Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In the hurricanes of 2017, we heard echoes of what Virgin Islands residents experienced 150 years earlier in October 1867.
Following a major hurricane that year, VI President Sir Arthur Carlos Henry Rumbold reported that the storm had created “winter in the tropics” — a description that could also apply to the stripped trees and withered vegetation across the islands after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017 (see my Nov. 24 Beacon commentary “VI’s political history reviewed”).
Back then, there were price gougers and greedy twisters, too. Sir Arthur complained that “exorbitant charges [were] being demanded” to ship relief distributions of food and supplies, while some people who had suffered less than others duped clergymen and other officials into giving them “weekly tickets of relief for food, and clothing.” There was less than £50 in the treasury because the annual house tax, which was due to be paid, could not be collected.
The 1867 storm lasted from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., but was strongest from noon to 3 p.m., destroying two-thirds of the islands’ “miserable tenements” and killing over five percent of Road Town’s population, according to Sir Arthur. The hospital, the pier, the schoolhouse and the doctor’s house were ruined, and the rectory was badly damaged.
The poorhouse was also destroyed, so Sir Arthur moved the prisoners to the “Fireproof” store, which had been built to withstand fires like those that ravaged Main Street after the Cattle Tax Riots in 1853. Sir Arthur had used its upper floor as his office, and he housed the paupers temporarily with the police in the gaol. The cells had been overcrowded, so their doors were then left open for healthier ventilation. Sir Arthur and his family took refuge there as well since Government House had become uninhabitable after losing its roof.
Two gangs cleaned the streets, burned the offal, and cleared away the remains of ruined houses while returning others that had been blown yards away to their original foundation. The church and Wesleyan chapel were cleared out, and sails were erected over the remaining walls so that divine services could be held.
Sir Arthur wrote that he wanted to send to St. Thomas for supplies, but all the local sloops and canoes were either destroyed or severely damaged. The tremendous waves that swept in had ruined nearly all the small store of flour in the town. All the population of 7,000 needed help, although the southerly islands had largely escaped the storm.
The Royal Navy came to the Virgin Islands’ rescue then, too. Captain Vesey on HMS Doris received an appeal for help while at St. John’s, Antigua, at 9 a.m. on Nov. 2. Stephen J. Hill, the governor-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, gave him a copy of Sir Arthur’s letter, which expressed fears that without immediate help the impoverished community would starve to death. Mr. Hill arranged for corn, meal and other provisions to be sent to Tortola.
Mr. Vesey left St. John’s at once “under steam and sail.” By the next morning, he had anchored in Road Harbour. He gave Sir Arthur £250 from public funds, some provisions and a complete set of studding sails to protect the women and children. They would be safe from starvation until help arrived from Antigua and other places, but he asked Sir Arthur to get some supplies to the outlying islands, which had no means of communicating their wants.
Then Mr. Vesey went to St. Thomas to buy some plank and shingles for housing materials. He took receipts for the money and stores he’d supplied with public funds, but he wouldn’t ask for repayment locally as the inhabitants were utterly ruined and the place destroyed. He trusted that his superiors in London would approve of his actions to keep the whole population from starvation. They were British subjects.
The British consul in St. Thomas had sent 20 barrels of flour to Tortola. He reportedly told Mr. Vesey that if the boats picked up on the reefs were used to provide help to the outlying islands, nobody need starve.
Mr. Vesey promised to visit everywhere he could and to “punish wreckers and plunderers without ceremony.”
He said that the hurricane had hit on Oct. 29, after the season was usually over, as “the first full moon in October was on the 13th.” But it was the fourth hurricane — or indication of one — during that “peculiar season,” he reported.
However — just as we were swamped by Maria as we struggled to recover from Irma — the 1867 hurricane was followed by an earthquake and tsunami on Nov. 18.
An eyewitness observed that at the first shock the earth opened and spewed water upwards. That severe vertical shock lasted nearly 15 minutes. High waves rolled backwards, then rose another five feet before rushing along the street and seashore at nearly 12 knots, completely inundating the flat part of Tortola, according to reports.
For 24 hours, there were shocks every five minutes or so — sometimes three in five minutes — and for more than three weeks yet more shocks occurred within every 24 hours. There was a sulphury stench everywhere.