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2001 ISSUE


Originally published in the Winter 2001 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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Life precarious in island paradise

Travelers think of them as paradise — the beautiful Caribbean Islands — but permanent residents live with the constant threat of hurricanes and earthquakes, floods and droughts, and volcanic eruptions

By Sally Harris

The series of volcanic islands formed because the Caribbean and Atlantic plates intersect in the area, according to Bonham Richardson, a Virginia Tech professor of geography who has spent 30 years studying the region. The very fact that the islands are there is evidence of geological instability, which accounts for the tremors and earthquakes. Add to that the seasonal hurricane activity and the numerous volcanoes that might become active, plus periodic droughts due to the porous (but fertile) ash soils and the flooding caused by rainfall in the high country, and “the people are living in an extremely precarious environment,” he says.

One result of living there is adaptability, says Richardson, who has done both field and archival research. “The people are ready to move, ready to migrate, ready to experiment.” Natural disasters also have an effect on decisions of economic and political import.

Richardson has done research in the London area at the Public Record Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library, the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, and the British Museum’s Newspaper Library. He has lived and worked in London and on several of the islands. The Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers honored Richardson with its 1999 Carl B. Sauer Distinguished Scholar award for his historical geography scholarship of the Caribbean.

The Caribbean Islands were known for their sugar cane. Most of the cultivatable land was in the hands of plantation owners who deliberately over-populated the islands with West African slaves to clear the natural forests with iron axes and work the cane fields, Richardson says. At first, much of the food for the slaves was imported fish and corn from the United States, so that the islands were “precariously dependent on outside food sources.” Later, the laborers began growing subsistence crops.

In the 1830s, the British islands emancipated their slaves, followed over the next 50 years by the French, Dutch, and Spanish. “The emancipation liberated people, but not land, from the St. Vincent planters,” Richardson wrote in a 1989 article on “Catastrophes and Change on St. Vincent,” published in National Geographic Research. For many years, the white planters still held most of the coastal lands, while some of the freed slaves tried to grow subsistence crops in the “rugged, remote, and landslide-prone interior.” However, most of them stayed to work for wages on the estates and grew subsistence gardens. Some of them went into towns to find jobs and became the “working urban poor,” Richardson said in a recent interview. (At the same time, however, on Grenada, a group of black smallholders became prosperous by growing cacao.)

Drought and hurricane

Beginning around 1884, another problem arose. The island economies fell into a depression, due, in part, to low prices for West Indian sugar, bringing many sugar-cane estates near financial ruin and causing some to stop planting. A drought decimated the laborers’ subsistence crops. Some of the laborers migrated to Trinidad and Venezuela; others threatened the white planters. In September 1898, the governor of the British colony of the Windward Islands in the eastern Caribbean sent a message from his Grenada office to London saying the situation was dire.

What he didn’t know was that a major portion of the island of St. Vincent 100 miles north had been devastated by a major hurricane that had first hit Barbados with high winds, “incessant sheets of rain,” and “an almost surreal and lengthy succession of lightning flashes,…” Richardson wrote in his 1997 book Economy and Environment in the Caribbean: Barbados and the Windwards in the Late 1800s. The storm left 10,000 Barbadian workers’ houses destroyed and 50,000 people homeless. It then proceeded to St. Vincent.

The eye of the hurricane probably went over St. Vincent, so the island was hit by furious winds from the northeast in the morning and intense winds from the south all afternoon, Richardson wrote. Drought-strained crops washed away. Homes, especially the frail structures of the workers, were reduced to boards, and personal belongings scattered everywhere. Two hundred people were killed, 20,000 (half the population) lost their homes, and three quarters of them lacked food. Many people fled to other areas, and some other islands sent food and supplies.

Black laborers and their families had always supplemented their vegetable-based diets by chewing sugarcane, but now they resorted to cane juice more than ever because of the loss of trees and crops, Richardson wrote in the article “Catastrophes and Change on St. Vincent.” Malnutrition was rampant even a year later, as were joblessness and typhoid fever. The death rate went up considerably.

Volcano and politics

Even before the island of St. Vincent had fully recovered, its volcanic Mt. Soufriere erupted in 1902 at the same time as the massive, destructive eruption of Mt. Pelee in French Martinique. In the Mt. Pelee eruption, which killed 30,000, “a super-heated cloud of gas came down the mountain and incinerated St. Pierre, the capital city.”

At that time, on the other side of the Caribbean Sea, two possible routes for the proposed Panama Canal were being considered, one across southern Nicaragua and one across Panama. Those who favored the Panama route pointed out that Nicaragua had a history of volcanic activity, too. Although there were volcanoes in Panama as well, the Panama supporters sent each member of congress a one-cent stamp from Nicaragua showing a volcano and reminding the senators of the damage the Mt. Pelee eruption had done in Martinique. Thus a volcano on a Caribbean island resulted in Panama becoming a place of geopolitical importance, Richardson says.

Meanwhile, the eruption of Mt. Soufriere on St. Vincent showered “the northern half of the island with red-hot rocks, ashes, and sand,” Richardson reported in “Catastrophes and Change on St. Vincent.” The eruption and its aftershocks dumped about a foot of ash on St. Vincent’s northern half — ash that eventually would make the ground more fertile, but was devastating at the time.

Hurricanes and politics

In subsequent years, additional hurricanes hit several islands. Help came from nearby islands, from the United Kingdom, and from the United States. Following the major earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica (still a British colony), in 1907, British troops were absent, so a U.S. naval convoy brought supplies and a military presence to prevent looting, help with cleanup, and establish field hospitals. However, controversy arose over whether the U.S. help was humanitarian or an attempt to establish further footholds in the Caribbean. The British governor of Jamaica ordered the U.S. military to leave, a move with political consequences. It was two days before British help arrived and the residents were angry.

The United States had proven its ability to deal with such catastrophes when the San Ciriaco hurricane had devastated Puerto Rico in 1898, and the situation “provided an important context in which the island’s immediate future was determined,” Richardson said in a presentation at the Meetings of the Caribbean Studies Association in Antigua in 1998. The United States also reminded the British that “U.S. Marines had been invited ashore to help control crowds and protect property during the massive fire in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in 1895.” In Kingston, many people thought the governor had been reprehensible for refusing U.S. help, and in Antigua some wondered whether “it might not be best for Antigua to seek some kind of political relationship with the United States.”

Many people of the islands migrated to Panama to find jobs on the canal. “At 10 cents per hour, canal construction jobs were relatively high paying and continuous in contrast to seasonal unemployment at home,” Richardson said in his presentation. Also, in the early 1900s, “several thousand black Jamaicans had emigrated to New York.” However, the government also purchased some of the failing estates and sold small parcels to the laborers.

Land use changes

Richardson does not claim that environmental events determined historical trajectories in the Caribbean at the turn of the century. But he does say that the two major disasters that shook St. Vincent in 1888 and 1902 “encouraged changes in land use there and changed the human geography, especially of St. Vincent.” By 1989, the residents of St. Vincent and other eastern Caribbean islands inhabited a small resource base and depended on external markets well beyond local control, Richardson said in “Catastrophes and Change.” Soufriere erupted again in 1979, causing the evacuation of 15,000 people. But, whereas before the two disasters of 1888 and 1902, large-scale planters had held most of the cultivatable land, by 1979 small landowners dominated the farming, both subsistence and cash crops. The result is that, in spite of the continual threats of natural disasters, many islanders revere the land and cling to it.

“Bananas have become the main export crop, and more than two-thirds are produced by smallholders,” Richardson said in “Catastrophes and Change.” “Subsistence cropping is next, and tobacco is grown on a modest scale. Sugarcane cultivation is gone except for local use.” As a result, he said, “St. Vincent’s very identity has thus been bound up with its small-scale cultivators whose importance began in the aftermath of the twin disasters that struck the island at the turn of the century.”

Although “the twin calamities did not cause St. Vincent’s planters to leave or the island’s land use to change in a facile deterministic sense,” Richardson said, “…their occurrence — one so close behind the other — underlined the depression-induced gloom and probably made difficult decisions easier. These decisions, by both government officials encouraging land-settlement schemes and planters — whose continued cultivation would have required more investment on top of heavy losses — helped produce a pivotal change in land use with long-term results.”

In recent years, Montserrat had a big volcanic eruption, and its capital was evacuated. Some fled to stay with relatives in Antigua, as the island peoples had migrated to other islands during previous disasters.


The peoples of the islands today do a little farming and many artisan tasks for the local tourist industry. They also serve as carpenters, masons, and taxi drivers. A few of the islands have genuine industry now, such as the oil production on St. Croix and Trinidad.

The standard of living on most of the islands, which lie in the shadow of the United States, has sent many to America to find work. But the standard of living on the islands is “surprisingly high,” Richardson says. On Barbados, for example, half the people own vehicles. The literacy rate is higher than in the United States. “The standard of living in conventional terms is not as high as any place in the states, but it’s not primitive. They have ‘iffy’ flush toilets, piped water, and electricity (on and off).”

“On some of the tiny islands, things are still precarious,” Richardson says. “They grow sugarcane and other crops, but they can’t devote full time to it because they don’t know what the market will be. Tourism is a fickle industry that depends on such things as the stock market or bad news from an island. If there’s a homicide or a rape, it destroys tourism.”

Added to those things is the eternal threat of hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and drought. “It can be rough,” Richardson says. And, because natural catastrophe is always a possibility, natural events will probably continue to influence local events and involve international connections, he says.