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Chapter 12

ISLAND OF ST. VINCENT.

Sterling found a pleasant residence, with all its adjuncts, ready for
him, at Colonarie, in this "volcanic Isle" under the hot sun. An
interesting Isle: a place of rugged chasms, precipitous gnarled
heights, and the most fruitful hollows; shaggy everywhere with
luxuriant vegetation; set under magnificent skies, in the mirror of
the summer seas; offering everywhere the grandest sudden outlooks and
contrasts. His Letters represent a placidly cheerful riding life: a
pensive humor, but the thunder-clouds all sleeping in the distance.
Good relations with a few neighboring planters; indifference to the
noisy political and other agitations of the rest: friendly, by no
means romantic appreciation of the Blacks; quiet prosperity economic
and domestic: on the whole a healthy and recommendable way of life,
with Literature very much in abeyance in it.

He writes to Mr. Hare (date not given): "The landscapes around me
here are noble and lovely as any that can be conceived on Earth. How
indeed could it be otherwise, in a small Island of volcanic mountains,
far within the Tropics, and perpetually covered with the richest
vegetation?" The moral aspect of things is by no means so good; but
neither is that without its fair features. "So far as I see, the
Slaves here are cunning, deceitful and idle; without any great
aptitude for ferocious crimes, and with very little scruple at
committing others. But I have seen them much only in very favorable
circumstances. They are, as a body, decidedly unfit for freedom; and
if left, as at present, completely in the hands of their masters, will
never become so, unless through the agency of the Methodists."[9]

In the Autumn came an immense hurricane; with new and indeed quite
perilous experiences of West-Indian life. This hasty Letter,
addressed to his Mother, is not intrinsically his remarkablest from
St. Vincent: but the body of fact delineated in it being so much the
greatest, we will quote it in preference. A West-Indian tornado, as
John Sterling witnesses it, and with vivid authenticity describes it,
may be considered worth looking at.

"_To Mrs. Sterling, South Place, Knightsbridge, London_.
"BRIGHTON, ST. VINCENT, 28th August, 1831.

"MY DEAR MOTHER,--The packet came in yesterday; bringing me some
Newspapers, a Letter from my Father, and one from Anthony, with a few
lines from you. I wrote, some days ago, a hasty Note to my Father, on
the chance of its reaching you through Grenada sooner than any
communication by the packet; and in it I spoke of the great misfortune
which had befallen this Island and Barbadoes, but from which all those
you take an interest in have happily escaped unhurt.

"From the day of our arrival in the West Indies until Thursday the
11th instant, which will long be a memorable day with us, I had been
doing my best to get ourselves established comfortably; and I had at
last bought the materials for making some additions to the house. But
on the morning I have mentioned, all that I had exerted myself to do,
nearly all the property both of Susan and myself, and the very house
we lived in, were suddenly destroyed by a visitation of Providence far
more terrible than any I have ever witnessed.

"When Susan came from her room, to breakfast, at eight o'clock, I
pointed out to her the extraordinary height and violence of the surf,
and the singular appearance of the clouds of heavy rain sweeping down
the valleys before us. At this time I had so little apprehension of
what was coming, that I talked of riding down to the shore when the
storm should abate, as I had never seen so fierce a sea. In about a
quarter of an hour the House-Negroes came in, to close the outside
shutters of the windows. They knew that the plantain-trees about the
Negro houses had been blown down in the night; and had told the
maid-servant Tyrrell, but I had heard nothing of it. A very few
minutes after the closing of the windows, I found that the shutters of
Tyrrell's room, at the south and commonly the most sheltered end of
the House, were giving way. I tried to tie them; but the silk
handkerchief which I used soon gave way; and as I had neither hammer,
boards nor nails in the house, I could do nothing more to keep out the
tempest. I found, in pushing at the leaf of the shutter, that the wind
resisted, more as if it had been a stone wall or a mass of iron, than
a mere current of air. There were one or two people outside trying to
fasten the windows, and I went out to help; but we had no tools at
hand: one man was blown down the hill in front of the house, before
my face; and the other and myself had great difficulty in getting back
again inside the door. The rain on my face and hands felt like so
much small shot from a gun. There was great exertion necessary to
shut the door of the house.

"The windows at the end of the large room were now giving way; and I
suppose it was about nine o'clock, when the hurricane burst them in,
as if it had been a discharge from a battery of heavy cannon. The
shutters were first forced open, and the wind fastened them back to
the wall; and then the panes of glass were smashed by the mere force
of the gale, without anything having touched them. Even now I was not
at all sure the house would go. My books, I saw, were lost; for the
rain poured past the bookcases, as if it had been the Colonarie River.
But we carried a good deal of furniture into the passage at the
entrance; we set Susan there on a sofa, and the Black Housekeeper was
even attempting to get her some breakfast. The house, however, began
to shake so violently, and the rain was so searching, that she could
not stay there long. She went into her own room and I stayed to see
what could be done.

"Under the forepart of the house, there are cellars built of stone,
but not arched. To these, however, there was no access except on the
outside; and I knew from my own experience that Susan could not have
gone a step beyond the door, without being carried away by the storm,
and probably killed on the spot. The only chance seemed to be that of
breaking through the floor. But when the old Cook and myself resolved
on this, we found that we had no instrument with which it would be
possible to do it. It was now clear that we had only God to trust in.
The front windows were giving way with successive crashes, and the
floor shook as you may have seen a carpet on a gusty day in London. I
went into our bedroom; where I found Susan, Tyrrell, and a little
Colored girl of seven or eight years old; and told them that we should
probably not be alive in half an hour. I could have escaped, if I had
chosen to go alone, by crawling on the ground either into the kitchen,
a separate stone building at no great distance, or into the open
fields away from trees or houses; but Susan could not have gone a
yard. She became quite calm when she knew the worst; and she sat on
my knee in what seemed the safest corner of the room, while every
blast was bringing nearer and nearer the moment of our seemingly
certain destruction.--

"The house was under two parallel roofs; and the one next the sea,
which sheltered the other, and us who were under the other, went off,
I suppose about ten o'clock. After my old plan, I will give you a
sketch, from which you may perceive how we were situated:--

[In print, a figure representing a floor-plan appears here]

The _a_, _a_ are the windows that were first destroyed: _b_ went
next; my books were between the windows _b_, and on the wall opposite
to them. The lines _c_ and _d_ mark the directions of the two roofs;
_e_ is the room in which we were, and 2 is a plan of it on a larger
scale. Look now at 2: _a_ is the bed; _c_, _c_ the two wardrobes;
_b_ the corner in which we were. I was sitting in an arm-chair,
holding my Wife; and Tyrrell and the little Black child were close to
us. We had given up all notion of surviving; and only waited for the
fall of the roof to perish together.

"Before long the roof went. Most of the materials, however, were
carried clear away: one of the large couples was caught on the
bedpost marked _d_, and held fast by the iron spike; while the end of
it hung over our heads: had the beam fallen an inch on either side of
the bedpost, it must necessarily have crushed us. The walls did not
go with the roof; and we remained for half an hour, alternately
praying to God, and watching them as they bent, creaked, and shivered
before the storm.

"Tyrrell and the child, when the roof was off, made their way through
the remains of the partition, to the outer door; and with the help of
the people who were looking for us, got into the kitchen. A good
while after they were gone, and before we knew anything of their fate,
a Negro suddenly came upon us; and the sight of him gave us a hope of
safety. When the people learned that we were in danger, and while
their own huts were flying about their ears, they crowded to help us;
and the old Cook urged them on to our rescue. He made five attempts,
after saving Tyrrell, to get to us; and four times he was blown down.
The fifth time he, and the Negro we first saw, reached the house. The
space they had to traverse was not above twenty yards of level ground,
if so much. In another minute or two, the Overseers and a crowd of
Negroes, most of whom had come on their hands and knees, were
surrounding us; and with their help Susan was carried round to the end
of the house; where they broke open the cellar window, and placed her
in comparative safety. The force of the hurricane was, by this time,
a good deal diminished, or it would have been impossible to stand
before it.

"But the wind was still terrific; and the rain poured into the cellars
through the floor above. Susan, Tyrrell, and a crowd of Negroes
remained under it, for more than two hours: and I was long afraid
that the wet and cold would kill her, if she did not perish more
violently. Happily we had wine and spirits at hand, and she was much
nerved by a tumbler of claret. As soon as I saw her in comparative
security, I went off with one of the Overseers down to the Works,
where the greater number of the Negroes were collected, that we might
see what could be done for them. They were wretched enough, but no
one was hurt; and I ordered them a dram apiece, which seemed to give
them a good deal of consolation.

"Before I could make my way back, the hurricane became as bad as at
first; and I was obliged to take shelter for half an hour in a ruined
Negro house. This, however, was the last of its extreme violence. By
one o'clock, even the rain had in a great degree ceased; and as only
one room of the house, the one marked _f_; was standing, and that
rickety,--I had Susan carried in a chair down the hill, to the
Hospital; where, in a small paved unlighted room, she spent the next
twenty-four hours. She was far less injured than might have been
expected from such a catastrophe.

"Next day, I had the passage at the entrance of the house repaired and
roofed; and we returned to the ruins of our habitation, still
encumbered as they were with the wreck of almost all we were possessed
of. The walls of the part of the house next the sea were carried
away, in less I think than half an hour after we reached the cellar:
when I had leisure to examine the remains of the house, I found the
floor strewn with fragments of the building, and with broken
furniture; and our books all soaked as completely as if they had been
for several hours in the sea.

"In the course of a few days I had the other room, _g_, which is under
the same roof as the one saved, rebuilt; and Susan stayed in this
temporary abode for a week,--when we left Colonarie, and came to
Brighton. Mr. Munro's kindness exceeds all precedent. We shall
certainly remain here till my Wife is recovered from her confinement.
In the mean while we shall have a new house built, in which we hope to
be well settled before Christmas.

"The roof was half blown off the kitchen, but I have had it mended
already; the other offices were all swept away. The gig is much
injured; and my horse received a wound in the fall of the stable, from
which he will not be recovered for some weeks: in the mean time I
have no choice but to buy another, as I must go at least once or twice
a week to Colonarie, besides business in Town. As to our own
comforts, we can scarcely expect ever to recover from the blow that
has now stricken us. No money would repay me for the loss of my
books, of which a large proportion had been in my hands for so many
years that they were like old and faithful friends, and of which many
had been given me at different times by the persons in the world whom
I most value.

"But against all this I have to set the preservation of our lives, in
a way the most awfully providential; and the safety of every one on
the Estate. And I have also the great satisfaction of reflecting that
all the Negroes from whom any assistance could reasonably be expected,
behaved like so many Heroes of Antiquity; risking their lives and
limbs for us and our property, while their own poor houses were flying
like chaff before the hurricane. There are few White people here who
can say as much for their Black dependents; and the force and value of
the relation between Master and Slave has been tried by the late
calamity on a large scale.

"Great part of both sides of this Island has been laid completely
waste. The beautiful wide and fertile Plain called the Charib
Country, extending for many miles to the north of Colonarie, and
formerly containing the finest sets of works and best dwelling-houses
in the Island, is, I am told, completely desolate: on several estates
not a roof even of a Negro hut standing. In the embarrassed
circumstances of many of the proprietors, the ruin is, I fear,
irreparable.--At Colonarie the damage is serious, but by no means
desperate. The crop is perhaps injured ten or fifteen per cent. The
roofs of several large buildings are destroyed, but these we are
already supplying; and the injuries done to the cottages of the
Negroes are, by this time, nearly if not quite remedied.

"Indeed, all that has been suffered in St. Vincent appears nothing
when compared with the appalling loss of property and of human lives
at Barbadoes. There the Town is little but a heap of ruins, and the
corpses are reckoned by thousands; while throughout the Island there
are not, I believe, ten estates on which the buildings are standing.
The Elliotts, from whom we have heard, are living with all their
family in a tent; and may think themselves wonderfully saved, when
whole families round them were crushed at once beneath their houses.
Hugh Barton, the only officer of the Garrison hurt, has broken his
arm, and we know nothing of his prospects of recovery. The more
horrible misfortune of Barbadoes is partly to be accounted for by the
fact of the hurricane having begun there during the night. The
flatness of the surface in that Island presented no obstacle to the
wind, which must, however, I think have been in itself more furious
than with us. No other island has suffered considerably.

"I have told both my Uncle and Anthony that I have given you the
details of our recent history;--which are not so pleasant that I
should wish to write them again. Perhaps you will be good enough to
let them see this, as soon as you and my Father can spare it.... I am
ever, dearest Mother,

"Your grateful and affectionate
"JOHN STERLING."

This Letter, I observe, is dated 28th August, 1831; which is otherwise
a day of mark to the world and me,--the Poet Goethe's last birthday.
While Sterling sat in the Tropical solitudes, penning this history,
little European Weimar had its carriages and state-carriages busy on
the streets, and was astir with compliments and visiting-cards, doing
its best, as heretofore, on behalf of a remarkable day; and was not,
for centuries or tens of centuries, to see the like of it again!--


At Brighton, the hospitable home of those Munros, our friends
continued for above two months. Their first child, Edward, as above
noticed, was born here, "14th October, 1831;"--and now the poor lady,
safe from all her various perils, could return to Colonarie under good
auspices.

It was in this year that I first heard definitely of Sterling as a
contemporary existence; and laid up some note and outline of him in my
memory, as of one whom I might yet hope to know. John Mill, Mrs.
Austin and perhaps other friends, spoke of him with great affection
and much pitying admiration; and hoped to see him home again, under
better omens, from over the seas. As a gifted amiable being, of a
certain radiant tenuity and velocity, too thin and rapid and
diffusive, in danger of dissipating himself into the vague, or alas
into death itself: it was so that, like a spot of bright colors,
rather than a portrait with features, he hung occasionally visible in
my imagination.

Thomas Carlyle

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