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Environment and History

Storm Hazard and Slavery: The Impact of the 1831 Great Caribbean Hurricane on St Vincent

S. D. Smith

Environment and History 18 (2012): 97-123. doi: 10.3197/096734012X13225062753660

On 11 August 1831, St Vincent was struck by the Great Caribbean Hurricane. Ninety-two out of 96 sugar estates on the island experienced damage to buildings and crops. Destruction varied, however, according to location and the type of structure at risk. Worst affected were the northerly regions of St David and Charlotte’s parishes, while slave villages suffered more than mill works or great houses. As a result of the storm the colony’s exports fell by nearly 50 per cent, reflecting disruption to the infrastructure supporting overseas trade as well as a sugar crop shortfall of more than 25 per cent. In contrast to the hazard’s large impact on plantation agriculture, relatively few casualties occurred. St Vincent also suffered less acutely than Barbados, a similar sized island, equally dependent on sugar and slavery. A plausible explanation for the hurricane’s differential impact between the two colonies lies in localised vulnerability of place. While the enslaved population did not take advantage of the disaster to mount a challenge to white authority, shortages of provisions and timber strained relations on some estates. St Vincent’s plantation economy, however, recovered relatively quickly, demonstrating considerable disaster resilience. Although slaves and the free black and mixed-race population received little direct government support, grant-in-aid was allocated to agents primarily responsible for coordinating supplies of food, clothing and shelter. The speed of recovery questions whether natural disasters weakened planter resistance to emancipation across the British West Indies. Conceptualisation of the Great Caribbean Hurricane as an existential threat to British colonies also obscures the extent to which responses to climatic hazard were shaped by the imperial relationship and the interests of largely absentee owners.

KEYWORDS: Slavery, West Indies, Great Caribbean Hurricane, natural hazard, economic history

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