A Souvenir Of Human Carnage


Recently discovered artifacts from the volcanic eruptions on the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and Martinique in 1902 uncover a scheme to profit from the ashes of the Caribbean catastrophe. A one-hundred-and-forty-year-old microscope slide, holding mounted volcanic ash, was found among an old collection with the notation “fell on the ship Lena at Barbados” on its label. The comment specified a place of collection unrelated to geographical or biological importance, making it oddly stand out from the other scientifically categorized slides. There must be something about the British Ship Lena that warranted a deeper look. 
A cursory search of the internet revealed nothing about a ship named Lena during the first decade of the twentieth century. Finally, searching an archival newspaper database restricted by a paywall gave up the story. The Associated Press from 1902 carried a strange report about a ship and its Captain caught in the Caribbean during the worst volcanic disaster of modern times – the practically simultaneous eruptions of Mt. Pelee, Martinique, and La Soufriere, St. Vincents. The explosions resulted in volcanic glass and pulverized rock falling from the skies on the British-flagged HMS Lena’s decks while tied dockside in Barbados, an island a hundred miles east of the blast. The Captain ordered the Ship’s crew to shovel the ashes into the Ship’s holds for use as ballast. Then, the Lena sailed for the harbor of New York City. Before arriving, the Captain sent word to the press about his cargo of seven tons of volcanic ash. He announced the ash would be for sale to anyone wanting to own souvenirs of the Caribbean catastrophe. The quantity sold was not noted, but a newspaper as far away as Honolulu advertised having received a jar-full from the Captain and that they were making samples available to the readership.


Microscope slide of ashes from the eruption of Mt Soufriere
Volcanic Dust or “Ashes” from Mt. Soufriere, St. Vincent. Fell on Ship Lena at Barbados, May 1902. Slide Prepared by Norman N. Mason, Providence, Rhode Island, USA


Picture of ashes from the eruption of Mt Soufriere magnified 400x
Ash From La Soufriere 400x, Polarized light Colored particles are volcanic glass. The opaque ones are pulverized rock


Catastrophic – Double Caribbean Volcanic Eruption

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 Eruption of La Soufriere Keystone View Stereo Card from1902
The Eruption of La Soufriere Keystone View Stereo Card 1902. For more information about Keystone View Company, see  https://bioone.org/journals/the-american-biology-teacher/volume-72/issue-9
Back of Keystone Stereo Card - Description of the Damage
The Eruption of La Soufriere Keystone View Stereo Card 1902.  Back of Keystone Stereo Card – Description of the Damage

The eruptions filled the skies with lethally hot gasses mixed with suffocating ash. Flying rocks and 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.

woodcut illustration of waves destroying ships in St. Pierre harbor.
In St. Pierre’s harbor, shockwaves from the initial blast created steep waves that destroyed nineteen large ships – three from the United States.

Thirty thousand people were either suffocated or burned to death during one of the worst volcanic eruptions of modern times. Two Caribbean volcanoes, La Soufriere on the island of St. Vincent and Mt. Pelee on Martinique, erupted within hours of each other. It happened on May 8, a Thursday, in 1902. The explosions and venting filled the skies with lethally hot gasses mixed with suffocating ash, flying rocks, and splattering blobs of molten lava. The Gates of Hell were open for days, burning to cinders much of the plant and animal life that once thrived on the volcano’s slopes. On Martinique, the few survivors to witness the eruption claimed St. Pierre, the island nation’s capital city, was destroyed in one blinding flash. As far as a hundred miles away to the east, the island of Barbados plunged into daytime darkness, swathed in black, ash-dropping clouds. The weight of the soot that fell from the skies broke tree limbs and collapsed roofs and buildings. 

Actual 1902 photograph of the Cruise Ship Roraima on fire
The Burning Cruise Ship Roraima seen smoking in the harbor of St. Pierre (Century 1902)

Officials of the British government immediately sent a rescue ship, the HMS Wear, to Kingston, the capital of St. Vincent. It sailed from St. Lucia, an island immediately north of St. Vincent. Unfortunately, the conditions encountered by the Ship, floating debris, hot gasses, and falling ash, blocked it from reaching its destination port of Kingston, and, by then, the continually accumulating flotsam prevented her return to home port. As a result, the Wear had to sail seaward to open water, where it waited several days before returning. The Ship’s Captain described the conditions he met for the press thusly;

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 blocked the way. 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. 

Photograph: the town of St. Pierre before the eruption of Mt. Pelee
St. Pierre Before the Eruption of 1902
Photograph: the town of St. Pierre after the eruption of Mt. Pelee
St. Pierre After the Eruption of 1902 View from Orange Hill looking north-east over the ruins of Saint Pierre, Martinique, with a smoldering Mt. Pelee in the background. Published as a stereo view by Underwood and Underwood

At the global latitudes of the Caribbean islands, the easterly trade winds dominate wind direction from east to west. La Soufriere’s erupted with such a great force that it punched a mega-cloud of ashes through the atmosphere’s lower layer of easterly winds into the westerly blowing jet stream. High above the trade winds, the jet stream carried Soufiere’s ashes hundreds of miles to the east, creating the ash-fall that blanketed Barbados with heavy soot. Gravity’s pull constrained the size of the ash particles that could reach the jet stream, so Soufriere’s ash that reached Barbados was composed of particles the size of sand and dust. Even though the individual grains that snowed down were small, their mineral composition made the accumulated weight as heavy as the pulverized rocks and volcanic glass from which the soot was made.

In St. Pierre’s harbor, shockwaves from the initial blast created steep waves that destroyed nineteen large ships – three from the United States. A British cruise ship, the Roraima, upped anchor and ran for the open water. But to no avail. The Ship was set aflame by falling pyroclastic boluses and sank while still in the harbor. Only fifteen of its sixty-four crew members survived. Incoming ocean vessels could not enter the island’s harbors or even get close to land to rescue surviving inhabitants. As with the HMS Wear’s blocked attempt, tremendous amounts of floating wreckage and toxic fumes prevented navigating inshore waters. Survivors on the islands had to wait days before rescue ships could arrive. Until then, the island’s surviving inhabitants formed mobs pillaging whatever resources escaped volcanic destruction. (Hill 1902)

magnified ashes from Mt. Pelee 400x
Volcanic glass from Mt. Pelee  400x magnification showing gas bubbles trapped in silica

The smallest particles on the slide are beyond the capability of a light microscope to resolve details. It was not until almost a century later, in 1982, using an electron microscope, that the finest particles from Soufriere could be examined and measured. They were between 1.1 and 0.23 microns. (Woods 1982)

magnified volcanic glasws from Mt. Pelee 400x
Volcanic glass from Mt. Pelee’s ash. Low power, top-stage illumination
 photo of Slide Mounted by Norman N. Mason
Volcanic dust from the eruption of Mt Pelee    Microscope Slide Mounted by Norman N. Mason in 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 officially known as “immigrant ships.” They usually were freighters reoutfitted to transport people, disparagingly called “coolies”, across oceans as cost-effectively as possible.

Photo Capt. William S. Nibbs of HMS Lena
Captain William S. Nibbs (original newspaper reproduction is not in collection)

The HMS Lena, under the command of Captain Nibbs, was a steam-powered immigrant ship. The Ship docked in Bridgetown Harbor, Barbados, to unload its “cargo” of workers it picked up in India. The passengers debarked the day before St. Soufriere erupted. 

The HMS Lena’s schedule required an immediate departure from Bridgetown and sailing to New York City. Unfortunately, no freight was standing dockside for shipment north. Without cargo to reload, the Lena would lack the weight and balance to navigate open Atlantic Ocean waters competently. To satisfy the required balance, a heavy and cost-free substitute, called ballast, would have to be substituted in the Ship’s holds, replacing the weight of the missing cargo. *

The next day in Barbados began without a visible sunrise. Instead, a high-altitude black cloud of soot, blasted into the jet stream by Soufriere’s eruption, blocked daylight from the sky. Reportedly, the day remained as dark as night. Then, ashes began showering Bridgeport Harbor, including the decks of Her Majesties Ship Lena. 

Capt. Nibbs, as expected, ordered the Ship’s crewmembers to push overboard the ashes settling on the decks. The crew quickly realized how heavy the accumulating ash was. So, Nibbs got the idea that instead of discarding the ash, use it as ballast. The Captain ordered the Ship’s hatches open and the crew to shovel the volcanic ash into the holds below. Soon, the HMS Lena’s displacement – determined by measuring the Ship’s waterline height – indicated she was trim and bearing seven tons of La Soufriere’s ash as ballast. On the following day, the Lena set sail for New York. (The Sun 1902)

Selling the ashes as souvenirs of disaster

The catastrophic destruction wrought upon St. Vincent and Martinique quickly became international front-page news. During the two weeks cruise to New York, Capt. Nibbs thought about the ballast Lena carried and believed he should be able to make a few bucks off it if bottled and sold as souvenirs of the Caribbean catastrophe. As soon as the Ship entered New York Harbor, Capt. Nibbs informed the press about the unusual ballast the Ship was about to deliver. 

The news service, Associated Press, distributed the story to subscribing newspapers about how the HMS Lena acquired its shipment of ashes and that Capt. Nibbs was willing to sell the ashes to the public as 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 getting a quantity of ashes. Nibbs mailed the newspaper a jar filled with La Soufriere’s ashes. (Gazette 1902)

The Honolulu Gazette reprinted the AP article describing the Caribbean volcanic catastrophe in all its gore, as did most AP subscribing newspapers. A month later, the Gazette ran an article titled “Volcanic Dust Ship.” The piece told the story of the HMS Lena and announced that the Gazette’s editor received a quantity of ash mailed directly from the Lena’s Captain. All readers desiring ashes from the calamity that ravaged the small Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and Martinique should send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the editorial offices. A sprinkling of the ashes brought to New York by the Lena would be returned in the mail using the same envelope. (Tosh 1902)

Note: The ashes that fell on the island of Barbados were those blasted upward with enough force to reach the jet stream. Therefore, it must have come from deep in the volcano’s throat and most likely contains no human ashes. How the geophysics of ash distribution was understood by the public at the time is unknown.

Mention of Receiving La Soufriere’s Ashes in London

In 1902 at the June 20 meeting of the Quekett Microscopical Club in England, contributions to the club’s collections of permanently mounted slides and collected specimens were made of Soufriere’s ashes by two of it’s members. The club contributors noted that the materials they gave were from Barbados, not St. Vincent, so the most likely source was the HMS Lena. (Scourfield 1902) 

Norman Nelson Mason (1837 – 1914)

The label on the microscope slide identifies its creator as Norman N. Mason, a respected microscopist whose biography can be found on Microscopists.com. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut, Mason owned a pharmacy in Providence, Rhode Island, and later retired to Plattsburgh, New York. He was also a dedicated druggist who contributed to the establishment of a state pharmacy board and worked to create the Rhode Island College of Pharmacy.

Photo of 4 microscope slides by Norman Mailer
Collection of 4 microscope slides made by Norman N. Mailer from 1902

Mason’s expertise in sectioning and staining specimens for microscopic examination earned him high regard among biologists, who sought him out to prepare slides for their research projects. Notably, Mason did not advertise his prepared slides for sale or trade, so those found in collections were likely either gifted or acquired through club meetings and conferences. However, it is possible that he sold slides in a microcopy section of the pharmacy he owned.

In 1901, Mason was selected to serve on a review committee assessing the efficacy of Brown University’s biology department, as reported in a Providence newspaper. The article refers to the committee members as “Sons of the University,” a term popular in the nineteenth century to denote graduates of a school. While it is possible that Mason graduated from Brown University, there is no other evidence to support this claim in his biography.

For more information on Norman N. Mason’s life visit http://microscopist.net/MasonNN.html.

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 covering natural catastrophes. Morris’s book was published in the year the Caribbean eruptions occurred. He devoted the tome’s first chapter to documenting the testimonies of survivors and their rescuers from St. Vincent and Martinique.

Photo of Charles Morris
Charles Morris (1833 – 1922) Author of book about volcanoes and the Mt Pelee and La Soufriere catastrophes.

Robert T. Hill (1858 – 1941) was a geologist with the US Geological Survey. His biography, by Margaret Waring, was titled “The Dean of Texas Geology.” 

How to footnote this page:

Reiser, Frank W. (2023) A Souvenir Of Human Carnage, Antiqueslides.net. Available at : https://wp.me/PaLJ0g-186


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

Hill, R. 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

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.

Scourfield, D., ed. (1902). Minutes Ordinary Meeting Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club 1901 – 1903, London

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

Woods, David C and Chuan, R. L. (1982) Fine Particles in the Soufriere Eruption Plume. Science 216(4550):1118-9. 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,