére and La Montagne Pelée on Martinique.

A photography by J.C. Wilson (1902). This in on the Leeward (west) side of St. Vincent. The description reads: "Leeward, Wallibu (Mr. Robertson's Estate) showing works buried in mud." Seems to have La Soufriére is still producing a plume in the background.
A photograph by J.C. Wilson (1902). This in on the Leeward (west) side of St. Vincent. The description reads: “Leeward, Wallibu (Mr. Robertson’s Estate) showing works buried in mud.” Seems to have La Soufriére still producing a plume in the background.
A photograph by J.C. Wilson (1902). This was on Martinique in St. Pierre. The description reads: "The Cathedral. Taken from near the altar looking westwards."
A photograph by J.C. Wilson (1902). This was on Martinique in St. Pierre. The description reads: “The Cathedral. Taken from near the altar looking westwards.”

There are more but it would take up a lot of this post. The photos provided some valuable insight into where and how the pyroclastic density currents and lahars damaged locations Mr. Wilson photographed. I will have to look at Tempest Anderson’s (best name ever) collection of photographs to gain more of a picture. Last document I looked at was this beast:

Oh dear.
Oh dear.

This book was Barbados’ government correspondence for the months of April-July in the year 1902. 3 months. I opened it up and it had a nice contents page, with all correspondence ordered by date. The reality was far more annoying. The majority of it was not categorised by date. My task was to find all the pages that were related to the eruptions on St. Vincent and Martinique. Slowly, making my way through the book, I started to find them: IMG_0976IMG_0981They were numerous with varying detail. But I managed to get some first hand accounts and names of navy vessels that I may be able to track down in the naval records. I got excited though when I came across this little treasure:

More science!
More science!

I don’t know, just looking at what chemistry was like in 1902 in a government lab got me excited. But from all that I got from this book, I have to take my metaphorical hat off to the Bajans for doing what they could to help St. Vincent and Martinique. It got me thinking though whether it would be worth tracking down documents on other islands in the Lesser/Greater Antilles. But I will worry about that when I have to! Overall, I enjoyed the whole experience. I was good for me to go there and figure out how everything worked and testing what the National Archives had. Not sure if/when I would be next there or in another archive altogether. I look forward to it either way.