It is now the 1st May, which means I have one month left here on St Vincent. I am starting to get a bit restless and want to come home to see my family and friends. But I can hold on for a little longer!
Reflecting back on my time here so far, I would say it has been character building, as well as a confidence booster. Some people say being in a different country for a while has a positive effect on people. I suppose I can agree with them.
Coming out here by myself as an independent PhD student has suited me fine, as I do prefer my own company. I have been away from distractions to really crack on with the data I aimed to collect here.
Doing a dissertation/thesis, whether undergrad, Masters or PhD, is really a lonely affair. Of course you have your supervisors and friends, but they are busy people are they not? Every project is different and the guidance from the supervisors vary, but for me, it has worked just fine. Although a part of me wishes at least one of my supervisors had the chance to come out here to experience this island for themselves!
The data collection here has been the utmost importance and confess, I have not had much time to rest. I would say on a weekend I have relaxed but, just yesterday I conducted more interviews. But, I did get to see a new part of the island. I went to the Mesopotamia Valley, a village called Belmont which lies on the ridges of an extinct volcano! It was an amazing view, beats the view of a Private School’s sports grounds back home.
The remainder of my time here will be getting the rest of my interviews done, then beginning to make scripts and code them.
Oh and it will be my birthday near the end of the month…so I have definitely decided to not work then and head over to the Grenadine island of Bequia. Can squeeze in a bit of holiday before this is all over.
All the way I wanted to try and frame myself like past adventurers who had climbed the volcano, so this entry is trying to capture the common themes in what has been written in the past.
Friday was an exciting day. I got to climb La Soufrière. Having a physical disability, it obviously made things difficult, but it has never stopped me doing what I wanted to do, and I think it makes reaching the top all the more rewarding for me. Especially the 12 hour sleep I had when I returned!
The expedition party consisted of secondary school students of two schools, one from Georgetown and the other Sandy Bay, officers from the Forestry department, members from NEMO, scientists from the Seismic Research Centre of the University of the West Indies, researchers from the STREVA project and also a number of locals from Kingstown and Park Hill.
The Montane rainforest looks like the volcano never erupted 37 years ago. Vegetation regrowth is rapid, the above description by Mr Benjamin Sharp, 78 years later, and the photos Dr Tempest Anderson took just after the May 1902 eruption and 5 years later, demonstrate that. Even after the 1979 eruption the same phenomenon occurs. It is very impressive, to see the volcano destroy life but then promote such healthy regrowth.
Can the same be said for the society? Well, time will tell from my studies and from others researching La Soufrière.
The path is a mixture of flat, leaf litter-covered paths, steady climbs, and muddy steep steps. After about half an hour or so, the first stop is “River Bed”, which is an area of prehistoric lava flows. There are big boulders, as well as small stones.
After the River Bed is a large number of steep steps that were certainly not made for my disability and little legs. I took my time though, saw some hummingbirds wiz around, so that was nice. After about another hour or more of steady climbing, the forest changes from tall, dense trees with an intense humidity, to shrub with plant and fruit species only found on La Soufrière. You can catch a nice refreshing breeze now too. An important thing however, is that with the absence of cloud, you can clearly see Georgetown, the principle town in the north Windward region. It looks small, and you can really feel the volcano dwarfing it.
The next and final stop before the summit is “Jacob’s Well”, another area of ancient lava and once upon a time, a place you could get fresh water, hence the name. This area is narrower than River Bed.
The last half an hour or so to the top was tough on me. It was mostly a steady slope, but luckily it was manageable. The nearer you get, the more loose rocks and ash you walk upon. Almost lost my footing a few times. I was one of the last to reach the top, people congratulated me to reaching it in one piece. Before I could catch my breath, someone said the crater is clear. I do not know where the energy came from, but I excitedly reached the edge.
And there is where I lost my breath.
I came across a diary of Special Magistrate John Anderson, who took the Leeward route to the summit in 1837. His feelings were, “Surprise, wonder and terror, strike the spectator at this majestic spectacle.” He also said the volcano was just as magnificent as The Vale of Chamouni in Switzerland, the first view of Geneva and the Alps, the Isle of Staffa, St Peter’s Church in Rome, the view of Edinburgh from Calton Hill, the Bay of Dublin and Menai Bridge in North Wales.
I don’t have such places to compare it to, but I agree with him. The sight is so majestic and such a thing of beauty. What you see, and looking down seeing the surrounding rich flora and fauna and Georgetown, does help to put the research in perspective though. This volcano is an agent of awesome and fearsome power, one third of the island can look up on a clear day and see it. They live around it. Villages, farms and everything else has been built on its volcanic deposits. Such things must be parallel with anyone who lives around or near an active volcano I am sure. The volcano is there, biding its time, while people just go about their business, with or without a second thought that there is something that can take everything away in a matter of days, hours, minutes or seconds.
On the way down, I unfortunately fell over three times. Got a bruise. But hey, no pain no gain right?
The secondary school students certainly had the energy and momentum I can only dream of having. But this volcano is more important to them than me. They need to see the volcano they live with up close, and no better way to learn about it than from the volcanologists and researchers who came along with them.
I’m still recovering from the trip but I can honestly say, every single muscle and joint that is hurting right now is 100 percent worth it.
“Altogether, this unparalleled scene must delight anyone alive to the Majesty of Nature. The Souffriere is a “Lion” which does not on inspection, belie its fame. I call to mind but few, which I have seen, that merit the same commendation. They are widely different in their characters, and the associations which they call up: – The Vale of Chamouni in Switzerland; – the first view of Geneva and the Alps, from the Jura Mountains, – the Isle of Staffa in the Hebrides; – Saint Peter’s Church at Rome, – Edinburgh form the Calton hill; the Bay of Dublin, – Menai Bridge; – and the Souffriere of St. Vincent, – will not suffer by familiar acquaintance. I cannot better describe the emotions excited by the first glance of this volcano, than by the recital of the following circumstance. A gentleman of my acquaintance ascended the mountain about 14 days after the last eruption. The soil was still warm, and every step told a fearful tale of horror. He was accompanied by a young Mulatto, who no sooner was brought to the brink of the abyss, than uttering a shriek, he dashed down the pathway, and terror smit, – never ceased his progress till he reached the strand at Wallibau, when he dashed into the waves, and swam to the vessel in which his Master had come down!”
Special Magistrate John Anderson, October 1837. In: McDonald R.A. (2001) Between slavery and freedom: special magistrate John Anderson’s journal of St Vincent during the apprenticeship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
So this week and the following week there are volcano awareness activities occurring across the northern half of the island. But something interesting happened yesterday.
I was telling the host I am staying with about where I will be and what time I will be back and other bits of housekeeping and she asked why I am going to all these places and what are “those people” (those involved in organising the week and running the activities) doing. I explained it is about raising awareness of the volcano and making sure the communities have the most up-to-date information, as well as participating in community resilience activities. The host burst out with, “that’s stupidness, everyone you talk to knows about the volcano. It’s there, how more obvious does the ‘awareness’ need to be? It’s a waste of government money which would be better used elsewhere.”
I for one, was shocked. I tried my best (and calmly) to convince her that people’s awareness of the volcano must be continuous, with more research on the volcano, and for communities to engage in planning for a potential future volcanic crisis.
She was not having any of it. So I said “we will agree to disagree” and left it at that.
I have had a similar conversation with her and a couple of her friends when they recounted their experiences with the 2013 tropical storm, and also when they felt the earthquakes from the volcano Kick em’ Jenny in 2001 (still the coolest volcano name ever). I asked out of curiosity, “What do you do in an event of an earthquake? Where is the safest place if you were in the house?”
“The cupboards in the kitchen”, one replied.
I remembered looking into the kitchen and noted the gas cannister connected to the cooker, which was next to said cupboards. Sure I can see why he would choose the cupboards but…there was pressurised gas next to it. I asked in return, “what about the dining table?” It was quite a sturdy and big table. The person laughed and told me it is not safe as it would collapse under the weight from the roof if it caved in.
Earthquake, tsunami and volcano awareness does happen in this country. But apparently some do not participate in these events or even appreciate the necessity for them. I said that preparing for such events is important, in which I was told:
“Prepare for them? The only preparation you need is to make your peace on Earth and confess your sins because God might be coming for you.”
For being taught from undergrad all the way through my current PhD that awareness and preparation towards natural hazards is vital (along with all other aspects of disaster management), I have now been stumped twice in people’s attitudes towards it all. Granted these people are of a completely different generation so that might have something to do with it.
But I have asked myself: why did I get the response that I did? Did I explain preparedness wrong? Did I make it relevant to them? Is it ignorance? I have always held onto the belief that in no given society that is exposed to hazards that people are ‘ignorant’ about them, people just choose to perceive them and their environment, differently. Like I was told, La Soufrière is right there for all to see. That is being very conscious of its existence.
Maybe it is complacency? This woman was actually living in the UK during 1979, so maybe she responded in the way she did because she has not experienced the volcano in eruption?
But the way she said it, so full of venom, and making me feel that the other job of being a volcanologist, to raise awareness of your chosen volcano’s dangers, is not worthwhile…I just cannot shake it. Of course, I am going to participate in the awareness week though, I am not going to let one woman’s opinions stop me trying to make a difference.
But what is it about this volcano that makes people on this island view preparedness in such different ways? Is it related to what I observed last week?
Only time will tell…
*When I came back to the house late afternoon, with a gigantic payapa cut down from a neighbour in hand, all seemed to be forgiven for the morning’s disagreement. So not to worry, I have come to accept that some people’s beliefs and opinions cannot be changed.
*This is a work in progress, and is a documentation of my thought processes on an argument…so bare with me with any inaccuracies.
This morning, I came up with an interesting observation from my current data, the data from my MSc thesis, a cultural observation and the literature.
A mentality that I believe has an Imperialist/colonial legacy, is apparent not just here but throughout the Caribbean that nature is there to be dominated. It can be observed all around, with the conversion of the forests into plantations, villages that are on and around the mountains (particularly on the Leeward side), and tunnels cutting through possibly, geologically important areas. Does this cultural trait, in combination of other factors (that I am still trying to piece together), create the certain geoculture I am beginning to piece together?
A volcano cannot be “controlled” like a river, which can be culverted like a stream has over here for the construction of the Argyle International Airport. From what I have observed in the data, La Soufrière’s eruptions (and likely other volcanoes as well), have led to a feeling of awe, fear/dread and helplessness. It has prompted religious responses and interpretations. Interestingly, there was an increased number of marriages following the 1902 eruption (I was surprised when I came across that information!) 45 % of 100 people questioned for my MSc study on risk perceptions, believed God was in control of its eruptions and there is a lack of self-confidence in their preparedness and self-efficacy in the case of a future volcanic crisis. There is an attitude that there is a lack of interest in personal preparedness, but a high demand in those in authority to “do something”. Are these feelings connected to a need to dominate nature, but for a volcano and its impacts, it cannot be dominated?
I would love people’s thoughts on this. Have you come across this in your work? What am I missing? Am I talking utter nonsense?
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.
TNA: CO 321/220
The missing link.
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!
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.
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?”
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).
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.
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).
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!
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!
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:
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.
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:
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: They 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:
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.