Transactions of the Geological Society, 1st series, vol. 1/On the Soufrière of Montserrat

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On the Soufrière of Montserrat  (1811) 
by Nicholas Nugent

VII. An Account of “ The sulphur,” or “ Soufrière” of the Island of Montserrat.
By Nicolas Nugent, M.D.
Honorary Menber of the Geological Society.

On my voyage last year (October 1810) from Antigua to England the packet touched at Montserrat, and my curiosity having been excited by the accounts I received of a place in the island called “ The sulphur,” and which, from the descriptions of several persons, I conceived might be the crater of an inconsiderable volcano, I determined to avail myself of the stay of the packet to visit that place.

The island of Montserrat, so called by the Spaniards from a fancied resemblance to the celebrated mountain of Catalonia, is every where extremely rugged and mountainous, and the only roads, except in one direction, are narrow bridle paths winding through the recesses of the mountains; there is hardly a possibility of using wheeled carriages, and the produce of the estates is brought to the place of shipment on the backs of mules. Accompanied by a friend, I accordingly set out on horseback from the town of Plymouth, which is situated at the foot of the mountains on the sea shore. We proceeded by a circuitous and steep route about six miles, gradually ascending the mountain, which consisted entirely of an uniform porphyritic rock, broken every where into fragments and large blocks, and which in many places was so denuded of soil, as to render it a matter of astonishment how vegetation, and particularly that of the cane, should thrive so well. The far greater part of the whole island is made up of this porphyry, which by some systematicks would be considered as referable to the newest floëtz trap formation, and by others would be regarded only as a variety of lava. It is a compact and highly indurated argillaceous rock of a grey colour, replete with large and perfect crystals of white felspar and black hornblende. Rocks of this description generally pass in the West Indies by the vague denomination of fire-stone, from the useful property they possess of resisting the operation of intense heat. A considerable quantity of this stone is accordingly exported from Montserrat to the other islands which do not contain it, being essential in forming the masonry around the copper boilers in sugar works. We continued our ride a considerable distance beyond the estate called “ Galloway's,” (where we procured a guide) till we came to the side of a very deep ravine which extends in a winding direction the whole way from one of the higher mountains to the sea. A rugged horse-path was traced along the brink of the ravine, which we followed amidst the most beautiful and romantic scenery. At the head of this ravine is a small amphitheatre formed by lofty surrounding mountains, and here is situated what is termed “ The sulphur.” Though the scene was extremely grand and well worthy of observation, yet I confess I could not help feeling a good deal disappointed, as there was nothing like a crater to be seen, or any thing else that could lead me to suppose the place had any connexion with a volcano. On the north, east and west sides were lofty mountains wooded to the tops, composed apparently of the same kind of porphyry we had noticed all along the way. On the south, the same kind of rock of no great height, quite bare of vegetation, and in a very peculiar state of decomposition. And on the south-eastern side, our path and the outlet into the ravine. The whole area thus included, might be three or four hundred yards in length, and half that distance in breadth. The surface of the ground, not occupied by the ravine, was broken and strewed with fragments and masses of the porphyritic rock, for the most part so exceedingly decomposed as to be friable and to crumble on the smallest pressure. For some time I thought that this substance, which is perfectly white and in some instances exhibits an arrangement like crystals, was a peculiar mineral; but afterwards became convinced, that it was merely the porphyritic rock singularly altered, not by the action of the air or weather, but, as I conjecture, by a strong sulphurous or sulphuric acid vapour which is generated here, and which is probably driven more against one side by the eddy wind up the ravine, the breeze from any other quarter being shut out by the surrounding hills.[1]

Amidst the loose stones and fragments of decomposed rock are many fissures and crevices, whence very strong sulphurous exhalations arise, and which are diffused to a considerable distance; these exhalations are so powerful as to impede respiration, and near any of the fissures are quite intolerable and suffocating. The buttons of my coat, and some silver and keys in my pockets were instantaneously discoloured. An intense degree of heat is at the same time evolved, which, added to the apprehension of the ground crumbling and giving way, renders it difficult and painful to walk near any of these fissures. The water of a rivulet which flows down the sides of the mountain and passes over this place, is made to boil with violence, and becomes loaded with sulphurous impregnations. Other branches of the same rivulet which do not pass immediately near these fissures, remain cool and limpid, and thus you may with one hand touch one rill which is at the boiling point, and with the other hand touch another rill which is of the usual temperature of water in that climate. The exhalations of sulphur do not at all times proceed from the same fissures, but new ones appear to be daily formed, others becoming, as it were, extinct. On the margins of these fissures, and indeed almost over the whole place, are to be seen most beautiful crystallizations of sulphur, in many spots quite as fine and perfect as those from Vesuvius, or indeed as any other specimens I have ever met with. The whole mass of decomposed rock in the vicinity is, in like manner, quite penetrated by sulphur. The specimens which I collected of the crystallized sulphur, as well as of the decomposed and undecomposed porphyry, were left inadvertently on board the packet at Falmouth, which prevents my having the pleasure of exhibiting them to the society. I did not perceive at this place any trace of pyrites, or any other metallic substance, except indeed two or three small fragments of clay iron-stone at a little distance, but did not discover even this substance any where in situ. It is very probable that the bed of the glen or ravine might throw some light on the internal structure of the place, but it was too deep, and its banks infinitely too precipitous, for me to venture down to it. I understood that there was a similar exhalation and deposition of sulphur on the side of a mountain not more than a mile distant in a straight line; and a subterranean communication is supposed to exist between the two places.

Almost every island as the western Archipelago, particularly those which have the highest land, has in like manner its “ Sulphur,” or as the French better express it, its “ Soufrière.” This is particularly the case with Nevis, St. Kitt's, Guadaloupe, Dominica, Martinico, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent's. Some islands have several such places, analogous I presume to this of Montserrat; but in others, as Guadaloupe, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent's there are decided and well characterized volcanos, which are occasionally active, and throw out ashes, scoriæ and lava with flame. The volcano of St. Vincent's is represented by Dr. Anderson, and others who have visited it, as extremely large and magnificent, and would bear a comparison with some of those of Europe. These circumstances appear to have been entirely overlooked by geologists in their speculations concerning the origin and formation of these islands. It has indeed occurred to most persons, on surveying the regular chain of islands, extending from the southern Cape of Florida to the mouths of the Orinoco, as exhibited on the map, to conclude that it originally formed part of the American Continent, and that the encroachments of the sea have left only the higher parts of the land, as insular points above its present level. But this hypothesis, however simple and apparently satisfactory in itself, will be found to accord very partially with the geological structure of the different islands. Many of them are made up entirely of vast accretions of marine organized substances; and others evidently owe their origin to a volcanic agency, which is either in some degree apparent at the present time, or else may be readily traced by vestiges comparatively recent. There is every reason to believe, however, that some of the islands are really of contemporaneous formation with the adjacent parts of the continent, from which they have been disjoined by the incursions of the sea, or by convulsions of nature, and it is probably in those islands which contain primitive rocks, that we are chiefly to look for a confirmation of this supposition.

  1. This peculiar decomposition of the surrounding rock has been frequently observed in similar situations, and under analogous circumstances, and has I find been accounted for by other persons in the same way: thus Dolomieu says, “La couleur blanche des pierres de l'interieur de tous les cratères inflammés est due a une veritable alteration de la lave produite par les vapeurs acido-sulfureuses qui les pénètrent, et qui so combinent avec l'argile qui leur sert de base, y formant l'alun que l'on retire des matières volcaniques.” Voy. anx Isles de Lipari. p. 18.

    And he afterwards adds, “ cette alteration des laves par les vapeurs acido-sulfureuses, est une espèce d'analyse que la nature fait elle meme des matiéres volcaniques. Il y a des laves sur lesquelles les vapours n'ont pas encore eu assez de tems d'agir pour les dénaturer entiérement, et alors on les voit dans différens états de decomposition que l'on reconnoit par la couleur.”

    Alum is doubtless formed at this place, as well as elsewhere under similar circumstances: the potash necessary for the composition of this salt, being, as well as the argil, derived from the surrounding rock. See Vauquelin's Memoirs. Journ. des Mines, vol. X. p. 441.