Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Historical Novelist Goes Digging in Martinique

Heatstroke, exhaustion, motion sickness, insect bites, and having to be escorted off a mountain by gendarmes were just a few of the privations I suffered while researching my latest novel ISLAND ON FIRE on the island of Martinique. To be blunt, conditions were bad—constant 100° temperatures and 99% humidity—but the results MORE than made up for the hardships. What I discovered while exploring the destroyed city of St. Pierre were pieces of the past, evidence of lives suddenly cut short by the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8th, 1902: a button, shards of pottery, broken porcelain, pieces of exploded bottles, the remnants of a flower pot, a destroyed tea set. The past comes back to life in a terrifying fashion in St. Pierre, Martinique.

An old button dug up near the Rue Levassor made of natural material, either horn, ivory, bone, or possibly even wood, carved from the tagua nut which was used extensively until WWI.

Until May 8th 1902 St. Pierre, Martinique was the most important cultural and administrative city in the French Antilles. It was completely destroyed when Mont Pelée erupted at approximately 8 am that morning, killing 30,000 people in 5 minutes. Today the city has been largely reclaimed, but it will never have the same vibrancy as it had during the turn of the last century.

St. Pierre today. Photo by Zinneke (from Wikimedia)
As I unearthed each item I was well aware that they once belonged to an individual, and that the object played some part in that person’s life. That's the poignancy of discovering the past: you have the chance to connect with someone who lived centuries ago and who died by a catastrophic act of nature. When I discovered that button or those shards of pottery, I was perhaps the first person in over 100 years to touch these items. That's sad given the fate of the people of St. Pierre. When they died they had no way of telling future generations their story. I consider that my mission. I went to St. Pierre in order to tell their story. 
A selfie taken in the ruins of "America's Pompeii".
Note the modern-day graffiti on the Roman-style columns are still doing the job they were designed to do, which is to provide a vertical structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below.
The graffiti says: "Madinina: Death" (Madinina is the old Carib name for Martinique.)

I call St. Pierre "the Pompeii of the Americas" because it resembles Pompeii by the cataclysmic nature in which the city was blotted off the face of the earth. Almost like an atomic bomb. The city and all its inhabitants were decimated by the release of the volcano's pyroclastic flows: the theater, the two cathedrals, the fort, the barracks, the jail, the hospital, the warehouses, the chamber of commerce, the lighthouses, the villas, the hotels, the fashionable stores, everything was reduced to rubble in the span of 5 minutes. It wasn't even a question of the citizens outrunning the lava, with the pyroclastic flows traveling at a rate of 500 mph (700 km/hr) and at temperatures of 1,830 degrees F (1000 degrees C) the people were asphyxiated immediately and incinerated within seconds. There was no chance of escape. Also called nuée ardente, a pyroclastic flow is a dense, destructive mass of very hot ash, lava fragments, and gases ejected explosively from a volcano and flowing downslope at great speed. It happened so fast, the residents of St. Pierre had no idea the end would be so violent yet so brief.

St. Pierre, Martinique before it was destroyed in a volcanic eruption.

As you meander through the ruins, only a few elements of the city’s former life are still visible: a few retaining walls, spigots, iron gates, the remains of fountains and staircases.

The remains of a public fountain located on the Rue Levassor built in 1850.

An old spigot is all that remain of a fresh water fountain in the mental asylum.

The damage was extraordinary, and what is even more surprising is that the ruins have been left largely untouched since 1902. The entire town is a vast archaeological dig. While there, I visited all the major sites where the action of my novel takes place. I would pick a location and dig down only several inches to see what the earth would reveal. In every single case I unearthed something from the past. I will take you on a virtual tour of this extraordinary town that was obliterated by a volcanic explosion, yet has managed to come back from the dead.

Shards of tiles that have been buried for more than 100 years.
The remains of the city engineer's building, on the Rue Levassor
Ruins of the fort cathedral on the north side of town.
The isolation chamber in the mental asylum
The ruins of the theater, probably what would have been the orchestra pit.
Remains of the mental asylum.

Inside a destroyed warehouse in the Figuier Quarter
On the Pont Roche, the oldest bridge in St. Pierre that is still being used for cars!
An inside look inside one of the isolation rooms in the mental asylum. This is a restraining chair. Built in 1839 as a public and private institute for the mentally insane, the asylum was one of the first in the world to offer hydrotherapy to its patients using water from the nearby Riviere Roxelane, and they even record some successful cases.
Standing in the ruins of the fort cathedral. People live in close proximity to the crumbling remains of old St. Pierre, as if having volcanic ruins in one's backyard is the most natural thing in the world.
Rue Mont au Ciel, in the fashionable mulatto quarter of St. Pierre. Until the 1990's this passageway was still covered with rubble from the eruption of 1902.
The fountain at the entrance of the St. Pierre theater, where the opening scene of my novel takes place.
The original cobblestoned Rue Levassor that runs parallel to the Riviere Roxelane, where I found so many artifacts. At the end of this street is where the mental asylum and the Engineering building are located.
The ruins of St. Pierre from 1902.
The ruins today. The biggest difference between today and then is the growth of new vegetation.

My adventure in St. Pierre left me exhilarated and humbled at the same time. It is breathtaking to stumble upon buried objects, yet so humbling to know these people died by an act of God so powerful, so terrifying, that only one person was left to tell the tale. If I learned anything from my experience, it is to never take anything for granted. Especially the gift of life. If a once-beautiful and thriving French town can be reduced to rubble in five minutes, it shows how fragile, precious, and fleeting life is. Perhaps that is the takeaway from St. Pierre: to live each day as if it is your last.


  1. Your post is breathtaking, not only for the geological impact, but the emotional one. This kind of hands-on research will add a vibrant layer of detail to your novel. You can put me on your list of people to notify when you launch it. Good luck with you writing.

    1. Thanks, Ann Marie. That's very kind of you! It was hard, but definitely a great experience.

    2. I read about this eruption some years ago. It was awful! I can only imagine the sadness of digging up people's lost lives. Good luck with Island of Eternal Fire.

  2. How wonderful, Sophie. I'm an Australian but I have been to Martinique on a family quest. My great grandfather was an officer in the French Army and quite literally had his head blown off by the British in the 1790 siege. I have been researching his story and that of his wife who remained on the island and married an English Officer within a year!
    St. Pierre was fascinating... I could have spent a long time poking around the ruins (I do love a good ruin!)

    1. I'm sure it would be possible to track down your great-grandfather's resting place. The French kept very detailed and accurate records. I've been to Fort St. Louis and to the ruins of St. Pierre quite a few times between August of 2015 and November of 2016. The pictures on this blog post are from 2016. It was sweltering hot but I managed to do quite a bit of exploring. I love it there so much I almost can't bear to be away! The people are wonderful and I fell in love with the culture and ambiance. Utterly fascinating! It's amazing you have a family connection there. It gives you a great excuse to go back!!