The Eruption 1902

The year was 1902; Queen Victoria was dead, and the people in St. Vincent now had a King instead of a Queen. The Hazell children were growing up, and 8-year old Carol went to school with Miss Matthews in town. One afternoon she and Fred crept through the garden to the stable yard. A market woman had given them each a mango and they leant over a wall and enjoyed the luscious fruit, dripping juice onto the garden below. They knew what would happen if they were caught: those mangoes are green – look at the mess you have made of your clothes – you’ll get a stomach ache! It wasn’t easy being the youngest of a large family and they did love mangoes!

“We’d better go and wash,” said Carol, looking at her brother’s sticky grime-streaked face. “How did you get so dirty?”

“Your’s is just as bad,” he replied. “It’s because it’s so dusty. Look, you can’t see the sun at all- the sky looks like dirty milk.”

They looked over the garden and down the hill to the harbour and town, but the dust seemed to get into their eyes and everything was hazy. They adjourned to the pump in the stable yard.  Cleaner but damper, Carol went to join her older sisters and her Mother on the verandah. She was learning to sew and as much as she enjoyed being with “the big girls” and hearing the grown up chat and gossip, the long seams of the pillowcase she was making were very boring, and she couldn’t help pricking her finger and getting her thread dirty. Her sisters were doing beautiful embroidery and crochet, but it would be a long time before she could attempt such things. This time, however, they were all getting up and putting away their work as she arrived, shaking dust from their long skirts.

“Come on Carol,” said Ettie “We’re going inside. It’s too dusty to work out here today. Look at the dust on my blouse, and yet it isn’t very windy.”

“It’s not wind – the dust just seems to be drifting down,” said Muriel. “I wonder where it’s coming from.” 

They were to wonder more as the dust grew thicker and the sky darkened. Next morning there was no sign of sunrise and it was like a queer twilight. The gritty dust was everywhere, in the house, in the air you breathed, and floating on the morning cup of tea. The servants were very quiet, with none of the usual talk and laughter, and the children felt scared because everything was so strange.

Dad and the men and boys set off for town, but Mother told Carol she could stay at home this morning. She couldn’t even feel pleased at the unexpected holiday, especially as Trixie told her to dust all the dining room furniture- What was the point? It got dusty again as she did it. She stopped to look out at the sky and suddenly saw her brother Willie tearing up the driveway, with Fred, red-faced and puffing, not far behind.

Leaning out of the window she called “What are you doing? Didn’t you go to school?”

“There’s been a big eruption in Martinique!” yelled Willie.

“School’s closed!” shouted Fred, and as they tumbled up the steps, there was the clatter of horses’ hoofs and Dad came riding up from town and into the stable yard. Carol could hear Mother’s voice in the kitchen and the sound of Dad marching in. He was sweating and the dust stuck in the lines of his face, making him look like a stranger.

“Jack, what is the matter?” asked Mother. He sank into a chair and tried to wipe the dust and sweat from his face.

“Mount Pelee has erupted on Martinique- a really big blow! They say the town of St. Pierre has been destroyed and perhaps everyone killed.”

“How terrible,” said Mother. “The poor people in Martinique.”

“The shock must have been devastating for the whole island,” said Dad, and as he spoke they suddenly felt a reverberation like a ripple go through the floor and heard in the distance a series of dull thuds. They stayed frozen for a moment, each with the same thought: “What about the Soufriere?”

“I’m going back to town,” said Dad. “See if I can get any news from up country.”

Mother looked pale, but she said, “Come and eat your soup, Jack. You don’t know how long you will be, and the servants would like to get the meal over with.”

No one ate with much appetite as even Carol knew that the Soufriere was their volcano at the northern end of St. Vincent, and that if one volcano erupted it was quite possible for another to do the same. The Soufriere had been dormant for nearly a hundred years and it was right at the other end of the island. But St. Vincent is only 18 miles long.

The young ones crept away and gathered under the porch and the boys tried to scare the girls with horror stories of what they imagined was happening in Martinique. Of course, nothing like that would ever happen in St. Vincent! The adults were not so hopeful. They admitted to each other that a friend from an estate up there had said that the water in the crater had risen and had begun to steam, and John Louis had met George Fraser in town one day who had told him that the earth tremors had been frequent on the Leeward coast, some quite violent, but still!  It couldn’t happen here.

The island is so mountainous, and the roads were narrow and twisting, so communication was poor. While the people in Kingstown talked of the terrible news from Martinique, and the estate owners on the Windward Coast took no notice of the small tremors and could not see the mountains for the heavy clouds of dust, the people on the Leeward side of the island felt the earthquakes becoming more violent and the rumblings from the volcano more frightening and they realised that like Mount Pelee, the Soufriere was erupting. Many of the Caribs and others from the villages at the base of the mountain fled to the sea and the coastal villages of Wallabou and Chateaubelair prepared to leave.

Next day, the 7th of May, continued dark and gloomy with the dust from Mount Pelee still falling over the town. The men had gone to town but the children were at home, bored and cross. Suddenly just as it neared midday there was a terrible explosion and a huge black volcanic cloud rose in the north and spread across the sky. Everyone dashed outside to see, but there were great crashing noises and loud rumbles and explosions, so hastily the children were called in and the men servants began to put up the shutters as clouds of ashes with big stones and lumps of solidified lava poured down over the whole island. The family huddled downstairs while through the cracks in the shutters they could see constant vivid flashes of lightning and great roars of thunder. Carol clutched Ettie’s hand and tried to be brave; she wouldn’t let Willie and Fred see her cry. All the servants were huddled in with them and some of the maids were crying. Mother looked pale but Mother would never be frightened. They could hear rocks and big boulders crashing on the roof and Mother just began to say, “I think we should all go down into the cellar,” when the back door blew open and Dad and the other men burst in. They had been on their way home when they heard the first huge eruption so had struggled on, battered with stones and covered with ash but nothing more serious. Dad herded them all downstairs until the bangs and crashes became less frequent. The air in the cellar got so full of dust and smoke and the pungent smell of sulphur, that Dad finally told everyone to go upstairs, but try to keep everything closed as much as possible. Black darkness covered the town while the roar of the volcano continued.  Rocks, ash, and cinders fell to be mixed with rain into a glutinous mud. Not a living thing ventured out into the maelstrom.

Eventually the storm lessened and there were fewer falls of rocks. People crept outside and tried to see how much damage had been done. The family began to clear the dust and ash from the veranda while the men rode down to the harbour on horseback through the muddy littered streets. The young people began to shovel mud from the paths and the sky gradually became a little clearer. Down at the harbour Father and the other men saw through the dusk a small boat sailing from the Leeward and entering the harbour. It was crowded with survivors from Chateaubelair with stories of the terrible destruction which had taken place.

No telephones were working and there was no news from the Windward side of the island so next day when the light was better, Father and some of the men decided to sail up north and see what had happened there. Willie and Fred went down to the harbour to see them set sail, but it was still too dusty and grey for Carol to see them from the verandah. They were away all day and just as there was a faint rim of sunset on the horizon for the first time in a week, they slipped back into the harbour. The family waited quietly at home as one of the boys rode down with a horse for Father, and at last they came wearily up the hill. Carol took one look at Father and knew that something dreadful had happened. His face was tear-stained and dirty and he looked like a very old man.  Mother said quietly, “Come Jack, have a bath, and after you’ve had a drink and something to eat you can tell us what happened. We know it is bad news.”

After a silent supper Dad stretched out tiredly in his chair and told them. “We sailed up past Georgetown,” he said, ” and the sky was a bit clearer but we couldn’t see any people or anything going on so when we came to that little jetty at Orange Hill we decided to anchor and walk up to the Fraser’s house. Everything was quiet- not a sound of a goat or a bird or a cow, and no one in the fields that we could see. At the house I saw someone sitting on a chair and then another person on the steps. We ran up, but we need not have hurried. George and Flora – both quite dead. We went into the house – nobody there, but down in the cellar – my God! It was packed with the servants and the people from the estate and their families. All dead from gas. You could smell it still and we were glad to get out in the air again. We thought that George and Flora must have found the cellar very crowded and come upstairs to have a breath of air just as the gas rolled down the mountain. There were rocks and stones and lumps of lava everywhere but from what I could see the gas has killed every man, woman and child for miles around as well as animals. Some of the horses had been penned in the fields with the cattle and it looked as if they had been struck by lightning. I never saw more horrible sights.”

A Mr. MacDonald who had been at Richmond Vale close to the volcano was one of the people who had watched and recorded the whole terrible event from 7:30 p. m. on May 6th to 6:00 p. m. on May 7th when he had to retreat to Chateaubelair. He wrote a vivid account of the whole destruction during that time. In Martinique molten lava was the killer. In St. Vincent the eruption was quite as violent if not more so as the explosion blew the whole top of the old volcano away and made another new crater. The gas ejected from the crater and the force of the falling rocks and lava made a “vast graveyard where 2000 bodies are buried under hills of ash and rock”.  The fertile valleys and Carib villages were gone.

The young Hazells were very subdued for a while, but it wasn’t too long before Fred and Willie were arguing about how many people would have been killed in Kingstown if the Soufriere had been as close as Mount Pellee had been to St. Pierre.

“There were 40,000 killed in Martinique,” said Willie. “I bet there would have been 50,000 here!”

“More!” shouted Carol. “Fifty thousand and two counting you two horrid things!”

(Quotation: Governor’s Report to the Secretary of State for the Colonies)

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