The Great 1843 Mother of All Caribbean Earthquakes

8 02 2021

Dale C. S. Destin |

At 10:37 am, February 8, 1843 – 178 years ago today, the mother of all Caribbean earthquakes struck the region. This is believed to be strongest of all Caribbean earthquakes, ever reported. Dubbed the “The great 1843 earthquake” by Beauducel and Feuillet of the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, it killed more than 1500 people and perhaps up to 6000, most in Guadeloupe, and caused catastrophic damage.  

Earthquake event of 8 February 1843, where black star, southeast of Antigua, indicates epicenter from Feuillard [1985]. Thick dashed lines, with roman numerals between, indicate approximate isoseists – equal earthquake intensity. Dashed areas show the approximate size of the ruptured zones estimated by using the Wells and Coppersmith [1994] relation between rupture length and magnitude. See Natalie Feuillet et al

The powerful earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 8.5, struck the Caribbean, with epicentre between Antigua and Guadeloupe. Different sources have it centre in slightly different places, which is not unusual; however, all have it within 50 miles of the above-mentioned islands.

The monster quake is credited with the total destruction of the Guadeloupe city of  Pointe-à-Pitre. What the shaking did not demolish directly, fire sparked by it consumed the rest. Eyewitness accounts and newspaper reports painted a very dismal picture of the aftermath of this earth-shattering quake, which caused damage throughout most of the Eastern Caribbean. Here is an account of damage to Antigua, according to an 1843 report by Captain of the ship – Royal Mail Steam Packet Dee, as cited by José Grases G. 1990 and obtained from the The University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC) website:

This island has suffered most severely, the whole of the churches and mills throughout the island being a heap of ruins. The organ in the Church of St. John’s totally destroyed; the Dockyard at  English Harbour is sunk considerably, many parts being under water, the whole of the  stone houses in a complete ruinous state, the walls partly or wholly down; the water tanks containing nearly 11,000 tons of water burst with an  awful crash; the earthquake lasted about 4 minutes. Mr. Hart, Clerk in charge of the Dockyard, English Harbour, states that 3 clocks in the  neighbourhood  stopped  at  10h:  40M:  a.m. Precise accounts had not  been received from the  interior. It is ascertained 40 lives had been lost – fears were entertained it was short of the actual loss. The Governor’s House (Dow’s  Hill) is partially destroyed with nearly all its furniture; the  Ridge Barracks much damaged; the Custom House, Court House, and Wesleyan Meeting House destroyed.”

No photo description available.
Damage from the 1974 Antigua earthquake. The 1843 earthquake was 10 times stronger. Photos by UWI-SRC

This earthquake, which ranks among the top 20 strongest ever in the world, was said to have been felt as far away as New York, USA. It was probably a megathrust earthquake – the most powerful kinds. It was up to 10 times stronger than the infamous 1974 Antigua earthquake and up to 32 times stronger than the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

It must be noted that there are conflicting estimates of the magnitude of this catastrophic event with, at least, one expert indicating that the magnitude was as low as 7.5 to 8. I am more persuaded  by the 8.5 magnitude estimate, since this appears to be the most recent finding – Natalie Feuillet et al., and also supported by, at least, two other experts. In some literature it is listed at magnitude 8.3. At any rate, it was not your garden variety earthquake by any stretch of the imagination.

According to the UWI-SRC, earthquakes are a daily reality across the Caribbean, especially the northeast Caribbean where hundreds occur annually, although most are not felt.

Over the years, the UWI-SRC has expressed concerned over the potential for an 1843 or 1974 caliber earthquake impacting the northeast Caribbean. Although earthquakes, especially large ones, are virtually unpredictable, the public should be prepared, as moderate to significant sized earthquakes may impact the region at any time. Individual, community and national measures should always be in place to mitigate the impacts of earthquakes.

For more on seismic activity in the Eastern Caribbean visit: UWI-SRC. Also please continue to follow me for all things weather and climate via TwitterFacebook and Instagram. Share this blog, if you found it useful.

October 8, 1974 Earthquake and Weather Remembered

8 10 2019

Dale C. S. Destin |

October 8, 1974, a clear, cool and calm Tuesday morning, Antiguans and Barbudans had a wakeup alarm of seismic proportion. At 5:50 am 45 years ago today, the region had a powerful 7.5 magnitude earthquake that shattered the day.


The October 8, 1974 quake is said to have produced the strongest shaking in several Leeward Islands since the great earthquake of February 8, 1843. It is actually the strongest ever recorded in the Eastern Caribbean, according to UWI, Mona. The 1974 quake was also three times stronger than the Haiti 7.0 magnitude quake of 2010.

A few people are said to have received minor injuries, but no fatality was reported, according to paper – Reconnaissance report of the Antigua West Indies, earthquake of October 8, 1974. The paper also indicated that “damage was confined mainly to larger and older buildings, to a petroleum refinery [West Indies Oil Refinery], and to the deep-water harbour”.

I was 5 years old back then, to young to remember much. I don’t have any memory of feeling the actual quake, but I do recall quite vividly that when the wooden grocery shop (Bascus Shop – Bennett Street, Villa) next door opened, all the goods were on the floor.

And what was the weather like? A look at the weather records of October 8, 1974 as taken at the V. C. Bird International Airport, Antigua; it was a calm night with mostly clear skies. The mean temperature was around 24 C or 75 F with a relatively cold minimum temperature of 22 C or 72 F.

At the actual time of the quake (5:50 am local time, 1050 UTC), the wind was calm with fair skies (one okta of low-level clouds and four oktas of high-level (cirrus) clouds).  The temperature was a cool 22 C or 72 F and the relative humidity was 96%.

The weather observer also noted that there was a thunderstorm (Cumulonimbus) cloud to the northeast of the Airport but no thunder was observed. Up to October 8, 1974, the rainfall for the month was 89.9 mm (3.54 inches), which is quite a lot for only 7 days. 

Summarizing the night leading up to the most destructive quake on record for the area: it was mostly clear, calm, fairly cool and dry in terms of the absence of rainfall; however, much dew would have formed as the wind was calm all night and the relative humidity in the 90’s.

Questions: What would happen if a similar quake occurred today? Are we better prepared today than we were in 1974? The UWI Seismic Unit has been cautioning that they have seen activities over the past few years similar to the lead up to the 1974 quake; are we heeding this caution?

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