Because many genealogical records from the island of St. Kitts have not been digitized and put online, I have often turned to civil registry records on microfilm.
While looking through page after page of Kittitian death records from the mid 1800s, I suddenly noticed that over the space of just a couple of days in early 1880, there was a huge number of deaths, many of them with almost no details about the deceased. Names were unknown, and ages and occupations were left blank. What all the entries had in common was the cause of death, which was listed as drowning. A few had chilling notes added like “unidentified body found in basement of house”.
Researching the story behind these deaths revealed a great flood that hit St. Kitts on January 12, 1880. The unusually heavy rain started the night before at about 11PM, and continued for four hours. Sightings of a “waterspout” were reported, which is something like a tornado made up of air and water mist that forms over bodies of water. The downpour caused the island’s mountain streams to overflow, which added to the flood of water rushing out to the surrounding ocean. Eyewitness accounts told how the wooden Kittitian houses were swept out to sea, along with people, farm animals, trees, and mud several feet deep. The sugar cane crop was destroyed when it was washed away.
The known number of dead was 231, which was especially disastrous for an island with a population of only about 25,000 at that time. A monument was erected in a cemetery in the capital city of Basseterre, in memory of the many islanders lost during the tragic flood of 1880.
- Registers of Deaths 1878-1881 (St. Christopher), microfilm #1667543, Family History Library
- Fultonhistory.com, NY Times article January 13, 1880, “An Island Devastated by Flood”, period account of flood
- National Ocean Service, “What is a waterspout”, 2014
- THE FLOOD OF JANUARY, 1880, AT BASSETERRE, ST. KITTS, W. I.. by William H. Alexander, Mon. Wea. Rev., 1899, for details on weather conditions and damage done by the flood
- Live De Life: Caribbean Island Style by Joan F. Harrington, 2003 (Google books)