St Vincent’s volcanic crisis – failing to learn from Montserrat

Saphia Fleury

Falling Through the Net PhD Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

The eruption on 9 April of La Soufrière volcano on the Caribbean island of St Vincent followed months of smoke plumes and other warning signs. At the time of writing, some 20,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, about one fifth of the island’s population. Some are temporarily housed in shelters, others on cruise ships or neighbouring islands. On 14 April, the United Nations launched an emergency appeal after shelter capacity was breached and supplies of drinking water and other essentials ran low. Overcrowding also threatens to spread Covid-19 among the displaced.

To anyone with a long interest in the region or of volcanology, this may all sound familiar. In 1995, La Soufrière’s namesake – the Soufrière Hills volcano – erupted on the island of Montserrat, another former British colony in the same island chain. The southern half of the island, including Montserrat’s capital, were evacuated several times before temporary resettlement eventually became permanent. Around two-thirds of Montserrat’s original population of 10,600 inhabitants eventually relocated overseas, most in the United Kingdom [UK].

The volcanoes themselves also seem to be following similar patterns: eruptions of ash, debris and gases following a period of seismic activity and heavy ash falls that blight everyday life and pose a risk to health. Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills lava domes continue to rumble to this day, although the last major eruptions occurred between 1995 and 2010. Likewise, La Soufrière seems set to pose a threat to Vincentians for some time to come. Yet in my own research into the disaster on Montserrat, I found that neither the UK Government (Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory) nor the Government of Montserrat had been prepared to respond to an eruption, despite warnings from scientists, eruptions on neighbouring volcanic islands, and increased seismicity. Considering that St Vincent suffered three major eruptions in the twentieth Century, and like Montserrat is subject to other natural disasters such as hurricanes, the lack of preparedness and international support appears inexcusable.

To minimise disruption from displacement, and prevent more serious harms such as trauma, exploitation and poverty among displaced people, temporary accommodation must provide for an adequate standard of living. Despite St Vincent’s history of volcanic activity and months of warning signs, it appears that the government did not have enough shelters, hygiene kits or beds, and no adequate contingency for providing clean water and sanitation. The Montserratian government made similar oversights 30 years ago; as a result, 19 people who had returned to the relative comfort of their homes in the exclusion zone were killed by a pyroclastic flow on 25 June 1997.

The inadequate response of the UK Government to an unfolding catastrophe in its overseas territory caused further hardships on Montserrat. My analysis of Hansard records shows little interest in the situation among UK parliamentarians and government until the tragedy of June 1997 forced the issue into the spotlight. By this time, islanders had struggled on in cramped and insanitary conditions with limited access to food, education and health care, for almost two years. Eventually, the British government opened an assisted passage scheme to help Montserratians leave the island, with several thousand ultimately relocating to the UK. Yet the privations and indignities continued when many of the evacuees, who were supposed to be treated as British citizens, were denied National Insurance numbers and other basic support in the UK. Meanwhile the impacts of the late-1990s eruptions continue to be felt on the island to this day, with many Montserratians still lacking adequate housing and employment opportunities.

As the UN launches its emergency funding appeal, Britain, the former colonial ruler of St Vincent, has pledged just £200,000 of support. It is inevitable that the crisis on St Vincent, like La Soufrière itself, will rumble on for some time to come. To prevent a severely reduced quality of life for the relocatees, and potential tragedy if people opt to return home rather than suffering the misery of inadequate shelters, the British government must do more. The international community too should consider routes for safe and legal passage off the island for those who choose to leave, either temporarily or permanently, to reduce pressure on the limited available services. Such relocations should be carried out with dignity and with respect for the wishes of the evacuees.

Montserrat and St Vincent and the Grenadines sit in an increasingly vulnerable position as climate change warms the neighbouring seas and air. More forceful hurricanes and rising sea levels put the islanders at greater risk from future natural disasters. Heavy storms triggered by climate change can also increase the risk of, and dangers from, volcanic eruptions in the region. The sad inevitability that natural catastrophes will become more severe and frequent should prompt policymakers in the Caribbean nations and their former colonial rulers to step up their disaster preparedness and response. Sadly, for the currently displaced population of St Vincent, the window of opportunity may already have been missed.

The volcanic eruption plume of La Soufrière on St Vincent, during explosive eruptions on 9 April 2021. ©ItsMeOni (from @_ItsMeOni on Twitter) 

Summary of author’s recent publications

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

In today’s blog Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of the last of his publications in 2020.

The Atlantic in World History (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

Atlantic history as a way of envisioning the making of the early modern world is a historiography that arose in the 1970s, became more fully developed in the 1990s and 2000s, and has by 2020 become an established field of historical inquiry. My synthesis of Atlantic history, based on being a practitioner of such history for nearly thirty years, provides a quick introduction for students and the general reader to this interesting field. It is a field that at bottom is an exploration of movement across the ocean and between the four continents of Africa, the Americas, and Europe – that movement being the movement of people, things and ideas. It starts with European involvement in Africa in the mid-fifteenth century and Columbus’ epoch-making voyages to the Caribbean from 1492. It ends in the mid-nineteenth century, with the abolition of slavery in most New World societies. The book explores how the peoples and the environments of Atlantic places were linked together, in ways that were both good and bad, but always historically interesting. I show how the Atlantic has been more than just an ocean – it has been an important site of circulation and transmission, allowing exchanges and interchanges between various peoples in ways that have profoundly shaped the development of the world beyond, as well as within, the Atlantic.

As the Atlantic world was about more than slavery, so slavery forms only part of a book in which gender, religion and trades are extensively discussed. Nevertheless, slavery is a vital part of the Atlantic world and indispensable to its workings.  I explore its Iberian origins, its African dimensions and its apogee in the eighteenth-century Caribbean and North America before examining how the institution most central to Atlantic history, outside empire and the monarchy, was abolished in a very quick time. From the late eighteenth century abolition was built on two foundations: the establishment of an abolition movement by a determined and small number of evangelical Britons led by William Wilberforce, and the resistance of the enslaved in the Americas. The most important slave resistance to planter power was in Haiti between 1791 and 1804, an event that has a prominent role in my chapter on the age of revolutions.

I end my account by recalling the quintessential American song `Oh! Susanna’ written by Stephen Foster in 1847. It is a very African and Atlantic song as well as an American song – a `negro melody,’ as Foster called it. It is a comic, indeed tragicomic, retelling of the story of an enslaved person left behind in the many breakups that characterized African American slavery in the nineteenth century. It is a song written by a person of European heritage using the voice of a descendant of Africans wanting to leave a place which had once been Native American land. Thus, it unites through culture the ways in which peoples of the Atlantic were brought, often unwillingly, together. These many connections point to the continuing relevance of Atlantic history today.

‘Atlantic Slave-Systems and Violence,’ in Erica Charters, Marie Houllemare and Peter H. Wilson, eds, Violence in the Early Modern Period (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020)

In this chapter on violence in the Atlantic slave trade, I start by noting how we have to be careful when talking about violence and slavery. There are good reasons not to luxuriate in the details of violence and thus re-inscribe the problems of violence as experienced by enslaved people. Brutal language hardens rather than softens the reader to the violence of slavery, especially when acts of brutality are catalogued at repeated length, making it hard to engage fully with a more important subject – what did violence mean and how did violence operate to strengthen or weaken the institution of enslavement. I argue here that brutality, violence and death were not mere by-products of the extremely lucrative early modern plantation system but were the sine qua non of the plantation world.

In this article, I ask the following questions. First, was violence central or incidental to the ideology of enslavement and to the workings of the Atlantic slave trade, in particular? I argue it was central. I also ask about the effectiveness of violence in maintaining planter power. I argue again that violence produced generally efficacious results for slave owners in keeping control over enslaved people. It was less effective in convincing rulers in Europe that planters’ authority over their slaves was legitimate.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that acts of violent resistance by enslaved people were ineffective and pointless, even though such acts seldom met with any success. When enslaved people were violent, it demonstrated three things. First, it showed fellow enslaved people that some of their compatriots were prepared to reject their place in the system. Second, it showed to opponents of slavery that slave masters’ propaganda about slaves being happy with their place in society was just that – slavery was not a benevolent institution but one upheld by coercion and through punishment. Finally, violence by slaves was often interpreted by abolitionists through a Christian lens, in which the iconography of Christ’s martyrdom was equated with suffering slaves.