Saint Pierre: From glory to the explosion

If you had been in town on the morning of May 8, 1902, you would most certainly have ignored the Mount Pelee eruption warning warnings.

Who would have thought that "Little Paris" or even the "Paris of the West Indies", this dynamic city replicating the French capital, this colonial power that had developed thanks to its port would be in tatters in the middle of the day?

This is the case with the 28,000 inhabitants. None thought it was possible, nor can imagine the scale of the disaster.

The story of Saint-Pierre can be compared to that of the sinking of the Titanic which took place 12 years after the eruption of Mount Pelée. A look back at the history of the unsinkable Saint-Pierre, which became a field of ruin on the evening of May 8, 1902.

Martinique was populated by the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus landed on June 15, 1502. A century later, when the French colonists led by Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc landed in Martinique on September 1, 1635, it was these same Caribbean who were still the inhabitants of the island.

Martinique séparée en deux vers la fin du 17ème siècleThe French settled at the foot of the Pelée, in an area that went as far as the Carbet. They build a fort in order to protect themselves from external threats (Dutch, English, Spaniards who covet and fight over the islands of the area) and internal (the Caribbean is hostile to these new arrivals from Europe). They baptize this fort Saint Pierre, a close feast in the calendar.

This fort will later serve them twice to attack the Caribbean, which threatened the relative understanding that reigned on the island. Martinique was separated into two almost equal parts in terms of surface area with the Colonists who settled on the Caribbean coast and the Caribbean settled on the Atlantic coast (see map).

Little by little, Saint-Pierre is being built. Plantations, where the colonists live are born, the church of the Fort district is born to have a place of worship on site. Jesuits are called in with the aim of preserving Christian traditions and teaching Christian precepts to unconverted inhabitants, the Carib Indian.

A convent was built in order to accommodate them next to the Church of the Fort, which the colonists frequented.

A hospital will also be built. The lands are separated between settlers who cultivate there different crops dedicated to export (coffee, cocoa, sugar cane) or barter (tobacco first through barter, then crop dedicated to export).

European settlers were encouraged to come and settle in Martinique. Either if they had sufficient financial resources and could buy a plot of land or they came as hired workers to work on existing plantations for a period of 3 years.

At the end of their contract, three options were available to them: the first was to re-stack for three more years, the second was the free return to the metropolis and the last was to buy a plot of land of a size of 'about 25 hectares that they too could use. Many have chosen the latter option.

The region of Saint-Pierre very quickly became the richest area of ​​Martinique thanks to the sugar and slave trade. A freight port was built to accommodate ships that would embark products destined for export and unload products from mainland France and slaves from Africa. Ships from all over the world disembark and embark products made in Martinique.

From the metropolis in particular, came food products such as cheese, wine, peas, etc..., construction materials, men who came either to bring their expertise in certain fields or to work in the plantations. Many businesses are emerging in the city which becomes the economic and social capital of Martinique and on an even larger scale the capital of all the French Antilles.

Grandeur and glory of Saint-Pierre from the 19th century on the eve of the eruption

Presentation of the city on the eve of the eruption

On the eve of the disaster, Saint-Pierre was populated by 28,000 inhabitants (3,000 to 3,500 whites, 9,000 to 10,000 people of color and 15,000 blacks). It was the largest city on the island by area. It was 10 km from the crater of Pelée, from Fort de France to which it was linked by boat twice a day. The 25 km crossing allowed the two capitals of the island, Saint-Pierre, economic and social capital, and Fort-de-France, administrative capital, to be carried out in one hour.

Rivière RoxelaneThe city, built in an amphitheater, was a symbol of the success of French colonization. She had become a source of pride, her opulence and her grandeur had gone back to Paris. It was the splendor of the Caribbean coast of the island. Its streets and alleys, 103 in total made up a network of 20 km of roads.

The river, the Roxelane, separated it into two almost equal parts: the Mouillage and the Fort. Saint-Pierre was before the eruption described by many as the most beautiful city in the Caribbean! It was one of the cleanest and nicest cities in the whole world. Its fame and splendor even made people envious in Europe jealous of this new colonial bourgeoisie.

It was also nicknamed, Petit Paris or Paris des Antilles. Many public fountains or those of individuals participated in the beautification of the city. They were supplied with water by the Morestin springs located 7 km from Mount Pelée, or Roxelane. It concentrated all the economic activity of the island. Factories had taken up residence in Saint Pierre as well as about fifteen rum factories. The Bank of Martinique was there. There was also a mechanical cooperage, a foundry, vast stores and warehouses, two transatlantic cables.

Église du Fort à Saint-PierreSaint Pierre was also the seat of the bishopric with no less than three major parishes: Notre-Dame de Bon-Port cathedral, Fort-Saint-Pierre (in photo) and Saint Étienne du Centre. Three other smaller parishes, Consolation, Sainte Philomène and Trois Ponts were also present in the city which also had a dozen chapels.

The city had an assize court, a court of first instance for commercial matters, two justices of the peace, the Bank of Martinique and two other banking institutions: the Crédit foncier colonial (Colonial Land Credit), the Treasury.

On the school side, it housed several public establishments: the seminary-college, the high school, the boarding school of Notre-Dame de la Consolation, that of the Demoiselles Dupouy and Rameau and the colonial boarding school.

The seminary-college participated throughout the city. Created by the bishops of Martinique, it had exceptional resources (Diocese and personal resources). It had become a breeding ground for scholars, distinguished men in all branches of intellectual and social life in the Antilles, making the city a citadel of science and piety.

The school was located in the former domain of the Sœurs de Saint-Joseph de Cluny. The colonial boarding school was located in the heart of the city. The nuns of Saint-Joseph had settled in La Consolation. They continued to train young girls from the wealthiest families in Martinique.

The house which welcomed them was very flourishing, had nothing to envy of the greatest schools in France. Three hospitals were there, the civil hospice which had 200 beds, the colonial house of health which could accommodate 150 insane persons and the military hospital founded in 1685 by the Frères of Saint-Jean de Dieu provided with a hundred of beds.

The Bethlehem asylum “Hôtel des Invalides de la colonie” designed for the retirement of the elderly and infirm was an exceptional work of charity. A garden of plants enlivened the city.

Built in 1803 by Castelnau d'Auros, it was described as “one of the wonders of the world” and was a showcase for both tropical flora and exotic plants. A waterfall sprang up in the middle of this set which left memorable memories for each visitor who went there.

Place Bertin à Saint-Pierre en 1900The city had several public places including the Place Bertin, a square known throughout the world with its fountain, the Agnès fountain with a continuous jet. Two savannas of which the one located at the Fort was compared to the Jardin du Luxembourg or the Tuileries where children would run in all directions under the watch of their nannies called das.

Théâtre de Saint-Pierre avant l'éruptionLast memorable building, the theater, very old, demonstrated the elegance of the city and had nothing to envy the theaters of the biggest cities of the world. The building had been renovated in 1831. We could have mentioned the episcopal palace (former Dominican convent), Perrinelle castle (former Jesuit convent), gendarmerie barracks (former Jesuit convent), gendarmerie barracks (former Ursuline monastery), the hotel of the chamber of commerce, the customs warehouse, the presbytery of the Fort, the Lasserre house.

The daily life of the Pierrotains

The Pierrotins had a quality of life close to that in large European cities. They lived in a city equipped with electricity, local telephone service, access to the telegraphs they sent to Europe, offices and press offices including the daily, Les Colonies. They lived in houses built in very solid masonry, some with superb facades in freestone.

If the exterior appearance of the houses could pass for simple, the interior rivaled each other in beauty, comfort and even great luxury. Saint Pierre had among other things a bus transport service with women as drivers. Many boats of different sizes swam in its bay.

Rue Victor Hugo avant l'éruptionThe rue Victor Hugo lined up the very showy stores that sold items coming directly from Paris. The women of the rich families of the Pierrotine bourgeoisie went there to acquire clothes worthy of Parisian fashion. The Americans also had financial interests in Saint Pierre in nearly half of the business operations in Saint Pierre.

The men we saw in the town were neatly "dressed in white canvas trousers and huge bamboo grass hats. Some were black, others had strange and beautiful colors: there are gold, brown bronze or red bronze skins. The women wore dresses of bright hues, women of the color of fruit, orange or banana color, the women wore turbans with such a yellow as the bars of a wasp's belly." wrote Lafacadio Hearn, Japanese writer who lived in Martinique for 2 years.

Amédée Knight, ancien sénateur de la MartiniqueAmong the prominent men living in the city of Saint-Pierre, we can cite Amédée Knight (in photo), senator of the French Parliament, Fernand Clerc, a powerful planter, Mayor of Trinity and later Deputy and Senator of Martinique, Andréus Hurard, editor of the daily Les Colonies. Another significant presence in the city, the American consul Thomas Prentiss and his wife who lived in the capital of Martinique. Concerning the Pelée, the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre had fully appropriated it.

The volcano had been calm for two generations. Families picnicked on its slopes, children played there and it was even a refuge during powerful hurricanes. The first settlers called it "Bald Mountain" because of its summit surrounded by a band of barren rocks. Soon after, she became Pelé before a cartographer added a new "e" in the 17th century and she became Montagne Pelée (Mount Pelée).

At an altitude of nearly 450 meters above sea level, merchants from Saint-Pierre had built “summer villas” and “retreats”, places where they took refuge with their families to escape the summer heat. Below an altitude of 750 meters, the slopes of the Pelee was a picturesque image of forests, cane and banana fields and a cluster of houses painted in bright colors.

Higher up, in colder temperatures, abundant vegetation was found there and prevented any exploitation. The many gullies were a source of fresh water for the inhabitants of the city of Saint-Pierre and the surrounding towns. The water that came out was used as well to clean the streets of the city which were of rare cleanliness as to the sugar and rum industries or to supply the boats in transit at the port of Saint Pierre.

Mount Pelée was a symbol of joy and pleasure. Groups of inhabitants had their habits there and organized hikes through the floral extravagance of begonias and balisiers. Local businesses offered trips to the mountains, most often to celebrate Pentecost Monday. Thus lived fully the population of Pierrotine on the eve of the 20th century and May 1902, the month of the eruption of Mount Pelée.

The eruption of Mount Pelée

Warning signs: "the day before an eruption"

Vue de la baie de Saint-Pierre en 1900The changes to Mount Pelee were slow to take effect. They proceeded at a gradual pace. In December 1901, there had been three or four strange and inexplicable sea level oscillations at Saint Pierre but no one had taken them into account. These slight tremors were probably caused by the molten magma moving through the low layers of stone.

During the first months of 1902, the fumes were abundant enough to reach the western shores of the mountain.

Duni-Emile Josse, security guard in a store in Le Prêcheur (8 km north of Saint-Pierre) told in Les Colonies newspaper that the foul smoke had caused concern in the village since the beginning of the year. Several other people have testified to the discomfort or even illnesses caused by the imposing smoke from the volcano in February 1902.

Later that month, people living on the coast had started to smell the same heavy fumes smelling rotten eggs, odors of hydrogen sulfide that had blown west due to the trade winds. At the time, only Gaston Landes who observed the volcano with attention alerted on its dangerousness.

Otherwise, the Pelée does not cause particular concern among the vulcanologists of the time. Indeed, eruptions occur at varying intervals, sometimes decades, centuries, or even millennia.

Few volcanoes explode continuously and most eruptions last for short periods separated by very long intervals when the volcano is dormant and the orifice is blocked with the products of previous eruptions. For a long time, it was impossible for researchers to determine if the volcano was dormant or extinct hence the uncertainties in 1902 about the exact status of the volcano were legitimate.

The two terms are only differentiated today by the number of years without activity of the volcano (10,000 for the status of asleep and several tens of thousands of years for the status of extinct). A volcano erupts when magma rises and then creates a pierced orifice and erupts on the surface of the earth.

Magma is made up of solid, liquid and gas that are under high pressure and at temperatures that can exceed 700°C. The displacement up to the crater causes earthquakes which are localized on and around the volcano, more or less strong, less widespread and deadly than their tectonic counterparts caused by the movements of the plates that make up the earth's crust.

Schéma de l'éruption d'un volcan effusifThere are two main types of volcanoes: one effusive where lava flows slowly out of the crater when an eruption occurs and the other explosive which produces rock projections, thick ash called pyroclastic flow and blocks of magma that fall to the ground.

The latter is much more dangerous because its danger zone for the safety of people is much larger, its eruption is much faster, thus making the evacuation of the premises less predictable.

Schéma d'une éruption d'un volcan de type péléenRegarding Mount Pelée, the volcano is explosive. This type of volcanic eruption does not have "no clock" and does not follow exactly the same pattern. Sometimes the preliminary signs do not necessarily lead to an eruption but nevertheless alert that activity is occurring in the bowels of the volcano.

On the one hand, we can say that the magma of the Pelée had caused some earthquakes, but on the other hand the rhythm of the volcano had crescendoed with an unusual speed. No one at the time seemed to be overly alarmed. Certain wise men of the time declared: “He is an old man who snores. Nothing disturbing. Just his last shot. ".

In March 1902, the odors became even more nauseating on a surface going as far as Le Prêcheur and Sainte-Philomène, 5 km north of Saint-Pierre. People living on the heights of Pelée who had always drunk the waters of the Rivière Blanche complain that they develop colic.

On Sunday March 23, 1902, Louis des Grottes, owner of the Leyritz Plantation, climbed to the top of the mountain and saw several craters in the Étang Sec (summit point) which were in smoke. He writes: "Today, March 23, the crater of the Etang Sec is erupting" without really realizing the drama that was behind this declaration.

During the month of April 1902, it is difficult to say what exactly was happening at the top of Mount Pelee due to too many clouds that hid its view. The fumes were stronger, more frequent, more abundant and they considerably hampered the daily life of the villages of the coast to the west of the Mountain.

On April 10, Father Duffau, priest at Sainte-Philomène complained to some friends: “I don't know what will happen to us. It's been stinking of sulfur for a while now. Life is unbearable." Towards the middle of the month, the ground rumbled like thunder, and whitish fumes escaped near the soufrière.

One person was intrigued by what was happening in Saint-Pierre, Gaston Landes a natural science teacher at the high school and one of the town's intellectuals. He had written a brochure on Martinique for the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1900. He was no expert on volcanic eruptions but he conscientiously tried to interpret the course of events with his general scientific knowledge about volcanoes.

On Sunday April 20, he climbs to the top, to see for himself what is happening. He sees two new orifices have developed at the level of the craters. He didn't have enough scientific knowledge to realize the implications.

On April 22 at 2:03 p.m., a small earthquake caused a landslide at sea level northwest of Mount Pelée with the main consequence of breaking the telegraph cable between Martinique and Guadeloupe.

On April 23 from 8:00 am, three additional earthquakes shake the sides of the mountain. Clara Prentiss, wife of the American Consul in Saint-Pierre writes to her sister living in the United States: “We heard three distinct tremors. The first was strong, the second and third were so strong that the dishes fell off the shelves and the house was completely upside down."

There were signs that the magma was pushing to the surface, but in 1902 the awakening of long dormant volcanoes had not been investigated and the alerts for Mount Pelee seemed to be more than fear. paranoid. Indeed, it was the beginning of the phreatic phase which is characterized by earthquakes, underground rumblings and ash rains.

Today, if such warning signs were made in Pelée, any researcher in the world would seek to travel as quickly as possible to Martinique to study the volcano.

From the phreatic phase to the explosion of May 8, 1902

Coupe d'un volcanThe phreatic phase defined on the previous page is what we could define in the case of Mount Pelée, which has an intense period of volcanic activity. Earthquakes, underground rumblings and clouds of whitish smoke are more frequent.

Thus, on April 23 at 8:45 p.m., the inhabitants of Le Prêcheur hear an underground explosion which was also heard by the submarine cable agent off the coast. It was either an explosion or a small earthquake. In any case, this is where the second phase of the eruption began: hydrovolcanic activity where the magma encountered water filtering through cracks. The orifice was open. Columns of dust, ashes and steam rushed skyward.

For the next two days, a thick cloud cover mostly hid the events at the summit.

On April 24, clouds for a while let see the summit, several people north of the city notice masses of whitish vapor.

The newspaper “Les Antilles” reported on April 26 that “this abundant white vapor seemed to come from a long crater which was probably located in the valley of the Rivière Blanche”. The explosions continued at intervals throughout the night although no fragments managed to reach the installations on the coast. The clear sky of April 25 reveals the ridge again and the white vapor escaping from it.

At 7:00 a.m., a loud explosion in the dry pond is heard. It is accompanied by enormous splashes and explosive noises and crackles which were accompanied by underground rumblings, several superficial earthquakes and the expulsion of considerable projections of ash, steam and squirts of boiling water mixed with rocks and tree trunks.

At 8:00 am, this Friday April 25, the strongest explosion so far resounds and obliges the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre to keep themselves more informed. At Le Prêcheur, the noise had been perceived as cannon fire. A dust smoke spread through the city, the air was so hot and filled with dust that two people in one area could not even recognize each other. Work is even interrupted on some plantations.

On Saturday April 26, the ashes cover the city of Saint-Pierre and the surrounding municipalities. The concern is present but the population does not react. The next day, the Étang sec filled with bubbling water gushing from the cone. A strong smell of sulfur is felt in the streets of the capital and 10km around. Despite this, the polling stations open their doors for the first round of legislative elections. Marius Hurard, editor of the newspaper “Les Colonies” sees no reason for the panic in the capital, he tries to contain the popular panic and declares: “Saint-Pierre at the foot of the Pelée is no longer in danger that Naples at the foot of Vesuvius.”

On Wednesday April 30, the villages of Prêcheur and Sainte Philomène are covered with ashes. At Le Prêcheur, the smell of rotten eggs was becoming more and more disgusting. Concern begins to mount at the same time as old wives' tales about the eruption of 1851.

Duno-Emile writes: “People were scared They took their children, their most precious possessions, passing from rooster to donkey as if they had been blinded. Afterwards they returned home, shouting and praying at the same time, begging their neighbors to help them, themselves so moved by terror, remained deaf to all the appeals of their fellow citizens.

Friday, May 2 at 11:30 am, it is the terminal phase of the volcano called the magmatic phase, earthquakes, violent detonations are heard, the sun is masked and many lightning flashes follow one another in the sky. A layer of ash several centimeters thick spread over the entire northern part of the island.

The next day, the trade winds send a cloud of ash back to the north, temporarily clearing the sky over Saint Pierre. Numerous earthquakes break the telegraph cable to Dominica.

Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre le dimanche précédant l'éruptionSunday May 4, it is the return and the intensification of the ash falls. The gullies are in flood, the roads are cut to the North. The concern is at its maximum in the population.

Many residents are trying to flee to seek refuge in towns further south. The city is undergoing a wave of departures. Voices are rising to demand an evacuation of the city but the proximity of the partial legislative elections which took place on Sunday May 11, difficult to postpone, do not encourage the elites to proceed with the evacuation or even to call on the population to leave the city under threat.

Notables such as the Mayor of Saint-Pierre Roger Fouché, Governor Mouttet, the director of the main newspaper Les Colonies Marius Hurard or the big factory owner Eugène Guérin minimize the danger.

Usine Guérin ensevelieOn Monday May 5 in the morning, it is the apparent calm of the volcano. Myriads of ants (crazy ants), poisonous centipedes (centipedes) and trigonocephalic snakes invade the streets of the city and claim about fifty victims. The overflow of the Étang Sec produced a lahar (mud flow of volcanic origin) in the Rivière Blanche.

The Guérin factory is buried under a hot mud of more than 6 meters and makes 25 victims. The electrical network overloaded by wet ashes breaks.

On Tuesday May 6, the population continues to flee the city. Many announcements ask the population to desert the city under the threat of an eruption. Explosions take place in the mountain causing glowing ash to escape.

Torrential rains based on condensation of water vapor and mud flows in all the gullies occur. The harbor of Saint Pierre is covered with a thick carpet of pumice ash and plant debris.

On Wednesday May 7, the day before the explosion of May 8, 1902, there was great calm. The obstructed crater blocked the expulsion of gas and projectiles preparing the final explosion of the crater plug under the enormous pressure of outgassing the magma.

Thursday May 8, 1902 is Ascension Day. An explosion occurred in the crater of Étang Sec, the side of which had been indented since the May 5 flow. A powerful blast followed three minutes later by the fiery cloud blocked north and east by the cliff of the caldera and the dome borrows the breach of the Etang Sec towards the Blanche river and breaks at a speed greater than 500 km/h over the city.

Navires en feu dans la rade de Saint-PierreAt 7:52 am, in less than a minute, the Rivière Blanche was largely destroyed, the ships anchored in the harbor were on fire. The explosion of the plug caused a conflagration of the crater and a shock wave, a supersonic atmospheric "boom" (~ 450m/s, 30 hPa instantaneous overpressure).

Épaisse fumée blancheThis noise, incomparable to any noise one can hear daily, was so powerful that it was unbearable to human listening and to the point of exploding the eardrums of the inhabitants for several kilometers.

Nuée ardente dans la Montagne PeléeA thick cloud of gas, water and suspended solids escaped from a mouth at the foot of the dome, producing a huge black mushroom-shaped cloud more than 4 km above the volcano.

Subsequently, it collapsed on itself and its descending cloud focused on the White River covered with mud, blocks and ashes a triangular area between Étang Sec/Prêcheur/Saint-Pierre of more than 40 km and stopped in the middle of the harbor, more than 1 500 m from the shore.

Fires and lahars aggravated the destruction and the number of victims. Depending on where they were in the ravaged area, the victims had died either from the atmospheric shock wave, the inhalation of hot gases, deep burns, volcanic boulders or building collapses. Saint-Pierre was not the only city affected by the eruption.

Many victims were recorded throughout the north of the island from the Caribbean area to the Atlantic coast even if the number was obviously more important on the Caribbean coast below Pelée. Only two men and a young girl survived the May 8 eruption thanks to the strength and remoteness of the buildings in which they were located. They were however badly burned.

Cyparis célèbre survivant de la Montagne PeléeThe first Louis-Auguste Cyparis, a 27-year-old worker was locked in the prison dungeon for having participated in a deadly brawl in a bar. The dungeon with very thick walls had only a narrow opening on its facade opposite the volcano. It was extracted three days after the eruption. His body was badly burned. He joined Barnum and Bailey's "greatest show in the world of the circus" where he was presented as the "man who lived on Judgment Day". He would have been the first famous black in the entertainment world in the United States.

Léon Compère also known as Léandre was a young shoemaker who lived in a building with thick walls located on the edge of the devastated area.

Much less known, the young Havivra Da Ifrile escaped in extremis on her brother's boat which was taken in at sea by a ship called le Suchet.

First aid arrived from Fort-de-France via the warship Suchet arrived at the entrance to the harbor at 12:30 p.m. but the heat prevented it from entering before 3:00 p.m. Despite everything, he managed to rescue sailors and passengers from various burning ships. Once on the ground, the majority succumb to their injuries. Only about twenty survived.

Tomorrow disillusioning?

Fallen Saint Pierre

Saint-Pierre en ruines après l'éruptionWe could have said that on the morning of May 9, 1902 that Saint-Pierre woke up groggy, but the state of human and material disaster was such that we could speak of a city that overnight became a desert, a field of ruins like a city destroyed after a bombardment. The harbor of Saint-Pierre was covered with wrecks, the keels of overturned ships. That's what was left of the 30 to 40 ships there.

Along the quays for a stretch of 200 meters, the timber supplies were on fire. On the heights of the city and as far as Fonds Coré, partial fires were counted. The buildings that once made the pride of the city were partially or totally destroyed. No sign of life was identified. It was not until two days later that the only two survivors in the town would be found.

Saint-Pierre après éruptionIn a report written by the vicar general, administrator of the diocese in the absence of the bishop sent to Monseigneur de Cormont, former bishop of Saint-Pierre in Paris, he describes the feeling which animates him by declaring: “Saint Pierre, this city, still alive in the morning, is no more! ... Here it is before us, consumed, lying in its shroud of smoke and ashes, dreary and silent as a necropolis. Our eyes seek there frightened fleeing inhabitants. or returning to seek their dead! But nothing ! Not a living being appears in this desolate desert, framed by a frightening loneliness!

In the background, the mountain and its slopes, once so green, seem covered, when they are revealed, with a thick blanket of snow, like a landscape of the Alps; and, through the cloud of ash and smoke scattered in the atmosphere, a sun with dull, pallid gleams, unknown under our skies, throws on this picture something sinister, which gives the impression of a sight of beyond the grave. With what touched shock, I raise my hand over those 40,000 lives suddenly mown down, lying down, buried in this dreadful tomb!

Dear and unfortunate victims, old men, women, children, young girls, fallen so tragically, we mourn for you, we, the unhappy survivors of this desolation, while you, purified by the particular virtue and the exceptional merits of the horrible sacrifice, on this day of the triumph of your God, you came up to him to receive from his hand the crown of glory! It is in this hope that we will find the strength to survive you."

An agent of the French Telegraph Cable Company also describes the scene he has in front of him: “Le Mouillage takes place in the middle of the smoking carcasses of ships. An ash cloud completely hides the view of the mountain. Two priests carry out the mortuary service, followed standing on the ruins, in front of the customs, next to the flames which still spout from the houses located by the sea.

We successively visit the military hospital, the cable office, the bank and the battery of Esnotz. The streets are littered with blackened, naked, unrecognizable corpses. A smell of scorched flesh strangles us. Only one being still wears his clothes: it is a nurse from the hospital who must have thrown himself into a basin, and the water dried up, the body was then charred with the clothes plastered over it.

Some walls remain. The roofs, the partitions, the objects inside the buildings seem to have been violently thrown outside. We do not meet anything alive, not even a fly on the rotten flesh: the kingdom of death, in all its desolation.”

Cadavres jonchant les rues de Saint-PierreThe soldiers sent to rescue any survivors have nothing to do. They return to Carbet filled with emotion and bitterness in the face of the immense disaster observed in Saint Pierre. In Carbet too, the damage is very numerous. In some houses, one could observe about fifteen corpses, severely burned dying, young people with swollen skin falling to rags.

The desolation is strong and everywhere. Parents mourn their children, children their parents, women their husbands and vice versa. Cries of pain can be heard everywhere. The soldiers then returned to Fort de France.

But the eruption did not stop only on May 8, 1902, there were several clouds between May 8 and August 30, more or less violent. There are even about sixty until the end of 1903. The cumulative thickness of the layers of ash will even exceed 3 meters. Rue Levassor had to be cleared. On the political side, Louis Mouttet then Governor of Martinique, was one of the victims of the eruption, as well as his wife. He had been widely criticized afterwards for his handling of the disaster.

Jean Baptiste Philémon Lemaire then succeeded him. However, at the beginning of August, the city was considered safe by the authorities, who called on the former inhabitants of Saint-Pierre to take back possession of their old house. Some who had fled and thus survived the eruption of May 8, returned to live in Saint-Pierre, will be the victims of new fiery clouds.

On May 20, an eruption more violent than that of 1902 hit the whole island. The ashes fell all over the island. Buildings that had been partially destroyed are permanently destroyed. Some victims are to be noted. Looting takes place in the streets of the city. The ashes which covered the corpses prevented their decomposition. On May 26, June 6 and July 9 there were similar clouds.

Éruption du 30 AoûtOn August 30, the cloud is much more extended to the south and the east will increase the damage. An area of nearly 60 square kilometers is destroyed. Although the explosion was smaller and less hot (more than 120°C), its incandescent elements nevertheless set fire to the vegetation and the dwellings of the city.

Nearly 1,400 new victims (800 in Morne-Rouge, 250 in Ajoupa-Bouillon, 25 in Basse-Pointe and 10 in Morne Capot) were to be noted. From November 1902 to September 1903, there were successive collapses with the departures of the clouds. After 1905 and until 1910, some fumaroles were visible and a slow uplift (elevation in altitude of the rocks that make up the mountains) of the dome appears. The extinction is, however, apparent.

Éruption de 1929 : nuée ardenteA few years later, a new eruption took place between 1929 and 1932 but only caused material damage.

Rebuilt but ...: Saint-Pierre today

After the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902, the questions are numerous because Saint-Pierre was the capital of Martinique. Should we rebuild from the ashes of the eruption a city that has the possibility of being destroyed again? Should we make Fort de France, the administrative capital of Martinique since 1692, the new capital of the colony? How will Martinique recover after losing its economic and social heart?

Many opinions differ on some of these issues. When asked about the possibility of Martinique recovering from it, the island will soon straighten the bar. International aid was very important. From all sides, shipments are being made to help the population benefit from primary needs. The other two French colonies in the area, Guadeloupe and French Guiana, offer to welcome the populations who had lost everything during the disaster.

The metropolis sends various material and physical resources to help the population overcome this terrible ordeal. Numerous looting takes place. Faced with this, the metropolis calls for a national looting of the places. The State then delegates a commission responsible for recovering the jewels found on the corpses, with the promise to return them to the families of the deceased, but the promise is not kept. People come to Saint Pierre to recover fountains, to look for marble, to attribute themselves statues and to seize the cannons.

Regarding the reconstruction of Saint-Pierre, the correspondent of the New York Herald in an interview with Admiral Sevran who commands Le Tage states: “The city of Saint-Pierre should never be rebuilt, because the danger created by Mount Pelée can perpetuate itself for centuries. We should not allow Fort de France to develop further. I will use my influence to build on the south-eastern coast of the island, either in La Trinité or in La Caravelle, another city which should be the capital of the colony."

At that time, it seemed obvious that the capital of the colony had to be moved to a safe place sheltered from any lightning strike by the volcano, but faced with the urgent need to quickly reorganize life in Martinique and revive the hard-hit economy, Fort de France, which already had a port, looks like a logical choice.

Saint-Pierre is stripped of its title of capital of the colony and has never regained this predominant status. Today it is the seat of a sub-prefecture of Martinique and has a division of the Martinique Chamber of Commerce. For years, the city remains in ruins. Saint-Pierre is neglected from its role as the economic capital of the colony in favor of its great rival, Fort de France.

It even falls within the scope of the law of February 15, 1910, which strikes it from the map of the municipalities of France. Its management is entrusted to the neighboring town of Carbet. This law of 1910 authorizes the receiving municipality to sell the patrimony of the abolished municipality, and to keep the profit which emerges from the liquidation of the latter. From there Saint Pierre loses a large part of the richness of its archaeological heritage.

Ancienne chambre de commerceIt was not until 1923 that Saint Pierre rose from its ashes. It is gradually rebuilt sometimes keeping the places as they were (the Chamber of Commerce rebuilt identically is currently one of the most beautiful architectural works of the island (see photo), the former Cathedral du Mouillage) or more modern way (private homes of the population).

The population is gradually returning to settle in the city without ever reaching the number of 28,000 souls who lived in the city on the eve of the eruption of 1902. The city goes from 3,000 inhabitants in 1923 to 4,122 today.

Distillerie DepazEconomic activity is gradually resuming, Vincent Depaz, a member of the Depaz family who lived in the Habitation Perinelle, returns from Bordeaux where he was studying. Orphan, he lost his whole family in the eruption of 1902. He is determined to rebuild the old house which had been his place of life during his youth. He bought the old lands of Habitation Pécou where he would rebuild his old house (Château Depaz) identically and found the Depaz distillery, a rum producer.

Even today, it is active and produces a quality rum. He will finance various reconstruction works in the town of Saint Pierre, including those of the old cathedral at Le Mouillage.

Ancien théâtre de Saint-PierreLes chercheurs de l'époque s'étaient-ils intéressés aux grondements qui frémissaient, aux nombreux tremblements de terre ou encore la vapeur blanche qui s'échappaient des sommets de la Pelée ?

Aujourd'hui on aurait du mal à réaliser mais l'histoire de Saint-Pierre est précurseur de l'histoire du Titanic qui allait faire naufrage quelques années plus tard. Après tout, Saint-Pierre n'était-elle pas elle aussi inébranlable ?


The ruins of the most memorable places (dungeon of Cyparis (prisoner surviving the eruption), old theater, church of the fort, the bridge over the Roxelane (which resisted the eruption), the ruins of the Fig tree (old warehouses and shops) or the street “Monte au Ciel” (Go up to heaven)) are preserved as part of the city's heritage and preserved year after year for the collective memory of this extraordinary disaster. The whole city was labeled City of Art and History in 1990 by the Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Thus today, the activity of Saint-Pierre is based primarily on tourism and in particular on diving, the port presenting many shipwrecks.

The Martinican proverb which says “Tout couyon mô Saint-piè” seems quite naive when one saw the greatness of Saint Pierre at the time. No one thought that this city created according to the model of European cities, which had nothing to envy of any city in the world by its originality, its buildings, its wealth and its organization could be shaken in a few minutes.

Saint-Pierre was the success of French colonization. France had known how to export its model and supplant the great British Empire. Moreover, Saint-Pierre aroused jealousy even in European cities. Fort de France was the administrative capital at the time, but why flee and take refuge there when you lived in optimal living conditions?

In addition, the elites more concerned by the legislative elections which were to take place, did they not play down the situation?

The researchers of the time were they interested in the rumblings which quivered, the numerous earthquakes or the white vapor which escaped from the peaks of Pelée?

Today it would be difficult to realize but the history of Saint Pierre is a precursor of the history of the Titanic which was going to be wrecked a few years later. After all, wasn't Saint Pierre too unswerving?

Bibliography :

  • Saint-Pierre Martinique 1635-1902 : Annales des Antilles françaises, Charles L Lambolez
  • The Last Days of St.Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster that Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives, Ernest Zebrowski
  • La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelee, the Worst Volcanic Eruption of the Twentieth Century, Alwyn Scarth