Tag Archives: volcanic eruptions

Dominance of nature versus a volcano/culture versus nature?

*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?

Social housing for those displaced by hurricanes. This little hamlet is just beyond Byera Village on the Windward side of the island, where I stayed for my MSc fieldwork in 2014. In the background would be Mt Brisbane, an extinct volcanic centre.


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?

Helpless man
Jai (1979) The Soufriere experience. Published in ‘The Star’ on the 28th April 1979.
In the ‘Annual colonial report for St Vincent 1902-1903’ held at The National Archive and Document Service of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

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?

That is all for now


St Vincent fieldwork season: an island of past, present and future inspiration

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.

Dreary spirit
P. Foster Huggins (1902) An Account of the Eruptions of the St Vincent Soufriere. In: Anderson and Flett (1903).
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.

Daniel Defoe (1718) The Destruction of the Island of St Vincent. From the Mist’s Weekly Journal, 5th July 1718.

I do not know about you, but Turner’s and Marlow’s paintings have some similarities.

Tempest Anderson (1902) Refugees in Kingstown, St Vincent. Used with kind permission from the Yorkshire Musuem.
The Nation_May 1979(4)
The Nation (1979) Beware the 13th May. Published in May 1979. A great example of the island’s superstitious geoculture (cultural reactions to geophysical hazards). Friday 13th, a full moon, ouija boards, and predictions were all apparent for the 1979 eruption.
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!)

SP 46 147 362(8)
Mason (1814) From The National Archives: SP 46 147 362. All written documents relating to the 1812 eruption are like this, got my work cut out for me! Luckily, the newspaper articles are easier to read.
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.


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.



Delayed journey to the national archives

Hello! This is a quick post to let y’all know I am currently stuck at Watford Junction to get to the National Archives!

Once I finally reach there I shall be getting to know so very old maps and documents related to St. Vincent and Martinique and their historical eruptions…should be fun!

That is if the train in front of the train I am on will just move out of the way.