Soufriere: Beautiful…but Deadly

James Ferguson on how a Caribbean volcano inspired a master of European art

The Eruption of the Soufriere Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, April 30, 1812  Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851). Photograph by University of Liverpool Art Gallery & Collections, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Twenty major volcanic eruptions occurred around the world in 2011, produced by some of an estimated 64 active volcanoes on earth. At any one time there is likely to be at least one volcano erupting somewhere. If nowadays we don’t hear much about these events – except when Icelandic volcanic ash drifts over Europe and closes down airports – that’s because, unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, they rarely cause deaths or significant destruction. Predicting eruptions and evacuating populations have drastically reduced fatalities. But it wasn’t always like this, and human history is littered with volcanic disasters and tragedies.

The Caribbean region has had a long and difficult relationship with its volcanoes, which lie to the east, in the Lesser Antilles. Here, most islands, from Grenada to Saba, have a spectacular volcanic landscape and at least one volcano that is potentially active – though thankfully in most cases dormant.

The year 1902 was a particularly unpleasant exception; in May la Montagne Pelée in Martinique destroyed the city of St Pierre and killed 30,000 people, while hours later, in St Vincent, La Soufriere began a ten-month period of eruptions that killed nearly 1,600. More recently, since 1995, Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills volcano has buried the town of Plymouth in 12 metres of ash, with 19 fatalities.

Of all Caribbean volcanoes, La Soufriere (soufrière is the French translation of “fumarole”, the vent where sulphurous gases and steam emerge), which stands in St Vincent’s relatively unpopulated and wild northern end, has been the most turbulent. Still considered active, it erupted in 1971 and 1979, but without casualties. It had also previously caused extensive damage and loss of life in 1718 and then again nearly a century after that. The later of these two events began almost precisely two centuries ago, in April 1812. It is now remembered largely because it had unlikely and unexpected repercussions in the world of art.

The eruption came after a long and ominous period of geological instability, climaxing in a disastrous earthquake in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, which left 10,000 or more buried under rubble on March 26. Throughout the Caribbean and South America more tremors and unexplained rumblings caused panic from Bogotá in the Andes to the Central American isthmus.

Then, on April 27, Soufriere began to undergo what vulcanologists term an “explosive magmatic eruption”. According to the early twentieth-century journalist Charles Morris: “Myriads of tons of ashes, cinders, pumice and scoriae, hurled from the crater, fell in every section of the island. Volumes of sand darkened the air, and woods, ridges and cane fields were covered with light grey ashes, which speedily destroyed all vegetation. The sun for three days seemed to be in a total eclipse, the sea was discoloured and the ground bore a wintry appearance from the white crust of fallen ashes.”

It is thought about 80 people died, a relatively small number, owing to the isolated nature of the country in the volcano’s vicinity. Those who perished were mostly slaves working the sugar plantations planted in the fertile soil left by the previous eruption. These plantations were destroyed, smothered in thick ash and crushed by a hail of red-hot magma and rocks that lasted for days. In Barbados, 95 miles away, “the inhabitants… were terrified by the darkness, which continued for four hours and a half. Troops were called under arms, the supposition from the continued noise being that hostile fleets were in an engagement.”

Terrible though the eruption was, it had little impact in Britain, which was more preoccupied with Napoleon’s territorial ambitions and an impending war with the United States.

But one man read reports of the disaster with great interest. He was Joseph Mallord William Turner, by now 37 and an established landscape and marine painter. Famous for his revolutionary use of light and colour to evoke extreme natural phenomena and landscapes, he was already fascinated by the power and wild beauty of volcanoes. These were real-life examples of the “sublime”, that Romantic notion of transcendental, awe-inspiring beauty. He was also aware that an eruption would provide the ideal subject in which to test the imaginative and technical boundaries of painting.

In April 1815 Turner unveiled a work at the Royal Academy: The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains, in the Island of St Vincent, at Midnight, on the 30th of April,1812, from a Sketch taken at the time by Hugh P Keane Esqre. Dark and sombre around its edges, the painting depicts a moment of eruption, a large splash of white-hot paint blending into a yellow and then orange plume of searing heat. Pieces of debris fly through the night sky like tracer bullets, while in the foreground a group of men in a boat are dwarfed by the fiery mountain. The contrast between the explosion and the black and empty nocturnal surroundings makes the image all the more arresting. In the words of the critic James Hamilton, Turner “instilled an extraordinary sense of drama into this night scene seared by the blazing light and violence of the eruption.”

As the long-winded title makes plain, the painting owes its inspiration to the gentleman named Keane; Hamilton informs us he was a St Vincent-based barrister and plantation owner. We know little more about him than that. We do know, however, that he kept a journal, and perhaps this as well as his sketch fed Turner’s imagination. Perhaps more tantalisingly, the art historian Sam Smiles has suggested Turner might have known Keane through shared financial interests in the colony’s slave-based economy. In any case, the whereabouts of the sketch are unknown, Keane remains largely a mystery, and, most importantly, Turner’s public opposition to slavery was well documented in later years.

Turner’s painting was the centrepiece of the new Turner Contemporary Gallery, opened in April 2011 in Margate, Kent. Hitherto little known, it prefigures better-known works by the master that include his 1817 study of Vesuvius and the paintings that depict the weird atmospheric conditions caused by Mt Tambora’s eruption in 1815. It also reminds us, in the most graphic terms, that volcanoes can be dangerous and destructive but that they can also be extraordinarily beautiful.