The volcano that destroyed St. Pierre 1902
Reflections on the Mt Pelee's 1902 volcanic eruption, by Chris Doyle
The Day the World Ended by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, 1969
The Last Days of St. Pierre by Ernest Zebrowski, 2002
This first appeared in Caribbean Compass 2009
With a postscript discussing La Catastrophe by Alwyn Scarth
Many years ago, I was delighted to buy a second-hand
copy of The Day the World Ended
by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. In those days it was hard to find
a good account in English of Mt Pelee's massive eruption on May 8th
1902 that destroyed the city of St. Pierre on the
Both books read like novels. For fast-paced
excitement, you cannot beat The
Day the World Ended, which is a day-by-day account, starting on the
2nd of May 1902 and ending on the 8th , that
weaves into this time several strong human
interest stories. It was written in 1969, 67 years after the eruption,
when the authors could still find a few people close to those times to
interview. Zebrowski's book was written in 2002, and is well researched,
with the author spending time in
About 30,000 people died during the eruption, around
a sixth of the total population of Martinique at that time. When you
think about this history, you have to start by imagining how
St. Pierre, a busy, alive, and extremely attractive
city, had been called the "Paris of the
As May approached, coming elections had become
important to the establishment, as the status quo was being challenged
by black politicians. Amadee
Knight, a plantation owner, supporter of worker's rights and education,
and a member of the radical party, was already the elected senator
A man up to his neck in politics, who would prove quite influential over the course of this history was Andreus Hurard, owner, editor and publisher of Les Colonies, the main newspaper. Hurard was determined that Fernand Clerk should win (although he was not overly fond of him personally), and made it his mission to try to stop the volcano from interfering with the election.
The man on whose shoulders the responsibility for the
population lay was the Governor, Louis Mouttet. Mottet was self-made man
who had married well, a career civil servant who had done his time in
less desirable locations, and who regarded
comes to life
1902 was not the first time in human memory
Subtle signs of activity started as early as May 1901 and Professor Gaston Landes, at the Lycee in St. Pierre, and the most scientifically educated man on the island, had been watching it through his telescope, recording wisps of smoke.
In today's world this would have been plenty of
warning to initiate an evacuation. However, in 1902 little was known
about volcanoes. Those in
And for while, things seemed to quiet down, until April 28 when several rivers started overflowing their banks, despite a complete lack of rain. On April 30 Landes noted several more earthquakes and there were monstrous flash floods on the river Roxelane and River des Peres, so sudden and severe that several washerwomen were swept away and drowned. But the volcano was still quiet and people hoped that this had released the pressure and marked the end of the activity.
May 1st started fine and clear, then there was an eruption, followed by a fall of dust, and all was quiet again.
On May 2 there was both an eruption and heavy rain.
Zebrowski reports that ash fell so thickly in Precheur that they had to
light lamps to see. Thomas and Witts relate that on his day Laveniere,
in his estate four miles south of
The volcano erupted with even more force on May 3,
with violent earth tremors and bright lightning. Morne Rouge was ankle
deep in mud and the priest, Father Mary, had his flock in the church
praying. The ash fall reached Fort-de-France and, according to
Zebrowski, Mouttet took the regular ferry to
At this point, Fernand Clerk started his efforts to
persuade people that they should evacuate
Amadee Knight, not wanting to side with his political opponent, went around telling people that the volcano would only quiet down when they voted the white progressive party out of power. That sounds nuts, but when I sat for a week in St. Vincent watching the volcano erupt in 1979, I remember hearing the one of the clergy telling people on a radio program that God sent the volcano because they had not been attending church enough, so people do say these things.
Meanwhile Le Colonies had an upbeat special edition
written by Hurard which started "Yesterday the people of
On Sunday May 4 people observed hundreds of dead
birds. The volcano had been rumbling all night, and ash reached
In St. Pierre's cathedral that Sunday morning, the acting head of the Catholic church, Monseigneur Gabriel Parel (the bishop was on a retreat in France), announced to the public that the commission was on its way, and that if they had enough faith in God, God would keep them safe. Clerk felt particularly discouraged, the whole world seemed to have gone mad and refused to realize the danger. He had hoped, having failed to rally the civic leaders, the church might help, but to no avail. He decided to get out of St. Pierre with his family and go to his estate in Parnasse. However, when he got home he was met at his house by several friends who were fleeing the volcano and begged to stay with him. He decided to stay for the time being.
The influx of refugees was also causing problems with
robberies and general unrest. The telegraph cable to
DISASTER AFTER DISASTER
As you sail north out of
Shortly after noon Guerin heard a noise, looked up, and saw to his horror a giant avalanche roaring down the hill. In his words: "A black avalanche, beneath white smoke, an enormous mass more than 10 meters high and 159 meters wide, full of huge boulders was coming down the mountain with a great din." Guerin, who was on higher ground, narrowly escaped, but his family, who ran for the coast died. In his words: "Three of those black waves came down, making a noise like thunder, and made the sea retreat..." The desolation was indescribable. Where a prosperous factory - the work of a lifetime - had stood a moment before, there was now nothing left but an expanse of mud forming a black shroud for my son, his wife, and my workmen." (Later it was found that 159 people had died and it was estimated that the avalanche reached 120 feet high.)
At the same time this happened, and possibly caused
by it, there was tidal wave that swept into
It was unfortunate that about this time, Mouttet, in
Fort de France was, with great relief, reading the report from his
Commission on the Volcano; it concluded: "There is nothing in the
activity of Pelee that warrants a departure from St. Pierre." They
concluded that the position of the craters and valley opening onto the
sea was such that "The safety of
Shortly after, he got a cable from his garrison
On May 6 the mayor of
As they stood overlooking the ruins, they decided
this did not really change the conclusions of their report.
This is the moment Mouttet needed to act if he was
going to save most of the population of
For Mouttet, the evacuation of
But what about everyone else? People were being told both by the mayor and by Les Colonies they were safe and to stay put. Poor people and refugees did not have a lot of choice. They were getting food here, how would they survive if they moved? Some accounts claim Mouttet posted troops to stop refugees from fleeing south for fear of spreading disease (some kind of pox had broken out), as well as fearing a spreading of theft and disruption.
Hundreds of people of means did get out. The ferries were leaving full, and some families chartered boats. But most did not want to leave their businesses and property.
On the morning of May 7 the volcano continued to
erupt. The final undersea telegraph cable broke.
That evening Mouttet and his wife arrived. According
to Thomas and Witts, the mayor was to put on a huge governor's ball that
night, but when Mouttet saw the state of the town, some of it feet deep
in ash, he cancelled it. He had another meeting of his commission and
again they assured him
Sunday, May the 8th was Ascension Day, one of the biggest and most important Church services of the year. Fernand Clerk awoke and started to dress for the service. He heard a strange burping noise from the volcano and went to check the barometer he kept on the balcony. He could not believe his eyes, the needle was oscillating wildly. He aroused everyone in the house and told them to leave at once for Fort de France. He put his wife and four children in a carriage he kept waiting, and fled for his estate in Parnasse.
Apart from all the residents, many people had come
The glowing red ball was a cloud of superheated gas
and steam, it set fire and destroyed everything in its path, reducing
In town there were two confirmed survivors, a cobbler called Leandre, and the now famous Cyparis. Leandre must have just got really lucky and been in a quieter part of the cloud in the southeastern part of town. He was badly burnt, but unlike all those around him and even those in his house, he survived.
Cyparis was in the thick of the cloud, but he was in a heavy stone dungeon two floors down in the police station. It was a few days before he was discovered. According to Thomas and Witts, Cyparis, who was black, had murdered a white man in a drunken brawl and been sentenced to be executed. In their book he was a somewhat central figure, with the governor planning to pardon him just before the election in the hope of helping Fernand Clerk.
Zebrowski is much more uncertain about why Cyparis was there, and suggests it may just have just been a drunken brawl, a popular story with tourist histories, though I would think his location, in the only heavy stone dungeon in town, made a conviction of murder much more likely. Zebrowski suggests he may have asked to be there, because he had a fever and it was pleasantly cool. That I find ridiculous.
In any event, he was hired by the Barnum and Bailey Circus as an exhibit. Within a year he got drunk again and stabbed and nearly killed one of the other employees, went to jail, and disappeared from view.
One of the more interesting and amazing survivor stories is told by Zebrowski. The ferry Diamant had just landed its passengers and was tied to the dock. The ship's boy, Jean Baptiste Innocent, was on the quay. As he saw the firestorm approach he dived underwater and stayed below as long as he could. While he was under, Diamant's boiler exploded and it capsized. When he surfaced the whole town was on fire. He clung to a floating plank and was rescued some 7 hours later.
The volcano continued to erupt for months. An even
worse pyroclastic flow finished off what little there was left of the
town. During the eruptions
a curious pinnacle formed, sticking hundreds of feet out of the volcano
and looking like a monument, it was called the Tower of Pelee, and
eventually crumbled. Some years after the eruption, people moved back
I hope some of you will seek out the two books mentioned, both are currently available at a bargain price through Amazon. In them you will find a great wealth of intrigue, politics and romance.
History, like science, is based on evidence, but unlike science, replication is not possible, so there is always conjecture. The stories you will read in these books differ and are occasionally contradictory. Thomas and Witts have sections on prison riots, a voodoo uprising, and troops being posted to stop refugees leaving, which are completely missing in Zebrowski. The evidence was probably stories they heard. How true they were, we will never know. Zebrowski is a strong supporter of both Mouttet and Landes, this flavors his narrative. Nowadays the accepted truth is that there was no way anyone could really have known what was to happen, so the disaster was inevitable. But, a minority relied on their gut reaction to what they saw, and got the hell out; they were right. If one of those was governor, would history have been different? If so, was it really inevitable?
La Catastrophe by Alwyn
Since I wrote the above review I came across another account: La Catastrophe by Alwyn Scarth. This is also available from Amazon for a few dollars. It was published in 2002. Whereas the other two authors were journalists, Scarth is an academic (geography) and there is a lot to like in his book. He was more careful with some sources and information, and has a much more academic approach to the background. His sources for population came from the census of July 1901 and are probably much more accurate than the other books. According to these, the population of St. Pierre was 26,011, which corresponds with the other accounts. But his population for Fort de France was much higher at 22,164.
He also gave a much better map of salient features in St. Pierre, which gave me a rally good idea where the survivor cobbler Leandre's house was (I had always wondered). It was close to the center of town, but tucked right back under the hill. His survival was truly amazing.
Scarth's book is also proof that academics can go off the rails at least as much, if not more, than journalists.
He vilifies Fernand Clerk, no academic nuance here:
"Fernand Clerk's assertions were the affirmations of a rather despicable politician out for short-term gain. Such an individual would probably not greatly worry that he had done much to destroy the reputation of an honorable man."
Take that you lying politician dog! Except it is completely contrary to the very detailed picture painted of Le Clerc in the other books, both of which portray Le Clerc as a man who, while drafted into politics, was not particularly politically ambitious, who was very straight-laced, and who really cared (as much as any planter did) for the working class.
The reason for Scarth's ire is that after the eruption, Le Clerc criticized the now late Mouttet for not considering evacuation, and for doing his best to persuade people to stay put.
Scarth wrote: "Fernand Clerc's own behavior does not stand scrutiny. He himself took no steps to save lives. He had ample opportunity to publish his misgivings in Les Colonies, the editor of which Marius Hurard, was one of his strongest political allies".
According to both other books, Fernand Clerk did his best to start a movement for evacuation and was thoroughly rebuffed. Also according to both other books, while Hurard did support Clerc for the election, he was not overly fond of him, and they were diametrically opposed on the question of the volcano and safety. There is no reason to suppose that Hurard would have published such an opposing view.
But where Scarth really drinks the Kool aid is his idea, expressed more than once, that those who saved themselves were weak-kneed, panicky individuals, while it was the rational, clear-thinking courageous people who got eaten by the inferno. Just one example:
"Thus at St. Pierre, the rational people, with common sense and intelligence, saw less danger from the volcano and died, whereas those who followed their gut reactions and panicked survived, because Mount Pelee produced a weapon that defied all expectation and all the logic that they knew"
To me, the contrarians, like Le Clerc, and the captain of Orsolina were the true heroes. It was not that they were irrational or panicky; it was that they took a good look at that mother of an erupting volcano, and decided, quite rightly as it turned out, that it was unsafe. This was not irrational; it was based on millions of years of evolution that allows any one of us to make judgments about safety. This is true common sense. There may be occasions where it makes sense to override these instincts in the face of scientific knowledge. But this clearly was not one of them. Science knew little about volcanoes in those days, and in any case there was no scientist around to lend his voice, just Landes, the science teacher at the high school.
I stayed in Blue lagoon and watched a more recent volcano in St. Vincent erupting for about a week. (After each eruption, all of us sailors had to hunker below and close all hatches because of the heavy downfall of ash. It was a big deck clean-up operation between eruptions.) Having read these books I am not sure how smart that was (big surges rolled round into Fort de France on 1902, it could have happened in Blue Lagoon). But one thing I can tell you is that, if I had been anchored a just few miles from the volcano, like St. Pierre was, say in Chateaubelair, there is no way I would have stayed around, no matter who proclaimed it safe.
since 201010-14, 6023