Saturday, August 13, 2005

"At Last" by Charles Kingsley (1871)--Extract

I have spent a lot of time on pictures of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, editing the ones in my book that will replace the one at and putting the extras on I'll put some selected pictures and comments here later, but now I need to work on texts for a while. The first is an extract from Charles Kingsley's visit to the West Indies, published in 1871.

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The next link in the chain, as the steamer runs southward, is St. Vincent; a single volcano peak, like St. Kitts, or the Basse Terre of Guadaloupe.  Very grand are the vast sheets, probably of lava covered with ash, which pour down from between two rounded mountains just above the town.  Rich with green canes, they contrast strongly with the brown ragged cliffs right and left of them, and still more with the awful depths beyond and above, where, underneath a canopy of bright white clouds, scowls a purple darkness of cliffs and glens, among which lies, unseen, the Souffrière.

In vain, both going and coming, by sunlight, and again by moonlight, when the cane-fields gleamed white below and the hills were pitch-black above, did we try to catch a sight of this crater-peak.  One fact alone we ascertained, that like all, as far as I have seen, of the West Indian volcanoes, it does not terminate in an ash-cone, but in ragged cliffs of blasted rock.  The explosion of April 27, 1812, must have been too violent, and too short, to allow of any accumulation round the crater.  And no wonder; for that single explosion relieved an interior pressure upon the crust of the earth, which had agitated sea and land from the Azores to the West Indian islands, the coasts of Venezuela, the Cordillera of New Grenada, and the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio.  For nearly two years the earthquakes had continued, when they culminated in one great tragedy, which should be read at length in the pages of Humboldt. {43b}   On March 26, 1812, when the people of Caraccas were assembled in the churches, beneath a still and blazing sky, one minute of earthquake sufficed to bury, amid the ruins of churches and houses, nearly 10,000 souls.  The same earthquake wrought terrible destruction along the whole line of the northern Cordilleras, and was felt even at Santa Fé de Bogota, and Honda, 180 leagues from Caraccas.  But the end was not yet.  While the wretched survivors of Caraccas were dying of fever and starvation, and wandering inland to escape from ever-renewed earthquake shocks, among villages and farms, which, ruined like their own city, could give them no shelter, the almost forgotten volcano of St. Vincent was muttering in suppressed wrath.  It had thrown out no lava since 1718; if, at least, the eruption spoken of by Moreau de Jonnés took place in the Souffrière.  According to him, with a terrific earthquake, clouds of ashes were driven into the air with violent detonations from a mountain situated at the eastern end of the island.  When the eruption had ceased, it was found that the whole mountain had disappeared.  Now there is no eastern end to St. Vincent, nor any mountain on the east coast: and the Souffrière is at the northern end.  It is impossible, meanwhile, that the wreck of such a mountain should not have left traces visible and notorious to this day.  May not the truth be, that the Souffrière had once a lofty cone, which was blasted away in 1718, leaving the present crater-ring of cliffs and peaks; and that thus may be explained the discrepancies in the accounts of its height, which Mr. Scrope gives as 4940 feet, and Humboldt and Dr. Davy at 3000, a measurement which seems to me to be more probably correct?  The mountain is said to have been slightly active in 1785.  In 1812 its old crater had been for some years (and is now) a deep blue lake, with walls of rock around 800 feet in height, reminding one traveller of the Lake of Albano. {44}   But for twelve months it had given warning, by frequent earthquake shocks, that it had its part to play in the great subterranean battle between rock and steam; and on the 27th of April 1812 the battle began.

A negro boy—he is said to be still alive in St. Vincent—was herding cattle on the mountain-side.  A stone fell near him; and then another.  He fancied that other boys were pelting him from the cliffs above, and began throwing stones in return.  But the stones fell thicker: and among them one, and then another, too large to have been thrown by human hand.  And the poor little fellow woke up to the fact that not a boy, but the mountain, was throwing stones at him; and that the column of black cloud which was rising from the crater above was not harmless vapour, but dust, and ash, and stone.  He turned, and ran for his life, leaving the cattle to their fate, while the steam mitrailleuse of the Titans—to which all man’s engines of destruction are but pop-guns—roared on for three days and nights, covering the greater part of the island in ashes, burying crops, breaking branches off the trees, and spreading ruin from which several estates never recovered; and so the 30th of April dawned in darkness which might be felt.

Meanwhile, on that same day, to change the scene of the campaign two hundred and ten leagues, ‘a distance,’ as Humboldt says, ‘equal to that between Vesuvius and Paris,’ ‘the inhabitants, not only of Caraccas, but of Calabozo, situate in the midst of the Llanos, over a space of four thousand square leagues, were terrified by a subterranean noise, which resembled frequent discharges of the loudest cannon.  It was accompanied by no shock: and, what is very remarkable, was as loud on the coast as at eighty leagues’ distance inland; and at Caraccas, as well as at Calabozo, preparations were made to put the place in defence against an enemy who seemed to be advancing with heavy artillery.’  They might as well have copied the St. Vincent herd-boy, and thrown their stones, too, at the Titans; for the noise was, there can be no doubt, nothing else than the final explosion in St. Vincent far away.  The same explosion was heard in Venezuela, the same at Martinique and Guadaloupe: but there, too, there were no earthquake shocks.  The volcanoes of the two French islands lay quiet, and left their English brother to do the work.  On the same day a stream of lava rushed down from the mountain, reached the sea in four hours, and then all was over.  The earthquakes which had shaken for two years a sheet of the earth’s surface larger than half Europe were stilled by the eruption of this single vent.

No wonder if, with such facts on my memory since my childhood, I looked up at that Souffrière with awe, as at a giant, obedient though clumsy, beneficent though terrible, reposing aloft among the clouds when his appointed work was done.

The strangest fact about this eruption was, that the mountain did not make use of its old crater.  The original vent must have become so jammed and consolidated, in the few years between 1785 and 1812, that it could not be reopened, even by a steam-force the vastness of which may be guessed at from the vastness of the area which it had shaken for two years.  So when the eruption was over, it was found that the old crater-lake, incredible as it may seem, remained undisturbed, as far as has been ascertained.  But close to it, and separated only by a knife-edge of rock some 700 feet in height, and so narrow that, as I was assured by one who had seen it, it is dangerous to crawl along it, a second crater, nearly as large as the first, had been blasted out, the bottom of which, in like manner, is now filled with water.  I regretted much that I could not visit it.  Three points I longed to ascertain carefully—the relative heights of the water in the two craters; the height and nature of the spot where the lava stream issued; and lastly, if possible, the actual causes of the locally famous Rabacca, or ‘Dry River,’ one of the largest streams in the island, which was swallowed up during the eruption, at a short distance from its source, leaving its bed an arid gully to this day.  But it could not be, and I owe what little I know of the summit of the Souffrière principally to a most intelligent and gentleman-like young Wesleyan minister, whose name has escaped me.  He described vividly as we stood together on the deck, looking up at the volcano, the awful beauty of the twin lakes, and of the clouds which, for months together, whirl in and out of the cups in fantastic shapes before the eddies of the trade-wind.

The day after the explosion, ‘Black Sunday,’ gave a proof of, though no measure of, the enormous force which had been exerted.  Eighty miles to windward lies Barbadoes.  All Saturday a heavy cannonading had been heard to the eastward.  The English and French fleets were surely engaged.  The soldiers were called out; the batteries manned: but the cannonade died away, and all went to bed in wonder.  On the 1st of May the clocks struck six: but the sun did not, as usual in the tropics, answer to the call.  The darkness was still intense, and grew more intense as the morning wore on.  A slow and silent rain of impalpable dust was falling over the whole island.  The Negroes rushed shrieking into the streets.  Surely the last day was come.  The white folk caught (and little blame to them) the panic; and some began to pray who had not prayed for years.  The pious and the educated (and there were plenty of both in Barbadoes) were not proof against the infection.  Old letters describe the scene in the churches that morning as hideous—prayers, sobs, and cries, in Stygian darkness, from trembling crowds.  And still the darkness continued, and the dust fell.

I have a letter, written by one long since dead, who had at least powers of description of no common order, telling how, when he tried to go out of his house upon the east coast, he could not find the trees on his own lawn, save by feeling for their stems.  He stood amazed not only in utter darkness, but in utter silence.  For the trade-wind had fallen dead; the everlasting roar of the surf was gone; and the only noise was the crashing of branches, snapped by the weight of the clammy dust.  He went in again, and waited.  About one o’clock the veil began to lift; a lurid sunlight stared in from the horizon: but all was black overhead.  Gradually the dust-cloud drifted away; the island saw the sun once more; and saw itself inches deep in black, and in this case fertilising, dust.  The trade-wind blew suddenly once more out of the clear east, and the surf roared again along the shore.

Meanwhile, a heavy earthquake-wave had struck part at least of the shores of Barbadoes.  The gentleman on the east coast, going out, found traces of the sea, and boats and logs washed up, some 10 to 20 feet above high-tide mark: a convulsion which seems to have gone unmarked during the general dismay.

One man at least, an old friend of John Hunter, Sir Joseph Banks and others their compeers, was above the dismay, and the superstitious panic which accompanied it.  Finding it still dark when he rose to dress, he opened (so the story used to run) his window; found it stick, and felt upon the sill a coat of soft powder.  ‘The volcano in St. Vincent has broken out at last,’ said the wise man, ‘and this is the dust of it.’  So he quieted his household and his Negroes, lighted his candles, and went to his scientific books, in that delight, mingled with an awe not the less deep because it is rational and self-possessed, with which he, like other men of science, looked at the wonders of this wondrous world.

Those who will recollect that Barbadoes is eighty miles to windward of St. Vincent, and that a strong breeze from E.N.E. is usually blowing from the former island to the latter, will be able to imagine, not to measure, the force of an explosion which must have blown this dust several miles into the air, above the region of the trade-wind, whether into a totally calm stratum, or into that still higher one in which the heated south-west wind is hurrying continually from the tropics toward the pole.  As for the cessation of the trade-wind itself during the fall of the dust, I leave the fact to be explained by more learned men: the authority whom I have quoted leaves no doubt in my mind as to the fact.

On leaving St. Vincent, the track lies past the Grenadines.  For sixty miles, long low islands of quaint forms and euphonious names—Becquia, Mustique, Canonau, Carriacou, Isle de Rhone—rise a few hundred feet out of the unfathomable sea, bare of wood, edged with cliffs and streaks of red and gray rock, resembling, says Dr. Davy, the Cyclades of the Grecian Archipelago: their number is counted at three hundred.  The largest of them all is not 8000 acres in extent; the smallest about 600.  A quiet prosperous race of little yeomen, beside a few planters, dwell there; the latter feeding and exporting much stock, the former much provisions, and both troubling themselves less than of yore with sugar and cotton.  They build coasting vessels, and trade with them to the larger islands; and they might be, it is said, if they chose, much richer than they are,—if that be any good to them.

The steamer does not stop at any of these little sea-hermitages; so that we could only watch their shores: and they were worth watching.  They had been, plainly, sea-gnawn for countless ages; and may, at some remote time, have been all joined in one long ragged chine of hills, the highest about 1000 feet.  They seem to be for the most part made up of marls and limestones, with trap-dykes and other igneous matters here and there.  And one could not help entertaining the fancy that they were a specimen of what the other islands were once, or at least would have been now, had not each of them had its volcanic vents, to pile up hard lavas thousands of feet aloft, above the marine strata, and so consolidate each ragged chine of submerged mountain into one solid conical island, like St. Vincent at their northern end, and at their southern end that beautiful Grenada to which we were fast approaching, and which we reached, on our outward voyage, at nightfall; running in toward a narrow gap of moonlit cliffs, beyond which we could discern the lights of a town.  We did not enter the harbour: but lay close off its gateway in safe deep water; fired our gun, and waited for the swarm of negro boats, which began to splash out to us through the darkness, the jabbering of their crews heard long before the flash of their oars was seen.