A Meeting on a Volcano

“Vesuvius from Portici”, by Joseph Wright of Derby

Snippets 155. In 1854 the American Rev. George Foxcroft Haskins went on a tour of Europe, spending much of his time in Italy, due principally to his interest in the Catholic faith in the country. After visiting Rome, Florence and Naples, he decided to ascend Mount Vesuvius with a party of friends. This is something I have done myself, as have many other tourists over the years, but on the day Haskins chose the volcano was not being very hospitable to visitors. However, Haskins pursued his course bravely, and was rewarded with a remarkable chance encounter at the top of the crater. The following quote is taken from Travels in England, France, Italy and Ireland, published in 1856.

We were now obliged to abandon our asses, and perform the residue of the ascent on foot, as it is entirely impracticable for beasts. The good baron, dismayed at the thought of such an undertaking, declined advancing any farther, and returned to the village. Our party thus reduced to three, viz., the secretary, my friend, and myself, we commenced the ascent of the cone on foot. It was a walk indeed.

We did not ascend by the usual path, on account of the snow and ice that lay there, but were obliged to clamber up on loose and rolling lumps of scoria. We each had a man, with a leather strap over his shoulder, one end of which was given us, in order thereby to lessen the difficulty of the ascent. I availed myself of it for a few steps, but preferred depending on my own resources; so, giving the honest man my coat, I followed in his track, and, I believe, was the least fatigued of the party. We toiled along in this manner for about an hour and a half, stopping three or four times to breathe, or rather to blow, and we perspired freely.

Finally we reached the summit, and soon after the edge of the crater. Here we encountered first a cloud of hot steam, and were completely enveloped by it. We could see nothing else, and knew not whither we were going. At the distance of four or five feet we could not discern each other, and were obliged to call out, and warn our companions to keep close together. The poor secretary began to tremble, and imagined that we were tumbling into the boiling crater; and it was with difficulty that we could rally him, and induce him to advance. But this was a mere premonitory symptom, a delicate foretaste of that which was coming. In a short time the hot steam was converted into rolling clouds of black, pitchy smoke, and then came suffocating vapors, impregnated with burning sulphur.

What choking, coughing, and applying of handkerchiefs to the nose and mouth! What exclamations and remonstrances! What grimaces and contortions! “Come on,” shouted the chief guide, “come on! quick, quick!”

But the poor secretary was frightened, and would not come; he stood stock still, and gasped, and coughed, and flourished his white pocket handkerchief as though he were mad. Convinced that the sooner we were out of this brimstone atmosphere the better, we took his arms to urge him on; but no, he would not go another step, but insisted on going back, and, as he could catch breath, gave us to understand that he should die certainly, and, what was worse, that we should die too, and that he was resolved to return; nay, more, he was resolved that we should return with him. But there were, fortunately, two sides to this question. My friend was for yielding; not I. “You shall come back,” gasped the secretary. “ I shall not,” gasped I.

Where this dispute, in the midst of burning brimstone, on the summit of Mount Vesuvius, would have terminated, I cannot say, had we not fortunately been able to compromise the matter. We had two guides ; so it was agreed that he should go back with one, while my friend and I went on with the other. If the atmosphere of the nether world be like this — nay, as the Holy Scriptures teach us, infinitely more horrible — what self-denials, what anguish, what tortures should we not rejoice briefly to endure in this world, that we may escape the pains of those unquenchable fires!

Holding our handkerchiefs to our faces with one hand, while with the other we held upon our guide for dread of losing him, we hurried rapidly onward! The wind was, unfortunately, blowing directly from the crater towards us, and this was the cause of the unusual difficulty of advancing. Finally we emerged upon the opposite side, in a pure atmosphere, under a serene sky and a brilliant sun, and were immediately relieved. In a few moments the sound of human voices reached us. Another party had preceded us. As we advanced the voices grew louder and more distinct, accompanied with merriment and laughter; and, to add to our surprise and pleasure, their language was good, plain old English. But as yet we saw no one, and could not divine whence proceeded those agreeable merry voices. But we were not long in ignorance. The mountain’s summit was wild and uneven, and, as we turned a point, we discovered a party of gentlemen in a fissure, between two banks of sulphur, roasting eggs in the ashes of the mountain. One of them, after eying me a moment, immediately ran towards me, called me by name, and shook me cordially by the hand. He was a relative, from Boston. Who would have thought of meeting him, amid ashes, and flames, and sulphur, on the summit of Mount Vesuvius?

After interchanging an abundance of questions, we drank together some mountain wine, and ate eggs roasted in the cinders. All his party were Americans. After an agreeable tete-a-tete with them of a few moments, we took our leave, and pursued our course.

We walked about the summit of the mountain for about an hour. Looking out towards the sea, we enjoyed a charming view of Naples and the bay. Every thing, however, appeared on a level, and very diminutive, as if seen through an inverted telescope. The ground itself on which we walked, as may easily be imagined, was far from being an agreeable plain. Not a spire or herb of any kind was visible. It was broken into frightful chasms and hillocks, composed of sulphur, ashes, and scoria. But the most striking and fearful object of all was the abyss that yawned below us — a crater of about six thousand feet in circumference. There were some persons at the very bottom, who appeared so small that we could but just distinguish them.

The weather was such that we could descend. The path is exceedingly steep, and, as the ashes yield to the feet, the descent is not difficult, but for the same reason, and also in consequence of the sulphurous vapors continually exhaling, the ascent is dreadful. The shape and the surface of the bottom of the crater often vary. It is sometimes concave, sometimes convex, according as the degree of intensity of the internal fermentation forces it upward or permits it to settle downward. This crust, beneath which rage eternal fires, is formed by the lava, scoria, sand, cinders, and other volcanic matters. To stand on the brink of this crust and look over into the heaving and bottomless caldron requires no small degree of nerve. The aperture was about thirty feet in diameter, from which, as from a mammoth steamer, shot forth with horrid puffs black smoke and vapors. When we listened, we could hear, in the very bowels of the mountain, distinct reports, like those of distant artillery. When we rolled masses of scoria into the gaping chasm, hoarse sounds were emitted, and fresh and thicker clouds of smoke arose, as though some new aperture had been made in the mysterious mass.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Inspiration, Nature, People, Snippets, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Meeting on a Volcano

  1. Coral Waight says:

    Heavens! Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ged Maybury says:

    Holy crap they were lucky to survive that! Reminds me of that single-frame cartoon: Two Victorian-era explorers come to a primitive rope bridge, “I say, old chap, this looks frightfully dangerous.” [the other replies] “Splendid! Let’s do it!”
    I have walked around on dead volcanoes, being a New Zealander, so I know the landscapes well. I know that sulfurous smell too. But the rest of this? “PASS!”

    Liked by 1 person

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