The Caribbean nation of Martinique is a beautiful island of friendly people. Each year, more than half a million tourists flock to Martinique to soak up the sun’s rays on the pristine shores and to enjoy one of the most restful places on earth. It is difficult to imagine such a place offering anything other than relaxation and beauty.
That was how visitors to Martinique felt a little more than a century ago, as well. Abruptly, that all changed as this tropical paradise descended into a vision of hell, culminating in the worse volcanic disaster of the 20th century.
Towering over the island is Mount Pelée. The 1,400-meter (4,600-ft) active volcano had erupted in 1792 and 1851, but those events were minor and in the distant past. It was known for triggering an occasional earthquake and sent smoke billowing from fumaroles. Locals scarcely paid any attention to the phenomena, however, having grown accustomed to life near a volcano.
Seven kilometers (4.35 miles) from Mount Pelée is the cultural capital city of St. Pierre. Known as the “Paris of the Antilles,” it was founded in 1635 and reflected a combination of French and Creole cuisine, art, and culture. Although the French empire was in decline at the start of the 20th century, St. Pierre remained as one of its proudest and most valuable overseas holdings.
The first sign that things were about to change began with increased seismic activity in April 1902. The multitude of tremors might have alarmed most people, but for those who live under the shadow of an active volcano, the rumbling of the ground was only mildly interesting.
That mild interest grew to increasing concern on May 1. Mount Peleé started spewing substantially more smoke and ash than typical. The residents of St. Pierre were subjected to a continuous shower of ash, mixed with occasional burning cinders. Lighting, triggered by the churning volcanic ash, lit up the sky. Additionally, the overpowering stench of sulfur filled the air, nauseating the increasingly-concerned public and causing domestic animals to cry out in terror.
On the night of May 2, Mount Pelée’s summit looked as if it had caught fire. Glowing rocks erupted from the mountain, illuminating the midnight sky. When residents stepped out of their homes in the morning, they were horrified to find birds dropping from the sky, weighted down by the thick volcanic ash. A steamer captain also reported the unusual finding of dead fish floating in the sea, possibly killed by the shockwave of an underwater earthquake.
As the warning signs increased, the population of Martinique flooded into St. Pierre. Newspapers assured the public that the city would be safe if there was a serious volcanic event, and the people believed what they read. The population of the city, typically around 28,000, swelled to nearly 30,000 people.
Events were moving steadily toward disaster, and conditions for the island’s inhabitants — human and animal — were about to reach a crisis.
On the southwest flank of the mountain ran the Rivière Blanche. It had been fluctuating dramatically in recent days. At times, it suddenly overflowed its banks. At other times, the river disappeared entirely as underground magma levels rose and affected the groundwater.
Plagues of Mudslides, Floods, Insects, and Snakes
On May 5, a massive In fact, on May 5, events took a deadly turn when a massive mudslide overcame the Rivière Blanche and raced down the mountain a more than 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph). The destructive combination of mud and scalding hot water tore through a sugar processing plant, taking the lives of nearly two dozen workers.
A devastating mixture of mud and hot water, the slide destroyed a sugar processing plant on the coast, killing almost two dozen people. The debris then spilled into the ocean, triggering three tsunamis that damaged boats and buildings along the coast.
Perhaps the most horrifying development was the sudden onslaught of insects and snakes that invaded St. Pierre as they fled from their mountain habitats. Massive centipedes slithered past and over anyone who happened to be in their way. The insects were merely the first wave of the invasion. On their heels were the venomous 2-meter (6.5-ft) fer-de-lance snakes. The deadly pit vipers took the lives of hundreds of livestock and about 50 people. Soldiers took to the streets with their guns, shooting the serpents. The enormous street cats of St. Pierre were the unexpected heroes for this drama, showing themselves to be much more effective in culling the slithering invaders.
On May 7, Mount Pelée’s eruption intensified, sending blue flames into the air. This signaled the arrival of magma to the surface.
The same day, La Soufrière a volcano on the nearby island of St. Vincent, exploded. Its eruption took the lives of 1,500 people. Although La Soufrière is part of the same chain of volcanoes and is 154 km (95 miles) from Martinique, authorities assured the public that there was no reason to be concerned; the activities of the two volcanoes could not possibly be connected. A commission appointed by Martinique’s governor told the local newspaper that Mount Pelée presented no danger.
The morning of May 8, 1902, found the night shift telegraph operator for St. Pierre transmitting updates about the volcano’s activities. The reports were encouraging, and there were signs that the volcano was calming down. At 7:52, he sent the word, “Allez” (French for “Go”). That was the last transmission from Martinique. The telegraph line went dead.
Mount Pelée exploded with spectacular and horrifying power. The upper part of the volcano tore open, sending a pitch-black cloud of smoke and ash horizontally. A second massive cloud shot upward. The cloud propelled into the atmosphere at over 160 k/hr (99 mph), darkening the sky with a mushroom cloud with an 80-kilometer (50-mile) radius.
Of far greater consequence was the pyroclastic surge. This devastating mixture of superheated gas, ash, and rock hugged the ground and raced toward St. Pierre. The cloud of death and destruction reached the city in under a minute. With temperatures exceeding 1,075°C (1,967°F), it instantly consumed everything — and everyone — that was combustible.
Escape was out of the question. With no way to outrun the wave of death, the only thing the inhabitants of St. Pierre could do was watch and wait for the end. Blessedly, the wait was not long. Three minutes after Mount Peleé erupted, 30,000 people were dead.
The wave of destruction did not stop at the shore. The shockwave ripped across the waves, sending 16 of the 18 boats in the harbor to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. One of the ships, the Roraima, arrived at the port of St. Pierre just 90 minutes before the eruption. Only two passengers — a child and her nurse — survived.
For the next half hour, the island was subjected to a muddy downpour of rain mixed with ashes. All communication with the island had been severed. When a ship was finally able to reach land and inspect the damage, the scene was almost beyond description. The captain of the Suchet found a wasteland in which not a single tree was standing. Corpses lay everywhere.
The fires, mudflows, and carnage made exploration difficult. It would be weeks before many of the bodies could be recovered.
An often-repeated assertion about the eruption of Mount Peleé is that only two people from St. Pierre survived. In reality, there were more, but that fact does little to diminish the catastrophe that took place. The number of survivors could not have been more than a couple of dozen.
The most unlikely survivor was Louis-August Cyparis. He rode out the destruction of St. Pierre in an underground jail cell. He had been placed in solitary confinement after getting into a drunken brawl on May 7. He recalled that he was waiting for his breakfast when his cell became extremely dark. Ash and intense heat entered his cell through the door grating, forcing him to hold his breath. Although his clothes remained unsinged, his hands, arms, legs, and back were badly burned.With only a container of water to drink, he managed to stay alive long enough for rescue parties to find him after four days. One American reporter who interviewed him while he was still hospitalized in critical condition described Cyparis as being “more frightfully burned, I think than any man I had ever seen”.
Cyparis eventually recovered and was granted a full pardon. In later life, he joined the Barnum and Bailey circus as a living attraction. He toured the U.S., regaling listeners with accounts of the eruption and his survival. Appearing under the title of “The Man Who Survived Doomsday” (a.k.a. “The Most Marvelous Man in the World”), Louis-August Cyparis had star billing with the circus. He frequently appeared in a replica of his jail cell, showing off his scars as evidence of his account.
Leon Compere-Leandre was another survivor. His house was on the edge of the pyroclastic flow, sparing him a direct hit by the wave of destruction. He described his experience, saying:
“I felt a terrible wind blowing, the earth began to tremble, and the sky suddenly became dark. I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty climbed the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body. I dropped upon a table. At this moment four others sought refuge in my room, crying and writhing with pain, although their garmets (sic) showed no sign of having been touched by flame. At the end of 10 minutes one of these, the young Delavaud girl, aged about 10 years, fell dead; the others left. I got up and went to another room, where I found the father Delavaud, still clothed and lying on the bed, dead. He was purple and inflated, but the clothing was intact. Crazed and almost overcome, I threw myself on a bed, inert and awaiting death. My senses returned to me in perhaps an hour when I beheld the roof burning. With sufficient strength left, my legs bleeding and covered with burns, I ran to Fonds-Saint-Denis, six kilometers from St. Pierre”
He remained on the island, helping with rescue efforts. Consequently, he was there when the volcano showed that it was not yet done.
As word of the disaster spread around the world, rescuers and relief workers sped to the island. On May 20 — less than two weeks after the disaster — Mount Peleé erupted again. The massive pyroclastic flow descended again on St. Pierre, destroying what little remained from the first explosion and killing killing 2,000 rescuers, engineers, and mariners who were bringing supplies to the island.
On August 30, the mountain erupted once again. This time, the pyroclastic flow struck the community of Morne Rouge, killing at least 800. Leon Compere-Leander was in Morne Rouge at the time and survived, giving him the dubious distinction of living through two of the volcano’s eruptions.
The August 30 eruption was the last such event to date for Mount Peleé. The city of St. Pierre was rebuilt, but not to its former glory. Today, the population of fewer than 5,000 is just a fraction of what it was before the devastating eruption of 1902. Tourists are able to visit the Volcanological Museum, commemorating the most destructive volcanic disaster of the twentieth century.