Notes From The Margin

August 31, 2007

Life on Limestone – Caves Everywhere

Like most of Barbados, we’ve been following the story of the Brittons Hill tragedy quite closely. On the official media and also on the blogs. We have heard some people expressing concern about the presence of caves in Barbados and there has been comment in some quarters about unease of people in building. How common are caves in Barbados?

The answer to that question is that caves are extremely common in Barbados. The island’s coral limestone cap being made of limestone naturally develops caves. A cave can range from the size of a tennis ball, to the size of the monster at Brittons Hill. The collapse at Brittons Hill while it is definitely the first (and hopefully the last) in recorded history it is not without geological precedent. Welchman Hall Gully is the remains of a collapsed cave system. Stalactites are still visible there today on the walls of the gully.

Most Bajans are familiar with Harrisons Cave, but how many have been into Cole’s Cave? Futher how many know that there is far more of Harrisons Cave system than has been developed for the public? Did you know that Bowmanston pumping station taps into an underground lake that is part of a cave system several miles long? If you drive down highway 2A and look at the cliffs you will see small caves in the cliff face..

So to make a long answer short caves are very common, and we do agree with Richard Sealy who made the point that we should find as many of the major ones as possible. In the meantinme, we are thankful that collapses like the one  at Brittons Hill are very very rare.



  1. This is not the first time this has happen in Barbados. There are other recorded instances of houses disappearing into the ground.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 31, 2007 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

  2. It’s the first one we can recall, although we do know of instances of persons finding caves when excavating foundations. Can you give us a reference as to when this happened?

    Comment by notesfromthemargin — August 31, 2007 @ 4:15 pm | Reply

  3. In response to query, here is a bit of information which I read.

    “The History of Barbados by John Poyer, first published in 1808, pp. 569-571.

    “Among the various operations of nature, which excite our admiration, alarm our fears, or amuse our imagination, the following singular and extraordinary phenomenon will not probably be deemed the least curious and interesting.

    On the eleventh day of October, the inhabitants of a part of St. Joseph’s parish called Crab-Hole, were alarmed at the appearance of several deep fissures in the earth, and their apprehensions were soon augmented, at finding that some small tenements had sunk to a considerable depth.

    These alarming appearances continuing to increase, many persons were induced to remove their effects to places of greater safety. The plantation known by the name of Walcott’s, was destined to be the melancholy scene of this extraordinary occurrence.

    Here, the manager, perceiving that the mansion house was in danger of being buried under the soil, which was descending in large, connected masses, from a neighbouring hill, fled with his family to one of the negro huts for shelter.

    In the course of that distressful night, most of the buildings of the plantation fell, or sunk into a deep chasm, which was presently filled up with the mold from the adjacent heights.

    The alarm now became general, and the people assembling near the spot were witnesses of a scene of truly awful and affecting. The aspect of the whole region from Walcott’s to Crab-hole, extending upwards of a mile in length, and in breadth about three hundred yards, exhibited a lamentable prospect.

    The earth, violently torn asunder, was intersected with numerous chasms, whose widely extended jaws seemed ready to ingulph whatever might be precipitated into them; while, in other places, it was swelled and inflated with enormous tumours, whose convulsive motions menaced the few remaining buildings with destruction.

    Nor was it long before they were involved in the general wreck, and, sinking into the yawning gulf, left no traces of their former existence behind them.

    The face of nature was so completely changed in that district, that few of the inhabitants could ascertain the spot on which many objects, familiar to their remembrance, had been recently placed.

    A field, planted in Eddoes, occupied the site on which the mansion house stood, and brought with it a long slip of the broad road, as perfect and entire as if it had not been removed*.

    The cocoa-nut trees, which grew about the house, and even the windmill, were gradually carried some hundred yards from their original position, where the latter was completely swallowed up, no part of it remaining visible but the extremity of the upper arm.

    It is not easy, perhaps, to explain satisfactorily the cause of this phenomenon. Probable conjecture ascribed it to the action of a number of subterraneous springs, in a loamy sandy soil, surrounded with recent excessive falls of rain: these springs, struggling for vent, might probably have excavated the encumbent earth wherever they endeavoured to force a passage.

    As these invisible waters glided onwards, the surface behind seems to have fallen in, or, meeting with a substratum of a soapy nature, continued sliding down the adjacent declivities as long as it retained, or acquired, sufficient moisture to facilitate its motion”.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 31, 2007 @ 8:27 pm | Reply

  4. I went thru Cole’s Cave in my early 20’s (DO NOT ASK HOW LONG AGO THAT WAS) and dived thru an underground lake and came out on other side, it was me and some White Bajans

    Comment by Ian Bourne — August 31, 2007 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

  5. Anonymous,

    I would point out that the incident you refer to would have happened in St. Joseph in the Scotland District, and hence would not be due to limestone like what happened at Brittons Hill. (I suppose it didn’t make much of a difference to the people who lost their houses)

    That kind of soil movement is fairly common, and is due to the clay-like soils in that part of the island. These are the same geological processes that some say will make Greenland landfill dangerous. If you drive down the east coast you can see with the naked eye examples of this type of soil movement in the hills. Although probably not on the scale of the incident you name in your excerpt.


    PS Ian we know how long ago your twenties were 😉

    Comment by notesfromthemargin — September 1, 2007 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

  6. I went to school at St. Pauls School in Brittons Hill. As a little girl growing up, that lot was always vacant, and it was rumored that there was a cave going from opposite the school to somewhere into the Bayville area, I do not know if the builders was aware of this, but that was knowledge back then. However I am sorry to hear about this trajedy and my prayers go out to the family of those dear ones. May God keep you in his loving arms.

    Comment by Resident of Brittons Hill Overseas — September 4, 2007 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

  7. What I find utterly disturbing in the whole matter is that the cave, for one, was there for thousands of years. Human habitation, on the other hand, wasn’t. Therefore, the question is – who gave permission for that area to be used as a prime residential area in the first place? Obviously, the people who gave permission for homes to be constructed over a cave would have to be a government agency and that said agency would have known that caves were present.

    If my memory serves me correct ( and I think this time it does) wasn’t the new NHC at Warrens delayed because of the presence of caves where the building now sits? And didn’t a certain contrator sue the government and got 50,000,000 dollars compensation over the said issues surrounding the delays?

    By the way, isn’t the area of Warrens honey combed with caves that are natural extensions of the the Harrison’s Cave network? And isn’t Warrens the current “poster city” for the potential of urban development in Barbados?

    So then, can we assume that it seems to be just a matter of time before this tragedy reoccurs on a much more catastrophic scale?

    By the way, what has happened to us that we must now wait until 16 people die in order to reflect? Wasn’t reflection an everyday occurance in the lives of teh average Barbadian?

    hummm…..things to chew over.

    Comment by Sofarsogood — September 4, 2007 @ 10:48 pm | Reply

    • Barbados is full of caves all over. The same way one could ask who gave permission to develop or settle Britons Hill (many years ago) one could also ask, who gave permission to inhabit Barbados? Most areas of the world are at risk, to some degree, of some form of geological catastrophe. My fifth form geography taught me that. Americans are fully aware of and have experienced the dangers posed by the San Andreas Faults. That did not and does not stop them from living in some of the most expensive real estate in the USA.

      As pointed out in other articles caves and sink holes are a reality in all limestone formations.

      Comment by Welchman Hall resident and visitor to Cole's Cave — September 23, 2012 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

  8. “Therefore, the question is – who gave permission for that area to be used as a prime residential area in the first place? Obviously, the people who gave permission for homes to be constructed over a cave would have to be a government agency and that said agency would have known that caves were present.”

    I’m not sure if the town planning Dept considers underground caves at all in it’s application process. Yes it’s likely that Government has information on caves, but the people that I have known who have dealt with townplanning have never had any requirement to prove or not prove (or even mention for that matter) the existence of caves on their property.

    The other factor to consider is that below a certain depth for the average house, a cave is not going to make any difference. After all it’s not like we have houses disappearing into caves every year. On your final point I believe that once you are aware of the cave you can engineer your foundations to suit, whether that takes the form of an underground water tank or an underground parking lot, or just filling the cave in.

    We’re still waiting for an example of this type of catastrophic collapse of a cave system in recorded history. I’d say it’s a little early to talk about property values plunging. If they are it would probably be a good time to buy property, before sanity prevails and people realise that this was a highly unusual incident.


    Comment by notesfromthemargin — September 6, 2007 @ 3:14 am | Reply

  9. These comments are quite interesting. I believe this incident was a rare occurence which was brought on by a) the water naturally coursing through our limestone subterrain and b) by construction in the area and the use of heavy equipment.

    If we avoided building over caves where would we build? Sometimes when we dig for a foundation or even a well and we meet rock we don’t know how far the rock goes. There are networks of caves all over this island. If we examine the coral reefs (which Barbados came from) we can see many holes and crevices.

    The cave in at Brittons Hill was indeed a tragedy. I sympathise with the families who lost loved ones and with the families in the area who are still being affected: especially emotionally.

    Comment by rocker — September 7, 2007 @ 10:39 pm | Reply

  10. I have travelled into the undeveloped area of Harrison’s Cave/Cole’s Cave, it was truly a unique experience to enter the way we entered firstly and thene to go inside to discover this hidden treasure right in our backyards. We hiked through that cave fro 2 hours and we told that by now we should be in St. Joseph. That was by travelling along one of the areas. I often wonder were it really ends and where are the other entrances to this mystic wonder. And more importantly those houses that are resting on this network of God made caverns, where is the sewage going to. Is it safe to say our water is not being contaminated by our lack of knowledge of our surroundings. And the caves that come in land from the sea, who knows where those come from and go to. What is hidden in theses caves. Or rather who. I have since explored my surroundings and found out that there is a cave in the gully at the back of land, which runs at least 200 feet along my entire neighbourhood with trees growing inside them. Aint that a wonder. I have so many questions, and no one to ask them to.

    Comment by Lasonta — September 20, 2007 @ 2:42 am | Reply

  11. The caves seen in the cliffs running parallel to highway 2A are possibly oceanic caves. the terraced geographical landscape on the western side of Barbados are thought to be result of a series of “uplifts” of the land from the sea

    Comment by Anonymous — September 23, 2012 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

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