Article by Dominica’s Historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch
A BRIEF VOLCANIC HISTORY OF DOMINICA DURING HUMAN OCCUPATION
With the current focus of the region centered on the eruptions of Soufriere volcano on St. Vincent, and following my brief overview of historic eruptions there, people have asked me to do a similar synopsis for Dominica: Dominica is the most mountainous island in the Caribbean and has the highest concentration of live volcanoes on Earth.
Nowhere else on the planet are you going to find nine live volcanos crowded within an area of less than 300 sq. miles (750 sq. km). The domes of these volcanos stand roughly in a line down the central backbone of the island. From the north they are: Morne Aux Diables, Morne Diablotin, Morne Trois Pitons, Morne Micotrin and Wotton Waven caldera, Grand Soufriere Hills, Valley of Desolation, Morne Watt, Morne Anglais, Morne Play Payé complex including Morne Patate.Dealing only with those events that have occurred during the time of human habitation, the first recorded event was in approximately 450 AD with the eruption of Morne Patate in the southern Soufriere area.
It has been confirmed by archaeological study of the village site occupied by indigenous people which was covered in 12 feet of debris during a major eruption at that time. This has also been supported by geological research which has confirmed the approximate date.Many artifacts from this settlement have been excavated over the years, including decorated clay pots, griddles and stone objects. It appears that the people evacuated before the final eruption. A stone zemi (a religious sculpture) has been found in a nearby cave.
Known as a “three-pointer” it represents, among other things, a volcanic peak supported by a spirit figure on either side of a concave base. Volcanoes, earthquakes and sulphur springs had an important religious significance for indigenous people up to the period of Kalinago contact with European arrivals. Shortly after the British took over the island in 1763 there was a major event in the area of Morne Plat Payé in 1765 which came close to climaxing in a volcanic eruption but stopped before venting.
It was described at the time that, “Earthquakes were felt severely, several times in a day, for the space of some weeks together, which so terrified the inhabitants, that they were on the point of quitting the place, but happily they soon subsided…The island was split in several places; and in particular, a large chasm was made in a mountain called Desmoulins…”Dominica was affected by the great tectonic earthquake of 8 February1843 which flattened the city of Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe and did much damage in Antigua.
In Dominica it levelled sugar mills on the north coast and damaged houses and churches in Portsmouth and Roseau.The last volcanic eruption occurred on 6 January 1880 when a phreatic eruption at the Valley of Desolation, Boiling Lake area, showered Roseau with volcanic debris of fine sand and pumice. Blockage of the Riviere Blanc (White River) caused major flooding at Delices and Pointe Mulatre.
The event only lasted one day and no further activity was recorded at the time, although smaller events have occurred within the valley over the last 24 years.Earthquakes in 1974 associated with Morne Micotrin, dominating the Roseau Valley, raised concerns but subsided. Roseau, the capital, actually sits on pyroclastic debris from Morne Micotrin volcano. In recent years there have been tremors centered in the south east of the island associated with the Soufriere Hills and in the north around Morne Aux Diables.
But it was from October 1998 to March 1999, that a major scare rocked the south of the island for several weeks, centered under Morne Plat Payé which stands over Roseau. This was also the site of the 1765 events and is considered to be the most likely center for any future eruption. The implications for Roseau and southern communities, which together house about 30% of the population, are catastrophic.