Microscopic Souvenirs of Human Carnage – The Eruptions of La Soufriere and Mt. Pelee

The slides were among a group of eleven labeled “The Mason Collection”. Routinely, they would have been filed and recorded within a larger collection had not for a notation on one of the specimen labels that seems odd – “fell on the ship Lena”. 

Volcanic Dust or “Ashes” from Mt. Soufriere, St. Vincent. Fell on Ship Lena at Barbados, May 1902. Prepared by Norman N. Mason, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Ash From La Soufriere 400x, Polarized light
Volcanic Dust, Mt. Pelee, Gas and Crystal Inclusions Prepared by Norman N. Mason, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Volcanic Ash From Mt. Pelee Volcanic glass with gas inclusions 400x polarized light.

Thirty thousand people suffocated or died a searing-suffocating death during one of the worst volcanic cataclysms in modern times. The geologically-spawned mass carnage began on Thursday, May 8, 1902. On that day, within hours, volcanos on two Caribbean islands blew their lids. One was La Soufriere on the island of St. Vincent, and the other was Mt. Pelee on Martinique. The eruptions filled the skies with lethally hot gasses mixed with suffocating ash. Flying rocks, combined with splattering blobs of molten lava, were blasted over the landscape for miles in all directions. A steady flow of lava crept down the sloping sides of the mountain, burning to a cinder the unfortunate plants and animals downhill from the volcano’s gushing crater. The few surviving witnesses claimed St. Pierre, Martinique’s capital city, was destroyed in one blinding flash. Even the faraway island of Barbados, a hundred miles to the east, plunged into daytime darkness, where black clouds blocked the sun and salted a heavy layer of soot across the island.

The Eruption of La Soufriere Keystone View Stereo Card 1902
Back of Keystone Stereo Card – Description of the Damage

British government officials immediately sent a rescue ship, the HMS Wear, to Kingston, the capital and harbor of St. Vincent. Sailing from St. Lucia, an island immediately north of St. Vincent and south of Martinique, the Captain described the conditions preventing him from reaching Kingston and then returning to St. Lucia.

The sea was littered with trees and other wreckage. It formed a belt blocking any approach to the island. An attempt was made to proceed to St. Lucia through the falling ashes, but it was found impossible as another belt now blocked the way back. It meant suffocation to try. A run outward was attempted, but the vessel entered another belt of wreckage miles out at sea. On the horizon, there was nothing to be seen but falling ashes and other material, which was piled up like an enormous wall. 


At the geographical latitudes of the Caribbean islands, the trade winds, or easterlies, dominate wind direction blowing from the east to the west. La Soufriere erupted with such force that it punched a mega-cloud of ashes through the atmosphere’s lower layer of local weather and into the west-to-east blowing jetstream, high above the trade winds. The high-altitude jetstream carried Soufiere’s ashes a hundred miles to the east, blanketing Barbados with soot. Gravity’s pull constrained the size of the ash to reach the jetstream, so what reached Barbados were particles the size of fine sand and dust. Although the individual grains snowing down were of small size, their mineral makeup made their accumulation heavy enough to snap tree branches under the weight.

Ships Being Swamped in the Harbor St. Pierre, Martinique, (Morris 1902)
The Burning Cruise Ship Roraima in the harbor of St. Pierre (Century 1902)

In the harbor of St. Pierre, shockwaves from the eruption created steep waves that swamped or capsized nineteen large ships – three from the United States. A British cruise ship, the Roraima, was set aflame by falling pyroclastic boluses as it attempted a run for open water. Unfortunately, the burning Ship sank. Only fifteen of its sixty-four crew survived. Ships that had been at sea could not enter the harbors or even get close to the islands to rescue inhabitants. They were blocked by tremendous amounts of floating wreckage and toxic fumes. Survivors on the island of Martinique waited days before rescue ships could arrive. Until then, the survivors formed mobs pillaging the areas that escaped volcanic destruction. (Hill 1902)

St. Pierre Before the Eruption of 1902
St. Pierre After the Eruption of 1902

Collecting the Slide’s Volcanic Ash in Barbados

Slavery was outlawed through most of the Caribbean by 1847, creating a need for low-cost labor to work the sugar fields. Plantation owners turned to China and India as a source of low-wage labor. Ships registered to the English Crown that ferried the workers between the western pacific and other lands were monikered “immigrant ships.” They were freighters outfitted to transport people, disparagingly called “coolies”, across oceans as cost-effectively as possible.

The HMS Lena, commanded by Captain Nibbs, was a steam-powered immigrant ship. The Ship docked in Bridgetown Harbor, Barbados, to unload the cargo of workers it picked up in India. It was a day before St. Soufriere’s eruption. 

The Lena was scheduled to sail for New York as its next port of call. Unfortunately, there was no freight standing dockside for shipment north. Not having a cargo to reload, the Lena would not have the weight, nor be properly balanced, for navigating open Atlantic Ocean waters competently. A heavy and cost-free substitute, termed ballast, would have to be placed in the Ship’s holds to replace the missing weight of cargo.

The following morning, the day La Soufriere erupted, began without a visible sunrise. Instead, daylight was blocked from the sky by black soot blasted into the stratosphere by Soufriere. A shower of ashes began salting over Bridgeport Harbor, including Her Majesties Ship Lena. 

Captain William S. Nibbs (photo not in collection)

Capt. Nibbs directed the Ship’s crewmembers to clear the ashes from the decks. But he soon realized that the accumulating ash was very heavy. So, Nibbs ordered the Ship’s hatches opened and shoveled the volcanic ash into the holds below rather than overboard. Soon, the HMS Lena’s displacement – computed by measuring the Ship’s waterline height – indicated she bore seven tons of La Soufriere’s ash as ballast. The next day the Lena set sail for New York. (The Sun 1902)_

The catastrophic destruction wrought upon St. Vincent and Martinique quickly became international front-page news. During the two weeks while sailing to New York, Capt. Biggs thought about the ballast and believed it might have value if bottled and sold as souvenirs. After docking in New York Harbor, Capt. Nibbs informed the press about the unusual ballast the Ship carried.             

The news agency, Associated Press, distributed the story about how the HMS Lena loaded its ballast and that the Captain was eager to sell the ashes to the public as souvenirs. Keepsakes of one of the world’s greatest human carnages. Newspapers as far away as Hawaii ran the story – in the case of the Honolulu Gazette, the paper’s editor wrote to Capt. Nibbs about wanting to get a quantity of the ashes. Nibbs mailed the newspaper a jar filled with the Lena’s unusual cargo.

When the Honolulu Gazette reprinted the AP article describing the Caribbean catastrophe. The paper’s editor informed the readership that the publisher possesses a quantity of ash sent directly from the Lena. Persons who would like to own ashes from the calamity befalling St. Vincent and Martinique should send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the editorial offices. Ashes from the Lena would be returned to them in the same envelope.

Charles Morris (1833- 1922) was Born in Philadelphia, earned a law degree, and taught college classes before turning full-time to writing. He penned several history textbooks and became a noted journalist specializing in the coverage of natural catastrophes. Morris’s book, xxxxxx, was published in the year of the Caribbean eruptions occurred. devoted the tome’s first third to documenting the testimonies of survivors and their rescuers from St. Vincent and Martinique.

Robert T. Hill (1858 – 1941) Robert T. Hill (1858 – 1941) was an American geologist and geographer. He was a leading figure in studying the geology of Texas and the American Southwest, focusing on understanding geomorphology, stratigraphy, and paleontology. He was also a member of several scientific societies, such as the Geological Society of America and the National Academy of Sciences. Hill pioneered the field of applied geology and helped make clear the relationship between geology and economic development.

(The smallest particles on the slide are beyond the capability of light microscopes to resolve details. It wasn’t until a century later in xxxxx. It is only through the use of an electron microscope that the finest particles could bebe examined and measured using electron microscopy by xxxxxx. See LINK.)


The Sun (Baltimore), (06/12/1902) Ballast From the Sky

Reed, S. C. (1902 August) The Catastrophe in St. Vincent, Century Magazine, 64:634–42

Tosch, Lryl. (06/27/1902) Volcanic Dust Ship, Honolulu Hawaiian Gazette  

Hill, Robert T. (1902) A Study of Pelee: Impressions and conclusions of a trip to martinique Pictures from photographs by the author and others. The Century Magazine, De Vine Press, 1902. Vol XLII. p. 764 – 786

 (06/11/1902) Indiana News, Indianapolis, 

EM volcanic dust here: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/a-b-Scanning-electron-microscope-images-of-Soufrire-Hills-tephra-and-airborne-dust_fig6_225542033

(06/251902) Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu, HI, 

Morris Charles, (1902) The Destruction of St. Pierre and St. Vincent and the World’s Greatest Disasters From Pompeii to Martinique. American Book and Bible House. Philadelphia, Penna.


The coastline of Martinique after the eruption of Mt. Pelee

The city of St. Pierre lies in ruins while the cruise ship Roraina burns and sinks in the harbor. 

 Capt. William S. Nibbs (1902) Indiana News, Indianapolis, June 11

The slide was prepared by Norman N. Mason (1837 – 1914). According to this biography, as detailed on Microscopists.com, he was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Connecticut, owned a pharmacy in Providence, Rode Island, and retired to Plattsburgh, New York. According to Stephenson, Mason was primarily a druggist. He contributed to the development of a state pharmacy board and worked to establish the Rhode Island College of Pharmacy. As a microscopist, Mason was highly respected for his skills in sectioning and staining specimens for microscopic examination. For this talent, Mason was sought after by biologists for preparing slides necessary for the research projects on which they were working. 

A Providence newspaper reported that Mason was selected to serve on a review committee to assess the efficacy of Brown University’s biology department. The article’s headline refers to the designated committee members as Sons of the University – a term popular during the nineteenth century to denote a school’s graduates. Since Mason was part of the group, it suggests he graduated from the school. However, his biography has no other association between Mason and Brown University, so it may just be careless headline writing by the publication’s copy editor. (The News 1901). For additional details about Mason’s life, see: http://microscopist.net/MasonNN.html