Was it a Category 5 . . . 6 . . . 7?
Jamaicans had no gauge to calculate the force of the hurricane that slammed into their island on October 3, 1780. No gauge other than the baldest, yet most meaningful measurement: the loss of lives, property, and livelihood. How many people were swept away by the sea or buried in the wreckage, compared to the numbers lost in past hurricanes? Were trees uprooted or merely stripped of their leaves? Were heavy objects carried miles away by the wind or only toppled? Were crops decimated or sorely damaged? Were the dwellings, windmills, boiling houses, curing houses, hot-houses, etc., wholly demolished or was a structure left standing to repair?
Hurricanes were alien to both the European migrants and the Africans enslaved, but by the late seventeenth century they had learned enough of the storms to make some predictions. It became clear there was a hurricane season, and ship captains and traders scheduled accordingly. Taking guidance from the native Indians, colonists began to look to the sky and moon for signs of upcoming storms. In the 1670s the Royal Society began offering barometers to those living in the West Indies, but unfortunately, not only were they considered difficult to use, the colonists deemed the results untrustworthy. One account to the Royal Society claims that not one Barbados resident made use of a barometer before, during, or after their 1780 hurricane.1
Planters learned to process last year’s crops quickly and to ship them before the start of hurricane season. They learned to dismantle the more vulnerable buildings to protect them, to board up windows, and to move all valuables up off the floor of a cellar or warehouse. But, as is the case today, no matter how well one prepares, sometimes it is never enough.
Accounts exist in newspapers, pamphlets, diaries and letterbooks of the era, chronicling the emotional and economic devastation. In their own words:2
“. . . the external face of the earth, so much altered, scarce know where I am. Not a blade of grass, or a leaf left, or tree, shrub or bush . . . the appearance of the dreary mountains of Wales, in the winter season . . .”
“. . . the most luxuriant Spring changed in this one Night to the drearyest Winter . . .”
“. . . swell[ed] to a most amazing height, overflowing the ill-fated town of Savanna la Mar and the low lands adjacent . . .”
“ . . . not less than 300 people of all colours were drowned or buried in the ruins . . .”
The Repercussions of Hurricanes
Eighteenth-century Jamaica was one of the brightest jewels in the British Empire. But while her exports, and the tax on those exports, created enormous wealth for both the planters and the crown, an active hurricane season created enormous repercussions. The loss of crops drove up the price of food imports and sugar and coffee exports. The loss of property drove up the demand for imported building supplies and furnishings. And sadly, the loss of lives created a demand for more slaves.
The country barely had a chance to get back on her feet after the October, 1780 hurricane before another hurricane hit the following August, then another in 1784, another in 1785, and again in 1786. The governor wrote to London in 1786 that “this unfortunate island has again been visited by one of those Public Calamities which seem to have become annual in this Quarter of the world.” 3
With the advent of the American Revolution, the West Indies lost a major trading partner, making the timing of the 1780 hurricane particularly devastating to the region. Five hurricanes in seven years wreaked havoc on Jamaica’s locally grown food, but it was the barriers to trade with the upstart Americans that played havoc with her main source of supplies.
While thousands died during the storms, many others died in the aftermath—not only from disease, but from the scarcity of food and clean water.
From time to time, trade restrictions were lifted to ease shortages, and relief societies sprung up to send aid. But more often than not, it was not enough. Heartbreaking conditions provided plenty of fodder for political arguments, whether for or against slavery, or for or against trade restrictions.
One Jamaican planter, a Mr. Wynne, noted that “the 1780 hurricanes may have been acts of God, but humans played an important role in shaping their impact.”4
As awful as they are, hurricanes were just one of the plagues of eighteenth-century Jamaican life, as Liam and Rhee discover in Voices Echo.
“The hurricanes in the early eighties devastated the island. Owing to you rebels, Mr. Brock, supplies weren’t coming in.”
“And here I thought Philadelphia’s empty harbors were due to your Navigation Acts, Major.”
“Regardless, the planters needed lumber to rebuild and foodstuffs to survive. Canada and Ireland weren’t equipped to meet the need and still aren’t. The demand for American supplies remains strong.” ~ Voices Echo
1Mulcahy, Matthew. Hurricanes and Society in the British Caribbean, 1624-1783 Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006, p. 53
2Ibid., p. 24
3Ibid., p. 112
4Ibid., p. 116