St Pierre: mountain of death

Once, St Pierre was a centre of French elegance and pleasure, the pride of the French Caribbean, “the Paris of the Antilles”. But one morning the mountain behind the town blew apart, wiping out the town and killing almost all its 30,000 people. James Ferguson revisits the volcano, exactly 100 years on

“We visit the old lunatic asylum, a metal chair used for strapping down patients rusting among the ruins“. Photograph by Catriona Davidson“Occasionally you see… a fragment of archway or pillar“. Ruins of the old town have become a major tourist attraction. Photograph by Catriona DavidsonSt Pierre today. Photograph by Catriona DavidsonThe eruption of Mt Pelée (dessin de Moreau de Jonnès, fils)Thick cloud shrouds the summit of Mt Pelée. Photograph by Catriona DavidsonWhat used to be St Pierre’s theatre. Photograph by Catriona Davidson

It’s a small town like any other in the Caribbean. A cluster of two-storey shops and houses, dominated by a solid stone church; a cheerful gang of uniformed schoolchildren on their way home for lunch; a sense of torpor descending over the place as the midday heat drives people indoors.

Saint Pierre looks like a quiet one-horse town, as the traffic stops crawling down its two main streets and the sun beats down on its empty quayside and deserted squares. We are not far from bustling Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, but it seems a million miles away. And every time you look up and inland you see the huge form of the Montagne Pelée, a great green-covered mountain looming over the bay, its head lost in clouds.

It’s hard to imagine that this quiet place was once the “Paris of the Antilles”, a notorious and cosmopolitan town of 30,000 people, famed as much for its brothels and gambling dens as for its elegant theatre and botanical gardens. This was the jewel in the crown of France’s Caribbean colonies, synonymous with stylish living and sophistication. The colony’s white elite was based here: planters, merchants, professionals, the bishop. Songs and poems recall the pleasures to be enjoyed at Saint Pierre. There were fountains and street lights, a lycée (high school) and a cathedral; there was even a tramway.

It’s even harder to believe that this same town was the scene of the 20th century’s worst and most lethal volcanic eruption, an event that killed all but one of those 30,000 people on 8 May 1902. It was on that day that Pelée, the “bald mountain”, unleashed a devastating cloud of red-hot gases onto the town below. A century separates sleepy Saint Pierre from the ghost of that glittering past and the terrible tragedy.

Venturing out into the sun-scorched street with Françoise, a guide sent by the tourism office, I begin a tour of Saint Pierre and its haunted landmarks. Everywhere are the black stones of an earlier town, upon which more modern buildings of concrete and corrugated iron have been built. Occasionally you see a pile of bricks or stone blocks, seemingly charred by some enormous heat, or a fragment of archway or pillar. We walk to an open space of crumbling walls, where weeds sprout among scorched masonry. A once-elegant balustrade leads up to this area, and suddenly you realise that this is all that remains of the theatre, modelled on that of Bordeaux, and holding audiences of 800 in its heyday.

We visit the old lunatic asylum, a metal chair used for strapping patients down rusting among the ruins. There is water everywhere, the Roxelane river and its streams tumbling down to the sea through the former grounds of the hospital. It was here than Saint Pierre’s washerwomen, famous for their gossip as well as the provocative remarks they shouted at male onlookers, used to clean the sheets of the town’s wealthy families.

As we stand among the great chunks of rock and tumbled pillars that once made up the impressive Église du Fort, Françoise hums a Creole song of old Saint Pierre:

Moin descení Saint-Pié
Pou cheché Daubanne
Moin pa trouvé Daubanne
Moun trouvé belle femme
Moin amusé moin.

It tells of a young man who went to town to buy a saucepan, but ended up instead with a woman. The women of Saint Pierre, it is said, were particularly beautiful, and the town was famed for its irreverent and easy-going carnival celebrations. Françoise says that in 1902, weeks before the eruption, a particularly unpopular priest was made to dance, in effigy, with a pig. Not surprisingly, some people said that Saint Pierre was cursed.

 

Cursed it may have been, but Saint Pierre was also blighted by scientific ignorance and political skullduggery. With hindsight, it is clear that the death toll could have been much reduced, that the town should have been evacuated. But there were those who stood in the way of such precautions, who rashly believed that all would be well. The tragedy of Saint Pierre is in part one of natural disaster, but also one of human frailty and stubbornness.

The townspeople knew that something was happening with the volcano early in 1902. It had slumbered since 1851, when it had briefly fired flames and rocks high into the air, but now it was stirring again. People from surrounding villages and curious observers reported that a lake in the crater was bubbling, that a strong stench of sulphur was in the air. Then, as animals began to become unnaturally restless and birds fell suffocated from the sky, a dense cloud of ash began to float over the town.

The American consul’s wife noted that “little birds lie asphyxiated under the bushes, and in the meadows the animals are bleating, neighing and bellowing despairingly”. For weeks these warning signs continued, punctuated by rumblings and small earthquakes that sent crockery crashing from shelves.

People were understandably anxious, but the authorities — the Mayor and the Prefect — were based in Fort-de-France, and anxious to calm any fears. A commission of “experts” was convened. They reported that there was no danger and that the volcanic activity would soon pass. Partly, they wanted to avoid the logistical nightmare of a mass evacuation. Where, after all, would all these people go? And then there was the question of forthcoming elections. The Prefect wanted at all costs not to postpone them, with all the extra work and costs involved. The two main parties shared his view, and they certainly didn’t want their supporters leaving town to let the other side win. The local newspaper offered reassuring editorials, as the ash became thicker and the rumblings louder. “Where could one be better off than at Saint Pierre?” asked Les Colonies, as people from surrounding villages flocked to the apparent safety of the town.

By early May it was clear that Pelée was not going to calm down. Smoke, ash, tremors and rumblings continued to make life insufferable. Some of the louder blasts were reportedly heard in Trinidad. A sudden boiling mud slide engulfed a nearby sugar estate on the coast. Those in charge took this as evidence that any further lava flows would follow the same course and avoid Saint Pierre itself.

But not everybody was comforted. A Neapolitan captain ordered his ship to leave harbour at once, even without passengers and cargo. He knew what Vesuvius was, he said, and this was worse. As nerves frayed and the population became swollen with refugees from the countryside, order began to break down. The governor ordered troops to prevent people from leaving and, to set an example, he and his family arrived in Saint Pierre on the evening of 7 May, the eve of Ascension Day.

As crowds gathered early the next day to celebrate Mass and to pray for deliverance at the cathedral, the volcano finally did its worst. Eyewitness survivors, watching from distant hillsides, told how Pelée suddenly coughed up a black cloud that rolled down the volcano’s flank towards the town. According to Suzette Lavenière, who watched from a distant hillside, “it seemed to be a living thing, glowing all the time, while from its centre burst explosions that sent lightning-like scintillations high into the darkness”.

As the cloud reached the first buildings, they ignited like kindling. It swept through the town, blasting everything in its path, setting fire to ships at anchor half a mile out to sea. One survivor aboard a ship said “it was like a hurricane of fire, it shrivelled and set fire to everything it touched”. Stacks of barrels at the dockside, filled with rum, added to the inferno.

Onlookers were unaware that they were watching what we know today as a pyroclastic flow, a silent, ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, rocks and volcanic gases that can reach speeds of 100 km per hour. At more than 500°C, the cloud, which the French poetically term a nuée ardente, carbonizes wood. It sucked the oxygen from the atmosphere, suffocating as many people as were burned.

When rescuers were finally able to enter the ruined city, they discovered many corpses intact, their throats and lungs seemingly burned out by the superheated atmosphere. Curiously, many objects and substances were untouched, food and utensils lying unaffected among the ruins. But some things, such as the great bell of the cathedral, twisted and melted, revealing the intensity of the heat.

 

Within minutes it was over. A telegraph message from Saint Pierre was received in Fort-de-France at 7.52 a.m. It said only, Allez. Then the line went dead.

When, hours later, rescuers rounded the headland at Le Carbet, they were confronted with a scene of utter desolation. Like some precursor of Hiroshima, the town lay flattened and smouldering. Ships in the harbour were half-sunk and still burning. It was too hot for anybody to land. Only days later were people able to come ashore, where they encountered rubble, piles of bodies and an eerie silence.

It was then that the “miracle man of Saint Pierre” was discovered. Cyparis, a young labourer with a liking for rough rum, had been locked up in an underground cell after a brawl. There, he managed to survive the tornado that swept through the streets, even though his clothes caught fire inside the dungeon. Thinking that the world had come to an end, Cyparis was finally released by amazed rescuers when they heard his feeble cries. He was lucky in more than one sense, for he spent the rest of his life earning easy money as a circus attraction, showing off his scars to wide-eyed audiences.

 

It took several years for people to resettle in Saint Pierre. There were more eruptions after May. One in August killed a further 5,000 people in nearby villages. Rebuilding was slow and tentative. Today, there is a strange melancholy about the place, perhaps half imagined, but the town has never regained its former glory and seems lost in the past.

Françoise is upbeat about the future, though. She feels that the centenary will restore Saint Pierre’s historic importance, that the town can use the occasion to attract tourists and develop its reputation as a cultural site. Certainly, as a coach arrives and tourists start clambering over the theatre ruins, the town appears to come back to life. The museum reopens, an ice cream sign is placed outside the souvenir shop.

Sad as it was, Saint Pierre has risen from the ashes and intends to celebrate the future rather than mourn the past. As we walk back to the tourism office, a din of hammering and drilling can be heard from the quayside, where workers are building a new jetty for cruise ships. A small train, called the Cyparis Express, prepares to shuttle visitors from one site to another.

Saint Pierre may no longer be the Paris of the Antilles, but it has an extraordinary story to tell. And its poignant ruins, as well as the brooding mountain behind, tell it with unforgettable force.

Visitors to Martinique and the rest of the Caribbean can sleep easy in the knowledge that such a disaster will not be repeated. Modern science allows volcanoes to be continually monitored for signs of unusual activity. An observatory watches over Mont Pelée, its computer sensors listening to the core of the volcano. What you hear is a strange, high-pitched singing noise, the sound of tectonic activity deep underground. Jean-Pierre Viodé, the chief volcanologist, is reassuringly relaxed about Pelée and says there would be months, if not years, of warning signs before another eruption.

“What would happen if an eruption was predicted?” I ask. “Ah, well that’s a political as much as a scientific problem,” he says, “and that is what happened in 1902. An evacuation would have plenty of time to take place, but would people want to leave? That was the problem in Montserrat.”

Viodé admits that he has mixed feelings over Pelée, which he has watched and listened to for almost three decades. “I suppose I would like to witness an eruption before I retire, but not at the cost of a single human life.”