The most common storm that the British navy and army encountered at sea and on land during the American War of Independence was the nor’easter.
Nor’easters usually develop in the latitudes between Georgia and New Jersey within 100 miles east or west of the East Coast. These storms Progress generally northeastward and typically attain maximum intensity near New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. They nearly always bring precipitation in the form of heavy rain or snow, as well as winds of gale force, rough seas, and occasionally, coastal flooding . . . . During winter the polar jet stream transports cold Arctic air southward across the plains of Canada and the United States, then eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean where warm air from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic try to move northward. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream help keep the coastal waters relatively mild during the winter, which in turn helps warm the cold winter air over the water. This difference in temperature between the warm air over the water and the cold Artic Air over the land is the fuel that feeds the nor’easter.
A nor’easter probably played a role in General Clinton’s voyage from New York to Charleston (January–June of 1776), the evacuation of Brooklyn Heights (August 29, 1776), the Battle of Newport (August 9, 1778), and General Clinton’s second voyage from New York to Charleston (December 26, 1779–February 1, 1780). However, none of these storms came close to what occurred in the Caribbean in October 1780 when two hurricanes struck almost all of the islands, one week apart. The first struck Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas and the second struck the smaller islands, from Barbados to Puerto Rico.
Jamaica was the home to half of the British fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet, moored at Port Royal Harbor and Montego Bay, was under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker. It was his fleet that would be battered by the first hurricane. On the morning of October 3, the weather at the town of Savanna-la-Mar on the island of Jamaica was clear with a slight breeze; by midday everything changed. According to Governor Colonel John Darling,
The sky all of a sudden became very much overcast, an uncommon elevation of the sea immediately followed. Whilst the unhappy settlers . . . were observing this extraordinary phenomenon, the sea broke suddenly in upon the town, and on its retreat swept everything away with it, so as not to leave the smallest vestige of Man, Beast or House behind.
In clergyman George Wilson Bridges’ account,
Not a tree, or bush, or cane was to be seen: Universal desolation prevailed, and the wretched victims of violated nature, who would obtain no such shelter, and who had no time to fly to the protecting rocks, were either crushed beneath the falling ruins, or swept away, and never heard from anymore.
The town and surrounding plantations were completely destroyed. In the town of Lucea, 20 miles to the north 400 people were killed. The water washed away all but two houses and all of the trees. Still further north in the town at Montego Bay, an additional 360 people were killed. Two ships that were outside of Port Royal harbor and Montego Bay disappeared in the storm without a trace. They were the 20-gun Scarborough and the 10-gun Victor.
On October 4, the hurricane moved on to the island of Cuba. The strong winds caused the 14-gun Barbadoesto founder. On the 5, the 44-gun Phoenix was wrecked off the coast of Cape Cruz, Cuba just before it would have foundered, killing two hundred of her crew.
Just before the arrival of the hurricane, Parker ordered Rear-Admiral Joshua Rowley and his squadron to escort some merchant ships part of the way to Europe. On October 6, as they were about to leave the waters of the Caribbean, the front of the hurricane overtook the squadron near the city of San Domingo. The 74-gun Thunderer foundered and her entire crew was lost; the 64-gun Stirling Castle was wrecked on the coast and all but 50 of her crew were lost. The 74-gun Ships of the Line, Berwick, Grafton, Hector, Ruby, Trident and the Bristol, lost most of their masts and riggings. Four were forced to throw some of their cannons and carronades overboard to stabilize their ships.
San Calixto II Hurricane
Unlike the first hurricane, this one began, as most Caribbean hurricanes do, off the west coast of Africa between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator in the Atlantic Ocean. The combination of trans-Atlantic currents and winds blow the storm east to west and ultimately become the prevailing winds in the Caribbean. Using today’s terms, a hurricane starts out as a tropical disturbance then develops into a tropical depression, followed by tropical storm, and finally a hurricane. In the southeastern portion of the Caribbean is a series of islands starting with Tobago that extend northward in an arc formation to the island of Puerto Rico. The eastern most island in the series, 153 miles north of Tobago, is Barbados. It was here that the hurricane landed first.
On October 9, winds began steadily to increase in the morning; in the afternoon ships in Bridgetown’s Carlisle Bay began to break their moorings; and by early evening winds were nearing full force. Dr. Gilbert Blane in a letter to his friend, Dr. William Hunter, claimed that the force of wind “was thought to be at its greatest at midnight . . . . A ship was driven on shore against one of the buildings of the Naval Hospital, which by this shock, and by impetuosity of the wind and sea, was entirely destroyed and swept away.” All of the houses and forts in/around the town and nine out of thirteen churches, chapels, and meetinghouses were destroyed. The Barbados Mercury reported that almost all of the plantations—that is, buildings, sugar mills, and fields—were washed away. In the words of Major General Vaughn, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Royal Forces in the Leeward Islands,
The strongest colours could not paint . . . the miseries of the inhabitants: on the one hand, the ground covered with mangled bodies of their friends and relations, and on the other, reputable families, wandering through the ruins, seeking for food and shelter: in short, imagination can form but a faint idea of the horrors of this dreadful scene.
According to Major -General Cunningham, the Governor of Barbados,
a twelve-pounder gun was carried from the south to the north battery, a distance of 140 yards . . . . The Wind forced its way into every part of the Government House, and tore off most of the roof, though the walls were three feet thick, and doors and windows had been well barricaded.
The smaller ships, i.e. sloops, brigs, etc., bore the brunt of the storm. The Happy Return was blown out of Carlisle Bay and foundered upon trying to return, the Mary & Isabella sank outside of the Bay, the 20-gun storeship, Britannia, was blown out of the Bay and was never seen again, and the Edward, like the Happy Return, was blown out of the Bay and foundered upon trying to reenter the shallows. The longest distance a ship was blown must go to the Albemarle. Early in the morning on the October 10, the ship was driven by the winds out of Carlisle Bay. The next time she was heard of was on the 15th. The damaged frigate arrived in English Harbor on the island of Antigua, 308 miles away. The only ship that was damaged and arrived in a port even farther away was the Egmont (shown in the opening illustration). She was outside the Grand Cul-de-Sac when she was struck by the hurricane; it was not until January 4 that she was reported sighted, laying in a bay on the island of Puerto Rico, 477 miles away. 
On the morning of October 10, the hurricane moved on to the island of St. Lucia, the home of the other half of the British fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet, moored at the Grand Cul-de-Sac in Port Castries and Gros Islet Bay, was under the command of Admiral George Rodney, however, when Rodney sailed north to New York in late August, he turned command of the fleet over Commodore William Hotham.
The hurricane made landfall around 6:00 am. Six ships, moored either in the Grand Cul-de-Sac or Gros Islet Bay before the hurricane struck, either foundered or were wrecked. They were the 42-gun Blanche, the 14-gun Chameleon, the 18-gun Beaver’s Prize (near Vieux, St. Lucia), the 74-gun Cornwall, the 24-gun Deal Castle, and the 14-gun St. Vincent. Three Ships of the Line patrolled the entrance to the Grand Cul-de-Sac—the 74-gun Montagu, the 74-gun Egmont, and the 74-gun Ajax. Three more were anchored at their moorings and then forced out to sea were the 32-gun Alcmene, the 32-gun Amazon and the 74-gun Vengeance. All six suffered severe damage to their masts and riggings. The 74-gun Conqueror, which had sailed for Jamaica to collect a convoy, took three months to return to the Grand Cul-de-Sac; she had lost her mainmast and one hundred men had to bale water from below every day because her pumps were not operational. The 28-gun Andromeda was cruising on the east side of Martinique with the 28-gun Laurel and the 44-gun Endymion. The Andromeda was wrecked eighteen miles east of Martinique, the Laurel was wrecked along the coast of Martinique and the Endymion lost all of her masts but found a way to reach Port Royal on October 29.
Early on the 11th, the hurricane moved onto the island of Martinique, the home of the French fleet in the Caribbean. It passed the island of Dominica on the 12th, and then struck Guadeloupe, St. Kitts and St. Eustatius before reaching Puerto Rico. The Mona Passage is a body of water that lies between the island of Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Two of the last ships to be affected by the hurricane, the Ulysses and the Pomona, were sailing in the passage when the hurricane arrived. Both suffered damaged to their masts.
On November 14, Admiral Rodney, aboard his ship, the 90-gun Sandwich, set sail with a large squadron from New York for the Caribbean. Two days after his departure, his squadron was caught by “a Violent Gale of Wind,” in his words, “which continued for forty-eight hours, dispersed the whole, and I greatly fear has occasion’d very great damage to many of His Majesty’s Ships.” He had left New York with twelve ships but when he arrived in Barbados on December 5, only two were still with him. They were the 74-gun Triumph and the 64-gun Intrepid. Only two of his ships, the 74-gun Terrible and the 28-gun Cyclops, were already moored in Carlisle Bay. It is likely that the “Gale of Wind” that had separated all of the other ships was a nor’easter. When Rodney reached Barbados on December 5, he could not believe what he saw,
It is impossible to express the Dreadful scene it has occasion’d at Barbados and the Condition of the miserable inhabitants; nothing but ocular demonstration could have convinced me it was possible for Wind to have caused so total a destruction of an Island remarkable for its numerous and well-built Habitations . . . I am convinc’d the whole Face of the Country appears an entire ruin and the most Beautiful Island in the World has the appearance of a County laid waste by Fire, and Sword . . .. Not one single Battery in the whole Island but what has been totally destroy’d.
That same day, he also wrote to his wife,
The strongest buildings and the whole of the houses, most of which were of stone, and remarkable for their solidity, gave way to the fury of the wind, and were torn up to their foundation; all the forts destroyed . . .. More than six thousand persons perished, and all the inhabitants are entirely ruined.
Over the course of the next two weeks, the ships of his scattered squadron began to appear in British ports throughout the Caribbean. The ships were the 74-gun Resolution, the 74-gun Alcide, the 74-gun Shrewsbury, the 74-gun Torbay, the 28-gun Boreas, the 28-gun Triton dragged themselves into the closest British ports in the Caribbean. Each had suffered extensive damage to their masts. Only one ship foundered; it was the 28-gun Shark.
On December 10, Rodney wrote to the Admiralty explaining what had transpired on Barbados. Nowhere in the letter does it appear that he was aware that a hurricane had also landed on Jamaica.
I shall . . . acquaint Sir Peter Parker of the Crippled Condition not only of great part of the Squadron I brought with me from America, but also of those I left under Commodore Hotham who escaped the Hurricane, but remain unserviceable till Masts and Rigging can be procured to refit them . . . . I shall point out to him the necessity of his sending me a large reinforcement of Ships, and hope Sir Peter Parker will be convinced . . . that it is his duty without a Moments delay to hasten the Reinforcements I shall demand
On the 22, he wrote to Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood,
The Situation of His Majesty’s Affairs in this Part of the World requiring your speedy Ju[n]ction with me at St. Lucia, I have not a Doubt but upon the Receipt of this Letter you will join me with all possible Dispatch and bring with you all Store Ships and Victualers, notwithstanding their having been order’d to any other part of the World.
And on the 25th, he wrote to Captain John Laforey, Commissioner of the Navy for the Leeward Islands,
The Terrible Effects of the Hurricane[s] in October and the hard Gale of Wind my Squadron experienced on the Coast of America has so dismantled my Line of Battle Ships, that only nine of them will be capable of going to sea, till Sir Samuel Hood arrives with the Store Ships from England.
Laforey was the officer in charge of overseeing all ship repairs. For the next three months he was the most important British officer in the Caribbean.
Once the second hurricane departed the Caribbean, Rodney, Hotham, and Parker had to repair the British fleet. There were no docking facilities in any of the big ports, underwater damage could not be repaired because there were no drydocks and stores were in high demand. Rodney informed the Admiralty in England that no stores could be found in the Caribbean; they would have to be sent from England or New York. On January 4, 1781 he received some good news.
The Navy Board are taking the utmost Care to replace the Loss of Masts and Stores occasioned by the late dreadful Hurricane at the Leeward Islands, the Union of 300 Tons being already loaded at Spithead, and the King George of 1150 Tons and the Flora of 700 now taking in their Cargoes at Woolwich for that Purpose.
On January 7, he received even better news. Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood had arrived in the Caribbean with eight ships of the line and a convoy of supply ships and victualers. With four warships already refitted and the nine that were “capable of going to sea,” Rodney now had a fleet of twenty-one ships of the line. This was important because he had recently been informed that the Count D’Estaing had just arrived from France with a fleet of twenty-two ships of the line.
It would take the British fleet in the Caribbean another four to five months before things were even close to what they were like before the hurricanes. Some ships had to be sent back to England for repair, while others were sent to the naval yard in New York; supplies and food were constantly needed; French ships ended up in British ports and vice versa. This meant prisoners of war and captured ships had to be exchanged; more sailors need to be procured; naval hospitals had to be built; ships had to be redistributed between New York, Rhode Island, the Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay and the Caribbean; and a war still had to be fought.
There were additional consequences of the hurricane described in this article: damage to the islands of St. Kitts and St. Eustatius, damage to Capt. Philip Affleck’s squadron that patrolled the Chesapeake, and severe damage to the French fleet at Martinique.
To date, the San Calixto II Hurricane of 1780 has been considered the deadliest storm of all time; not the biggest, not the strongest and not the most expensive, but the deadliest. The exact number of deaths has been difficult to determine, but the numbers that are frequently tossed about claim the Hurricane took between 22,000 and 27,000 lives. This number seems low when one looks at the number of deaths each island claims in their records.
“Hurricane of 1780,” old.jamaica-gleaner.com/pages/history/story008.html.
In sailing terms, wrecked means the ship’s hull lacked integrity, and foundered means took on water and sank. T. Southey, The Chronological History of the West Indies (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1827), 2:471.
“Log of the HMS Berwick,” in William Reid, An Attempt to Develop the Law of Storms by Means of Facts (London: John Weale, 1838), 298-99; “Log of the HMS Grafton,” ibid., 296; “Log of the HMS Hector,”ibid., 302-03; “Log of the HMS Ruby,” ibid., 306; and “Log of the HMS Trident,” ibid., 297.
“From John Laforey, Commissioner of the Navy at the Leeward Islands, January 4, 1781,” Letter-books and Order-books of George, Lord Rodney, Admiral of the White, 1780-1782(New York: New York Historical Society, 1932), 133.
“Letter to Mr. Stephens from Admiral Hotham, October 23, 1780,” The Remembrancer or, Impartial Repository of Public Events for the Year of 1781 (London: Almon and Debrett, 1780), 11:66; “Letter from Rear-Admiral Sir Peter Parker to Mr. Stephens,” November 6, 1780,” ibid., 11:80; “Letter to Admiral Hotham from Captain William Clement Finch, October 23, 1780,” ibid., 11:67.
“To Philip Stevens, Secretary of the Admiralty, January 4, 1781,” ibid., 139; in the same letter Rodney was informed that two of Hotham’s ships, Egmont and Endymion, had arrived at Port Royal on October 28 and 29.