A powerful storm slams the islands of the West Indies, killing more than 20,000 people, on this day in 1780. Known as the Great Hurricane of 1780, it was the deadliest storm ever recorded.
At the time of the Great Hurricane, the American Revolution was winding down and British and French naval forces were fighting to control the West Indies. It was already a perilous area of the world for ships–it is estimated that about one of every 20 ships sent to the West Indies was lost at sea during the era. British Admiral George Radney had a fleet of 12 warships patrolling the islands when the hurricane approached. The ships were no match for the storm and eight sank in the St. Lucia harbor, killing hundreds of sailors. Radney later wrote: “The strongest buildings and the whole of the houses, most of which were stone, and remarkable for their solidity, gave way to the fury of the wind, and were torn up to their foundations; all the forts destroyed, and many of the heavy cannon carried upwards of a hundred feet from the forts. Had I not been an eyewitness, nothing could have induced me to have believed it. More than six thousand persons perished, and all the inhabitants are entirely ruined.” Only two houses in all of St. Lucia remained standing. There were even some reports that bark was stripped from trees in some locations. Generally, this only occurs if winds are in excess of 200 miles per hour.
The French fared no better, losing an estimated 40 ships and 4,000 soldiers.
Martinique and Barbados had the highest casualty rates: The best guess is that upwards of 9,000 people perished in Martinique from a huge storm surge. In Barbados, 4,000 people were killed. More than 1,000 people also died in Jamaica.
Although there have been many deadly hurricanes in the years since 1780, only Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which killed about 18,000 people, has approached the Great Hurricane in terms of lives lost.