The Great Hurricane

Facing an uncertain future, batches of battered Guyanese who have lost nearly everything in the recent hurricanes finally flew back home this week with few bags and their weather weary children. They are seeking once more to start over a new life, as a symbolic anniversary passed quietly in an unforgettable year of fierce storms.

On the eve of the Atlantic’s biggest known tempest, the weather proved “remarkably calm” but “the sky surprisingly red and fiery” one historical account recalls, with residents having no idea what was heading their way. Acknowledged simply as the “Great Hurricane of the West Indies” it came long before 2017’s five major events including the calamitous Harvey, Irma and Maria that will make this extremely active season potentially the costliest, at already well over US$187B in preliminary damages.

Two days ago, sudden deafening thunderclaps startled me and made the dogs shiver uncontrollably, contrasting with the gentle drizzle that marked the sombre grey afternoon. But that other Tuesday, October 10 of 1780, would send a superstorm which slammed straight into blissfully unaware Barbados and further devastated several populous colonies as it roared across the Caribbean, causing the region to plunge into economic decline and likely leading to the early end of the American Revolutionary War, meteorologists maintain.

The classic slow-moving hurricane formed near the Cape Verde islands and curved south east, then westward levelling Barbados into “total ruin” where “no trees and houses were left standing” and “the wind blew so strong that it stripped the bark off trees.” This year, looking at similar stunning images in Dominica, experts know that such acute effects mean the Great Hurricane was a Category Five monster with wind velocities greater than 200 miles per hour, spawned because of excellent conditions like high ocean temperatures and low wind shear.

As if that was not enough, “an earthquake was felt during the passage of the Great Hurricane” and “the noise was so deafening that people could not hear their own voices,” according to notes from the Puerto Rico National Weather Service accessible through the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

From October 10-16, 1780 the Great Hurricane would sweep the islands in the Antilles from Tobago to Hispaniola, slaughtering tens of thousands and becoming the deadliest ever storm in this part of the world. Estimates of overall fatalities range from at least 22,000 to 27,500 given the widespread scale of destruction and the countless ships and sailors lost at sea. Since it passed close to Puerto Rico on October 14, observed as the Feast Day of the martyred Pope Callixtus the First, venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, it is also called the Huracan San Calixto.

As in 2017, the extraordinary 1780 Atlantic hurricane season started early. From the first major St Lucia or San Antonio Hurricane on June 13 which killed thousands; three giant storms, the second being the Great Hurricane, rolled in consecutively during October that year, causing record casualties and extensive damage.

Forming in the southern Caribbean Sea on October 1, 1780, the Savanna-la-Mar Hurricane would first slam into the British transport ship the Monarch, eliminating several hundred Spanish prisoners and the ship’s entire crew. It moved northwest towards Jamaica, taking out the ports of Savanna-la-Mar and Lucea on October 3, a day that had started clean, crisp and clear.

According to the Jamaica Gleaner, the Governor, Colonel John Dalling described the change in his official report to London: “The sky on a sudden became very much overcast, and an uncommon elevation of the sea immediately followed. Whilst the unhappy settlers at Savanna-la-Mar were observing this extraordinary phenomenon, the sea broke suddenly in upon the town, and on its retreat swept everything away with it, so as not to leave the smallest vestige of Man, Beast, or House behind.”

Blamed on the bitter curse of an executed Jamaican obeah-man, Plato the Wizard, a runaway slave, this catastrophe would wipe out all food crops resulting in a famine that meant thousands of slaves starved to death. A week later when the San Calixto barrelled in, Barbados would suffer a similar fate with some 4,300 dying immediately and more later enduring a slow and agonising end from injuries, inadequate food, contaminated water and diseases.

Shortly after, on October 20, a third powerful hurricane would strike a Spanish war fleet of 64 vessels under Capitan de Navio, José Solano en route from Havana, Cuba to attack Pensacola, Florida. Half of the 4,000 crewmen would drown in the disaster that is still termed centuries later as Solano’s Hurricane, which he survived.

But the Great Hurricane remains unequalled. In a 2002 commemorative article, Former Principal of the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), Dr. Colin Depradine would recall an instructive if wry quotation by Dr. Gilbert Blane who served aboard the HMS Sandwich as the personal physician to famed British Admiral George Rodney:

“There had been nothing that could be called a hurricane felt at Barbados for more than a century before 1780, so that the inhabitants began to think themselves exempt from such calamities and accordingly had no edifices of sufficient strength to withstand the force of a hurricane.”

The Editor of “The West Indian,” a Barbados paper would tell of the mighty wind rushing from the northwest at dawn of October 10, 1780, with the storm raging late into the night. “Before day-break, the castle and forts, the church, every public building and almost every house in Bridgetown, were levelled with the earth.”

Admiral Rodney’s fleet anchored at Port Castries, St Lucia was wrecked and one of his large vessels was tossed by the tide on to the city hospital which collapsed under the weight. He would speak of his shock that Barbados, “the most beautiful island in the world has the appearance of a country laid waste by fire, and sword.”

In a letter to his wife, he related: “The strongest buildings and the whole of the houses, most of which were stone, and remarkable for their solidity, gave way to the fury of the wind, and were torn up to their foundations; all the forts destroyed, and many of the heavy cannon carried upwards of a hundred feet from the forts.  Had I not been an eyewitness, nothing could have induced me to have believed it.  More than 6,000 persons perished, and all the inhabitants are entirely ruined.”

Dr, Depradine who is a Faculty Dean at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus quoted from a tome by French geographer and writer, Jacques Élisée Reclus:

“Starting from Barbados, where neither trees nor dwellings were left standing, it caused the English fleet anchored off St. Lucia to disappear and completely ravaged this island, where 6,000 persons were crushed under the ruins.  After this, the whirlwind tending toward Martinique, enveloped a convoy of French transports, and sunk more than 40 ships carrying 4,000 soldiers; on land, the town of St. Pierre and other places were completely razed… and 9,000 persons perished there.  More to the north, Dominique (Dominica), St. Eustatius, St. Vincent and Porto Rico (Puerto Rico) were likewise devastated and most of the vessels which were on the path of the cyclone foundered, with all their crews.  Beyond Porto Rico, the tempest bent to the north-east, toward   the Bermudas and though its violence had gradually diminished, it sunk several English warships returning to Europe.”

Bahamian forecaster and author, Wayne Neely who has extensively studied the San Calixto Hurricane for his 2012 publication “The Great Hurricane of 1790” argues that it changed the course of history, by having a critical impact on the outcome of the American War of Independence, and marking the end of an extended period of prosperity in this region.

“Had this storm not decimated the British fleet fighting this battle, the United States of America would have had still been under control of the British and not the independent country we know today,” he said in a 2013 online interview.

Neely points to the Great Hurricane being unique for its location, the time of year it occurred, and the massive death toll it racked up on the affected islands. It hit like the other two huge October squalls when numerous fleets from different European sea powers were battling for control of the Caribbean and North America. It would take another 200 years, before Hurricane Mitch even racked up fatalities exceeding 10,000.

However, British-born Disaster Historian, John Withington disagrees. In his book, “Storm: Nature and Culture” he admits, ‘A leading American rebel James Duane, described the hurricane as “the worst disaster since the Deluge,” speculating that it might have struck a fatal blow against the Royal Navy in the War of Independence. Within 18 months the colonial power did decide to abandon the struggle, but the havoc caused by the hurricane was a contributory rather than a decisive factor.’

ID enjoys fresh limes from her tree. Dr. Gilbert Blane popularised citrus juice to prevent scurvy in British sailors, persuading the Admiralty to go against the medical establishment and introduce lemons, then limes to the naval diet in 1795, hence the slang “limey.”

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