Great Caribbean Hurricane Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the deadliest storms in history struck the eastern Caribbean Islands, killing tens of thousands of people, mostly black slaves. Many of England’s and France’s lucrative sugar-producing colonies on the islands were severely damaged or destroyed as well. The two European countries had been at war with each other in the Caribbean, and the storm’s aftermath affected naval warfare in the region into the following year.

Summary of Event

English and French Caribbean sugar Sugar plantations;West Indies plantations of the eighteenth century were economic alternatives to Spain’s silver mines. A changing European diet had created a growing market for sugar in tea, coffee, jams, and confections. Caribbean sugarcane thrived in the region’s tropical climate and fertile volcanic and limestone soils. The importation of African slave African slaves Slavery;Caribbean laborers made sufficient production of the crop possible. However, hurricanes posed a greater risk than usual to the enterprise during the century; a cluster of the tempests occurred from the mid-1760’s to 1780, with 1780 being the most terrible hurricane season of the lot. Eight different storms hit the Caribbean region that year; four of the storms arrived in October alone. [kw]Great Caribbean Hurricane (Oct. 10-18, 1780) [kw]Hurricane, Great Caribbean (Oct. 10-18, 1780) [kw]Caribbean Hurricane, Great (Oct. 10-18, 1780) Natural disasters;Caribbean Hurricanes [g]Caribbean;Oct. 10-18, 1780: Great Caribbean Hurricane[2420] [c]Environment;Oct. 10-18, 1780: Great Caribbean Hurricane[2420] [c]Trade and commerce;Oct. 10-18, 1780: Great Caribbean Hurricane[2420] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 10-18, 1780: Great Caribbean Hurricane[2420] Bouexic, Luc Urbain de Rodney, George

In October, 1780, a great hurricane’s path of destruction focused on the Lesser Antilles, a teardrop chain of small islands that forms the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea. The islands stretch from Puerto Rico (which is part of another Caribbean Islands chain, the Greater Antilles) to South America. The archipelago sits astride routes taken by tropical storms that form over the equatorial Atlantic Ocean. These low-pressure troughs push westward toward the Lesser Antilles. Each year, fueled by evaporating tropical waters, a few of these storms grow to become hurricanes. Some hurricanes miss the islands entirely or brush by closely. When a hurricane hits the island chain, it usually affects a few unlucky islands that are directly in its path.

The great Caribbean hurricane of 1780 took the worst route possible for the islands. On October 10, 1780, the storm hit Barbados, Saint Vincent, and Saint Lucia near the southern end of the chain. At this stage, the diameter of the storm was so great that reports from Granada and even Tobago, which is 250 miles southeast of Barbados, had described damage to shipping from the storm. The storm then turned north and traveled slowly along the length of the archipelago, leaving no island north of Barbados unscathed. After passing over St. Eustatius at the north end of the chain, the hurricane jogged west to brush against the southern coast of Puerto Rico. On October 15, it moved through Mona Passage (the strait between Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola) and headed north into the open waters of the North Atlantic. On October 18, after eight terrible days, the storm dissipated over cooler waters near Bermuda in the middle Atlantic. As if guided by the hand of a merciless god, the storm ravaged the entire Lesser Antilles chain, left tens of thousands of people dead, and earned its reputation as the “great hurricane.”

No one knows the exact number of human deaths caused by the hurricane. Estimates appear in letters, diaries, and newspaper articles written by islanders who witnessed the storm and by visitors who saw the aftermath. The estimates range between 20,000 and 26,000 lost lives. The British colonial government of Barbados conducted the only precise census and counted 4,326 deaths on the island. The highest figures for the other islands are estimated at 9,000 deaths in Martinique, 6,000 in Saint Lucia, and 5,000 in Eustatius. The majority of the dead were on land and were mostly black slaves, who outnumbered whites by more than ten to one on most islands. A large proportion of the victims starved to death after the storm, as the hurricane’s ferocious winds and floods destroyed most of the food crops. The dead included sailors and passengers aboard ships that sank offshore.

The Lesser Antilles had been the center of operations for the British and French navies in the Western Hemisphere when the storm struck in 1780. The two countries were at war over control of the Caribbean region’s sugar production. The primary mission of the fleets was to protect merchant vessels involved in the sugar trade. Trade;sugar Tobago, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts, and Antigua were under British control. Granada, Saint Vincent, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Martinique were French possessions at the time. The Dutch (who would be at war against the British beginning in 1781) held St. Eustatius. France and England were also at odds in the American War of Independence. France was giving moral support and financial backing to the American rebels and using its Caribbean fleet to harass the British in American waters. The Spanish had possessions in the Greater Antilles (for example, Cuba), and their Caribbean fleet was fighting on the side of France and the American rebels.

Until July, 1780, the English and French fleets, of equal strength, had been engaged in operations around the island of Martinique, but nothing decisive occurred. As in previous years, the fleet commanders kept part of their navies out of harm’s way during the most dangerous part of the hurricane season (September to November) by sending most of the ships of the line out of the region. England would use part of its Caribbean fleet to bolster an effective blockade of its rebellious American colonies. The British fleet commander, George Rodney, sailed for North America, reaching New York on September 14. At about the same time, the commander of the French fleet, Luc Urbain de Bouexic, arrived in Brest, France, with the ships that were most in need of repairs.

Admiral Rodney had left some of his fleet behind at Gros Islet Bay in Saint Lucia. The great hurricane sank and killed the crews of three key battleships: HMS Beaver’s Prize, HMS Cornwall, and HMS Vengeance. HMS Experiment sank nearby at Saint Vincent. The crews of perhaps one hundred smaller British merchant vessels in the region were lost as well. The storm did not spare de Bouexic’s ships either, as four thousand French troops perished when a convoy of forty transports sank off Port Royal, Martinique. No large French warships sank, however. The Spanish fleet was in Havana, Cuba, and out of reach of the hurricane.

Significance

Relief Disaster relief;West Indies efforts from outside the region were slow to materialize largely because relief convoys bearing troops and supplies were at risk of attack in time of war. In December, 1781, France attempted to send a relief convoy under the command of Bouexic to the Lesser Antilles from Brest, but a British squadron intercepted and defeated the convoy in the Bay of Biscay. The closest major food-producing area for British-held islands were the thirteen American colonies, but the ongoing American War of Independence barred organizing relief shipments to the Lesser Antilles. Eventually, small donations of private and government funds trickled in, and church sermons and newspaper advertisements in England and France called for aid to the islands, making British Barbados one of the first European colonies to have received money from its government for natural disaster relief. The Caribbean Islands’ agricultural economy would remain vulnerable to hurricanes, but, as in other parts of the world, government agencies dedicated to disaster relief were nonexistent until the second half of the twentieth century.

The great Caribbean hurricane’s widespread destruction in the Antilles, in addition to killing thousands, jeopardized the investments of colonial planters Agriculture;Caribbean and merchants by shattering thousands of hectares of sugarcane. Local plantation managers and merchants had to rely on credit from merchants in their home countries to finance repairs. The purchase and transport of thousands of new slaves also were costly. Debts were so great that many planters sold their holdings to creditors or to owners of larger plantations. It took more than two years for sugar production to return to levels seen before the hurricane.

In the short term, the hurricane had influenced as well the course of the war between the French and British in the Caribbean. In February, 1781, Rodney was back in the region. His fleet overwhelmed the storm-damaged defenses of the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. However, because the British fleet was battered by the hurricane, the French and Spanish naval forces were able to take the British islands of Tobago, Montserrat, St. Kitts, and Nevis in 1781. The British would eventually replace the warships lost in the great hurricane and take control of most of the Lesser Antilles islands and the sugar trade before the Treaty of Paris ended the conflict in 1783.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ludlum, David. Early American Hurricanes. Boston: American Meteorological Society, 1963. Ludlum details the 1780 storm’s track and includes several quotations from primary sources describing the impacts of the hurricane.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mulcahy, Matthew. Melancholy and Fatal Calamities: Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. A thorough account of how inhabitants and governments of the Caribbean region have dealt with hurricanes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reclus, Elisée. The Ocean, Atmosphere, and Life. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1873. This older work by a French geographer is often quoted for its description of the death and destruction caused by hurricanes.

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