Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Saint-Pierre, Martinique: The Sleeping Beauty

By Pierre-Olivier Jay

A century after the eruption of Mt. Pelee, the former "Little Paris of the West Indies" has not regained its former glory. It is still only marginally developed. This is perhaps what makes this pretty little sleepy town so charming.


The month of May in St-Pierre is punctuated by celebrations, commemorations, and festivities. And for good reason, on May 22, 1848, the Martinican slaves took their liberty even before slavery was officially abolished, and half a century later, on May 8, 1902, the city was entirely destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pelee. These days of celebrations are all the more important in a city where, apart from a modest museum, few things allow the visitor to imagine the size of St-Pierre before the disaster. Here, it is not like in Herculaneum or Pompeii, where the bodies are frozen in time from the moment of their death. If the memory of the 30,000 inhabitants who disappeared in 1902 has not been lost, the visitor must reconstruct it from clues scattered throughout the city.


St-Pierre is only the shadow of its past. It takes a good dose of imagination to plunge back into it. The city was a beacon and a cultural and economic capital of the 19th century West Indies. Its streetlights illuminated the streets with electricity, a line of horse-drawn streetcars circulated its elevated streets and, from 1879, they boasted a "vitascope," the first cinema of the French colonies. While today the heat is often overwhelming, in those days, this spa town was crossed by multiple channels of fresh-flowing mountain spring water that refreshed the atmosphere. On the industrial front, rum and sugar were the treasures of the city. Today there are 16 distilleries and their know-how is legendary throughout the Caribbean. Through this port, valuable commodities were shipped between South America and North America, including cocoa, orange wine (vin d'orange), indigo, cassava, and pineapple.

The city was a mythical stop for sailors, attracted by its festive and frivolous nightlife. At dusk, more than a hundred cabarets and pubs come to life. They became the cradle of a new kind of music known as "biguine." The libertine atmosphere was described in one of the only novels from that time, "Nuit d’Orgie à St-Pierre" (Night of Orgy in St. Pierre). The opera house was the pride of the bekes, the white Antillean aristocracy, of which St-Pierre is the capital. The city is also the seat of 11 of the 15 Martinique newspapers of the time. They dealt mainly with politics, one of the West Indian people's burning passions.


On April 27, 1902, the first round of elections was tight between the two candidates. Industrialist Fernand Clerc, a progressive candidate of the Democratic Republican Alliance, obtained 4,496 votes and his opponent, Louis Percin, Radical-Socialist candidate, 4,167 votes. Overlooking the city, the volcano known as Mount Pelee awakened for a bit and then erupted on April 20. First a lake appeared in the dry crater lake, and then the White River showed unusual flow variations. On April 30, earthquakes shook the city. They were accompanied by phreatic explosions, steam-blast eruptions caused by the sudden increase of temperature of the superficial waters surrounding the volcano and the extremely hot magma reservoir. From May 2, ashes began to fall on the city, then a mudslide overtook the Guérin distillery, taking Pelée's first victims.
For the elite of the city, despite these signs and a panic among the residents, it was vital to mobilize voters for the second round of voting on May 11. It would never happen. Due north of St-Pierre the island has little to no access to the rest of the island. The only way to escape by sea, but by then it was impossible. But the authorities continued to reassure the public and a pseudo-scientific commission published a report that concluded, "St-Pierre is no more in danger at the foot of the volcano than Naples is at the foot of Vesuvius." The governor of Martinique, Louis Mouttet, previously stationed in Cayenne, arrived in the city with his wife, hoping to calm the agitated crowd.

From May 5, the situation escalated at the crater. The magma reached the surface, glowing rocks are thrown from the crater, a mudslide engulfed part of Precheur, taking 400 victims during the night of May 7 to 8. The inhabitants were never informed.

On the morning of May 8, the city of St-Pierre was calm. The clouds around the mountain obscure the town. A ship, le Diament, leaves curiously a few minutes before the tragedy. Some also speak of a ship, the Grappler, which was loaded shortly before the disappearance of the city, with all the fortune of the Martinique aristocracy. But until this day it is still a mystery. 

At 8:02 am, as the mass ends in town, a pyroclastic flow, a cloud of hot gas carrying debris of all sizes, reaches St. Pierre in less than a minute. In addition to the heat of the cloud, which reached 500 ° F, the shock wave and the inhalation of gases and ashes caused instant death for the town's 30,000 inhabitants. The passage of this deadly cloud triggered a fire in rum stocks. For three days, the city burned. But the apocalyptic vision of the rubble photographed is in fact the result of the seven fiery clouds that fell on the city until August 30, 1902.


If many people saw this cataclysm as divine punishment for the dissolute lifestyle and the mores of the time and a particularly libertine carnival season, for the scientific community it was the beginning of contemporary volcanology. An observatory was set up by volcanologist Alfred Lacroix, who investigated the eruption. He analyzed the phenomenon of the pyroclastic flows, whose process of volcanic eruption took the name "Pelean". This eruption remains in volcanology a reference  to explosive eruptions accompanied by viscous flows. Since the last eruption of the volcano in 1929, underground activity has been continuously monitored by the Morne des Cadets Observatory, which houses one of the largest seismographs in the world.

The city of St. Pierre was never fully rebuilt. At the time, it was losing its dominance to Fort-de-France, favored by its central location and better port facilities. In the 20th century, Martinique no longer wishes to look north; the trauma and tragedy are still palpable. The ruins of the old city are everywhere, but they are left to crumble.


St-Pierre is now rich in its underwater heritage. The discovery of the wrecks of the many ships that were in the bay on May 8, 1902 is an unexpected treasure trove for the city.
Jacques-Yves Imbert arrived in 1981. He lives with his family in a small white house several feet from the bay. A pioneer of scuba diving, he founded a diving club. He relates, "In May 1977, Mayor Jean Bally and Michel Metery declared themselves" "inventors" of all the wrecks, but they were already known to fishermen. Since then, diving, especially in wrecks like the mythical Roraïma, one of the first big steamers, is one of the main assets of the city."


After acquiring the prestigious label "City of Art and History" in 1990, cultural projects are waiting to emerge. Archaeologists are also working on excavating sites, bringing with them their share of new discoveries. In September 2015, David Earle, an American screenwriter, received the Best Screenplay for "Pelee" at the Monrovia International Film Festival in California. It tells the story of the tragedy of 1902. Will the exceptional destiny of St-Pierre be rediscovered on the screens of cinemas through an American super-production? That remains to be seen.

Guagin's interpretation of St. Pierre bay.


  1. Nice post!! it was such a nice place to see .

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