This post was written by Oscar Webber and describes the Account of the Fatal Hurricane by which Barbados suffered in August 1831 – Printed for Samuel Hyde, Bridgetown, Barbados. This is part of a series of posts on Environmental History for History Day 2021.
Oscar Webber completed his PhD at the University of Leeds in 2018 before working as a Teaching Fellow in British and Caribbean History at the London School of Economics. He currently working on his first book titled ‘Negotiating Relief and Freedom: Responses to disaster in the British Caribbean, 1812-1907’ which will be published by Manchester University Press as part of their Studies in Imperialism series. In 2022, Oscar will be taking up an Early Career Research Fellowship at the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies where he will be researching the British response to the Belizean hurricane of 1931 and its connections to the emergence of a labour movement in the colony.
Animus meminisse horret, luctuque refugit – Although my soul shudders to remember and once more shrinks from grief, I shall begin
Between the 10th and 11th of August 1831, the island of Barbados was visited by a devastating hurricane. It killed at least 1787 people (though the real toll could be far higher), severely injured hundreds more and caused an estimated £2,311,729 of damage. This was an era long before the emergence of not just rapid trans-Atlantic news coverage, but also before the media developed an appetite for disaster stories, especially from distant colonies. Therefore, someone like myself seeking to investigate this and other disasters in the British Caribbean is mostly reliant on colonial records to uncover these events. However, they focus primarily on communicating the scale of financial losses back to the Colonial Office. They rarely give us a human account of how disasters were experienced on the ground. All of this makes the Account of the Fatal Hurricane by which Barbados suffered in August 1831 both rare and fascinating. Unlike colonial records, it is a first-hand account not just of the author’s experience during the hurricane but also a wealth of experiences they collected from people around the island.
The identity of the author of the account is not recorded, but in his book Sea of Storms Stuart Schwartz suggests that they probably are Samuel Hyde, a Barbadian creole who later became the editor of one of the island’s newspapers. I am inclined to agree; the author speaks in a tone at odds with most planters, they clearly have a strong personal attachment to the island and advocate for measures be taken to prevent such future tragedies. Most planters had little love for the islands they extracted their wealth from and focused their energies on returning to Britain.
First-hand accounts of these disasters are rare, not least because the destruction they caused was not exactly conducive to sitting and recounting one’s experiences. Even when the immediate danger had passed, living conditions remained precarious; colonialism rendered the colonies’ economies in an export focused direction which made them heavily import dependent. This meant that in the post-disaster chaos, food and material shortages were often acute. Accounts written by those outside of the colonial authorities are rarer still; the literacy of the enslaved African-Caribbean population was actively discouraged by the planter class who saw it as destabilising to their authority. Again, all of this makes the Account an astonishingly valuable source.
The Account is full of insights for anyone interested in nineteenth-century Caribbean history, but for me, as an environmental historian interested in natural hazards and their interactions with human-created conditions, the details the source provides on Barbados’ plantation environment stand out. In the face of the rains brought by the hurricane, the author records that crops and livestock were drowned or otherwise swept away. Around the island, landslides were also recorded making parts of the island impassable and delaying the recovery effort. Upon climbing the tower of Saint Mary’s church in Bridgetown, the capital, the author notes that as far as the eye could see in every direction, ‘the surface of the ground appeared as if fire had ran [sic] through the land, scorching and burning up the productions of the earth.’
What we are reading is in part the action of the hurricane and its rains on a heavily deforested island. In service of expanding the sugar plantations, Barbados had become one of, if not the most, deforested islands in the region and without tree roots to bind the soil, it lost cohesion easily. The deforestation not only increased the destruction of the island’s environment but also increased the risk its inhabitants were exposed too. The Account is replete with details of people who, at the height of the storm, were forced out of collapsing homes only to find themselves without any natural cover. Exposed and soaked by the rain many were killed and maimed by flying debris. Through the Account, we can begin to see how natural phenomena such as hurricanes truly became ‘disasters’ when they hit upon such depleted environments and unprepared communities.
What is also fascinating about the Account is the detail it provides on how this racially bifurcated society responded to the destruction. In 1831, Barbados was only fifteen years from its last rebellion of enslaved peoples and in Britain, discussions of Emancipation were intensifying ahead of its passage in 1833. In the wake of the hurricane, the minority white population appears to have been wholly preoccupied with doing all they could to tamp down what they saw as the ‘sparks of insurrection’. Public works programmes and the dispatch of an armed white militia were the tactics they used to shore up their authority amidst the chaos. In reality, there seems to have been little to no appetite for rebellion. In the absence of comprehensive disaster relief, the enslaved population focused instead on ensuring their immediate survival, scavenging what food they could from the wreckage.
Whilst detailing these conflicts, the author themselves nonetheless provides a more sympathetic, emotive window on to the reality of this disaster. They humanise the island’s inhabitants, providing us with insights into the scale of the trauma inflicted by the hurricane; their hearts were ‘surcharged with distress’ and their voices were denied the ‘power of utterance’. Sources like this are not only a powerful reminder of the human cost of disasters but also of how degraded environments can worsen the impact of natural hazards. It is hard to quantify the long-term impact of colonial-era deforestation and soil erosion, but it is something worth thinking about as the whole region is now on the frontline of the climate crisis.
For those interested, the source can read in full and downloaded as a PDF via Google Books.