1958 Climbing the Volcano

La Soufrière, St. Vincent’s volcano, erupted April 9th 2021 as it had twice in my grandmother’s lifetime, and now twice in mine. The island suffered a devastating physical, psychological, and economic blow, because of the evacuations, the air quality, the volcanic destruction, and the blow to whatever remained of the tourist trade during the pandemic. But St. Vincent is resilient. Five years after the devastating eruption in 1902, the volcano was deemed inactive and life went on. By the 1950s, locals knew it as a green mountain with a lake in the middle, although they were aware of the tragic past. Cyn explains her interest in the volcano, and regarded the climb as the pinnacle (!) of her holiday in her birthplace. We hope for healing for all St.Vincentians and hope this glimpse of the past isn’t upsetting.

We Climbed the Volcano
Cynthia Costain

When I was young I remember boasting proudly to my friends “My mother has been through a hurricane, a volcanic eruption and an earthquake.” I don’t recall whether they were greatly impressed as none of these phenomena were familiar to schoolgirls in the north of England, but my mother’s recollections of these events were vivid and thrilling to me. I loved to hear of her running out of the house with the earth shaking under her feet, and of the crowds in the dark hurricane cellar of my grandfather’s big house listening to the crash as the wind blew in the shutters and windows above, but most of all I liked the story of the eruption of the Soufrière with the darkness coming over the sun and the dust sifting down over everything.
Perhaps this was why when I visited St. Vincent with my husband and family last year, I was determined to climb the volcano. I had never been back to the island after leaving it at four years of age, but I had heard so many tales that it all seemed quite familiar. I knew that it was possible to climb the volcano and I had even heard of people who swam in the lake which had formed in the crater. However, it was very pleasant lazing and swimming and enjoying the lovely island, and whenever I mentioned the Soufrière no one was very enthusiastic. My mother was frankly scornful of my chances of reaching the top, as my exercise is usually limited to a stroll to the local store or getting in and out of the car. When my uncle began to talk of getting horses for the initial stages of the climb I was quite horrified as I had never been on a horse in my life. Fortunately, also vacationing in the island was a cousin of mine, Jack, and his wife, Joan and Jack having grown up on the island had climbed the volcano many times and volunteered to take my husband and me with himself and Joan.
We made all our plans for an early start, and chose the day with due consideration for the banana boat. This is very necessary in island life, as the days the boats are in the harbour all private cars stay off the roads while the banana trucks pour in from the estates in a reckless stream. The boats are only in for a limited time and the more loads of bananas that can be brought in, the more money for everyone. As Mr. Harry Belafonte says “Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me bananas” while along the winding, twisting, mountainous roads the trucks run a bi-weekly Grand Prix with their carefully packed green cargoes.
On the morning of our expedition we got up at 4 o’clock to drive to the other end of the island and make our ascent while it was still cool. Jack and Joan arrived from the adjoining small island where they were staying, and we set off in a canvas topped jeep, leaving my mother to look after the children. The drive in the early morning was beautiful, and we saw the sunrise over the Caribbean and make the water sparkle and gleam. Already the little villages along the way were stirring, and women were walking along the road towards town and the market with their vegetables and other produce on their heads. They bowed gravely to us, without upsetting the balance of their loads, and continued quietly along, while we followed the narrow road up the windward coast of the island. Being volcanic, the island is extremely mountainous and there are only three main roads, one which goes up the windward coast, one up the leeward coast, and a shorter one partly up a central valley – all these beginning at the main town of Kingstown, and none of them meeting. The coastline is very sharply indented, and in places the hills come down to the sea, so the roads turn and bend, climb and dip, follow ledges along the hillside and all along the way give one the most spectacular views of sugar-cane, coconut palms, arrowroot, sea- island cotton, nutmeg and mango trees all growing in small precipitous, terraced fields. After driving about an hour and a half we passed through a slightly larger village, Georgetown, and came to the Dry River. This is a ‘river’ composed entirely of rocks, stones and lava which has poured down from the volcano at various times. During the rainy season there is some water in it, but we were able to drive across with only a few bumps, and we came to the beginning of the biggest coconut estate in the island. The trees grow in the soft gray lava dust, which seems to deaden all sounds, and makes this whole part seem rather sinister and eerie. The dust sifts through the air continually, and as we drove through the rows and rows of palms along the dusty track, with no signs of people or houses, it felt as if we were far away from the rest of the world. As we drove we climbed higher, and I was relieved to hear that the jeep would take us up to the foothills and we would not have horses, as they could not take us much further.
At last we came to a high field, where the track became a path along a stony ridge, so we left the jeep and set out. Almost immediately the path became very steep, as we climbed on up into the range of hills, and then we crossed a narrow ridge, just wide enough for one person to walk, and below on either side we could look down on sugar-cane growing on slopes so steep that the men would not need to bend to cut the cane but would find the roots at the level of their shoulders.
I had always imagined the Soufrière as being like volcanos I had seen in pictures – Parícutin and Vesuvius – but to my surprise it was quite different. It is one of many mountains, and unless you are far away on the Leeward side of the island, it is very hard to see. The morning we set out to climb it, the whole range was covered with thick cloud, and as we climbed we were surrounded with mist, and began to think of all the pessimists who had warned us of the many people who climb the Soufriere and don’t see anything because of the cloud. All the early part of the climb was up the foothills, gradually working our way towards the main mountain itself and after about an hour we came to a river bed which marked the beginning of the real climb. The river was dry now, as the island was having a very dry season, but Jack told us tales of coming down the mountain and picnicking and swimming after the long hot climb.
After a short rest, we set off again, along a small path, always mounting between walls of tropical trees and creepers. The vegetation was luxuriant, with lovely begonias growing waist high and flowered vines trailing from the trees. On the way down Joan found an orchid, which she dug up and carefully took home for my Aunt’s garden, as it was quite a rare variety. I also found some beautiful little flowers and took them home too, but my aunt kindly told me that they were a common weed which no gardener would allow in his garden.
I have been writing calmly and cooly about the vegetation along the way, but believe me, there was nothing cool or calm about me at the time. Never in all my life had I been so hot. The air was humid and still, with the clinging mist all around and over us. A mixture of sweat and vapour drops continually dripped from every lank strand of hair, and I had long ago given up mopping my face. My husband and Jack were just the same, but Joan, born and raised in Trinidad, wandered happily along with no obvious discomfort, and looked as if the temperature was as pleasant as one could wish. I was quite pleased with my progress though, and found after the first 20 minutes, during which I thought I would either die quietly by the path or have apoplexy, that I could keep up with the others with very little trouble, and although I was always glad for the few minutes rest we took every now and then, I didn’t have to call a halt at any time. The climb is actually not hard, and anyone normally active can climb it if they persevere.
As we got higher the trees, which had been tall and completely hiding all the light so that we were climbing through a green dim tunnel, gradually became shorter, and slowly we found that all the vegetation was getting less and less tropical and becoming more of the hardy brush type. Even this, as we got higher, thinned out, so that there were only low shrubs growing knee-high along the path. As we got out onto the shale and cinders it was more troublesome, as one tended to slide back at every step, but it was never dangerous. We were thankful to have Jack as guide because the path which was at first clearly marked, gradually grew fainter, and in places disappeared. Even Jack found it difficult to trace at times, particularly as it was 25 years since he had last climbed the volcano, and during that time, he found the whole appearance of parts of the mountain had changed as the vegetation had grown. The volcano last erupted in 1902 and even in the 1930s when Jack was last climbing it, the whole area was arid with very few signs of growth, but by now this has completely changed on the lower slopes, and even halfway up there is a low shrub like growth.
We climbed on slowly through these low bushes, but still because of the cloud we could not see the summit, and it was not until we came to the dry cinders and sliding gritty dust that we knew we were beginning to get close to the top. The ground in places was deeply eroded, with great fissures, and the ascent was very steep. The cinders were of a dark red colour in places with a kind of lichen growing on the rocks, so that the whole visible landscape was dreary and depressing with the shreds of clouds drifting by, a very slight acrid sulphur smell in the air, and a dank chill wind blowing through our damp clothes. Suddenly walking along a ledge of cinders we topped a rise, and in front of us was no more path to climb but deep down below us – the crater! We had reached the top.

It was an incredible sight to stand in that burnt up wasteland, and look down – down into that still green lake with low bushes growing around with everything so quiet and peaceful and try to imagine what it had been like to cause the destruction around. The crater is a mile across and the lake 1500 feet down, the water in the lake having gradually seeped in during the years. There is a path down inside the crater on the opposite side, but the slope is very sheer, and when one gets down the water is said to be very cold.
As we could still see little because of the mist, we decided to rest and have our second breakfast, with the hope that the sun would break through, and we huddled down behind some rocks, thankful for the sweaters which had seem so superfluous earlier. By this time it was after 10 o’clock and we had been climbing since seven, so the hard boiled eggs and rum punch had an added flavour at that altitude. Just as we finished it began to get brighter and as we dashed quickly to try to take some pictures, the sun broke through the clouds and in a few minutes the whole landscape was clear and we were standing in brilliant tropical sunshine.

The Otways with Cyn.

It was a beautiful sight with the crater below us, and all around the mountains and valleys of the island with far on either side the glorious blue sea. The Soufrière is only 4100 feet high, but because it rises so steeply from the sea coast the elevation seems more, and the view of the surrounding country is spectacular. Beyond the crater on the far side is the ‘old crater’, which is even higher still, but it is difficult to reach, and during the last eruption it was entirely filled in with the debris from the first immense explosion. This eruption in 1902 was unusual in that the volcano literally ‘blew its top’, and the whole top was hurled off in a terrific explosion of rocks and cinders. It was accompanied by the deadly gas, which crept for miles around, and was the cause of the high number of deaths. The Soufrière is in a sparsely populated part of the island, but standing there I could see down to the small coves and bays on the leeward coast, and it was in one of these that the entire population of a small Carib village was wiped out, killing nearly all the last remaining Caribs in the island. Over on the windward side we could just see some of the estates, and it was on one of these that my grandfather’s friend, Mr. Fraser and his wife, were found sitting quietly on the verandah when rescuers came from Kingstown, killed by the gas from the volcano.

We wanted to get down the mountain before the sun became too hot, so at 11 o’clock we began the downward trek which seem to go so much more quickly than the upward climb. We were back to the jeep by 1 o’clock, finding a patient donkey beside it being loaded with sugar cane from the fields nearby. His master gave us each a piece of cane which I had always imagined quite soft and succulent, but I could not find much refreshment in the hard pithy dryness. We drove back through the coconut groves, and hot, damp and dirty as we were, we became even dirtier as the lava dust blew through the open jeep and settled blackly into every crease. The owner of the estate and his wife had very kindly invited us to have lunch at their estate house, although they were away, and we were very glad of this before setting out on our drive home. After an excited welcome by 13 dogs headed by 2 enormous Great Danes we were ushered into beautiful modern bathrooms with showers, and afterwards on the tiled verandah had the most delicious meal.
It was a tired, but satisfied, and – yes – rather smug group which returned home that afternoon, and proudly told our children and friends ‘Well, we did climb the volcano!’
For those of you who are interested in exotic and out-of-the-way places, and would like to visit St. Vincent, it is one of the Windward Islands in the West Indies. It can be reached by air from either Barbados or Trinidad – when we went there was no airfield on the island as the island is so mountainous, so we flew in an amphibian ‘Goose’ which lands on the sea. The Goose only takes 6 passengers, so the island never had many visitors, but since then an airfield has been made on one of the level valleys, and a regular air service is being started with a larger plane which will carry 25 passengers. There is a good hotel in Kingstown, and two delightful guest houses or inns in the country near the sea and the airport. The people are courteous and friendly, the prices are low and all authorities agree that St. Vincent is one of the loveliest islands in the Caribbean.

And a final note from Linda in the 21st century. I am so grateful to my brother for having unearthed the slides my father took of our holiday. Of course I remembered that they took slides in our childhood- and showed them boringly in the dark- but I had forgotten the mechanics of it. Obviously for the St. Vincent visit, they started off with a black-and-white film in the camera, and then switched to a film for slides. That is why the scrapbook has clear pictures without colour, but the slides were used for their adventure and the colour, though perhaps faded a bit, is better preserved than colour snaps are. However moments immortalized in slides tended to disappear into the dark that one needed to see them by. Anyone can look at photos again and again, although sticking them in an album does make it easier. Slides needed a projector, a screen, an audience, preparation- and Cec loved technology and so enjoyed this- but how much better is it now, when phones give us instant access and gorgeous colour? (And witness testimony when operated by an intelligent woman?)

My brother remembers different things about our trip, of course, including the fact that we had not been warned of our parents’ defection and were baffled by their disappearance when we got up that morning. We were placated by new toys: a plastic sink with a pump that pumped real water into the sink- Charlie liked technology too- and Linda got red plastic beads that popped together to make crowns, necklaces, or bracelets.
Cyn’s speech is a period piece, showing an agricultural St. Vincent so soon to be changed by the economic forces of the second half of the 20th century, the tourist trade, and the political drive for independence in colonial states around the world. It was her birthplace too, and she and Cec loved visiting it and my grandmother, once we were off their hands. She wrote a sadder piece in her old age, about the changes she had noticed over the years, which I will publish once the letters are finished. Meanwhile, back to 1958…

In the Botanical Gardens?

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)