Martinique comprises four hundred thirty six square miles of France. In 1902, St. Pierre, it’s largest town, was completely destroyed.
Martinique, like its Caribbean neighbor Guadalupe [629 square miles] is single overseas department of France. They elect four Deputies to the French Parliament, are part of the European Union, use the Euro, speak French and drive on the right side of the road.
Most people on Martinique also speak Creole, a mixture of French, Carib and languages brought from Africa. While not identical to the Creole on other islands we visited, someone on one of those islands – Dominica or Barbados, for example – could probably understand them.
Fort-de-France, the capital, has about one hundred thousand of the four hundred thousand people on the island. It has narrow streets built around the ancient protection of the fort. Alie and I walked around a bit. It seemed more prosperous than many of its neighbors.
I took a tour through a rainforest filled with ancient ferns the size of trees and gigantic bamboo. The mountains catch the moisture off the sea, and obtaining fresh water is not the problem it was on Tortola or Barbados.
We then went to St. Pierre on the coast. Settled by the French around 1600, it was a prosperous almost cosmopolitan town in 1900 with a population around 20,000, the largest town on the island.
St. Pierre was completely destroyed by the eruption of nearby Mt. Pelée in May 1902. The volcano became more active in January that year, and by April, there were earthquakes that sent animals and insects fleeing, including thousands of poisonous snakes. Domestic animals panicked as insects crawled up their legs. It is estimated that 200 animals and 50 people, mostly children, were killed by the snakes.
But the people of St. Pierre were used to the active volcano, and elected officials wanted them to stay around for a May 11 election.
On May 5, a lake broke through the crater wall creating a notch aimed at St. Pierre. The rushing boiling water created a lahar, a mix of water and mud the consistency of concrete, that poured down the mountainside at over sixty miles an hour to the sea killing 23 workers at a distillery and creating a three meter tsunami which flooded low-lying areas.
That same day, a committee issued a report that St. Pierre was safe. People from outlying areas fled to the town. Governor Mouttet, concerned that the wealthy patrons of his Progressive Party might leave before the election, sent in the Army to turn back refugees. The population rose to 28,000.
All twenty-eight thousand except for two survivors were killed within minutes when the volcano erupted on May 8 sending a blast of superheated gas, ash and rock through the town. Thousands of barrels of rum stored in the city exploded. Ships in harbor were destroyed including the Canadian ship Roraima which had arrived only hours before. It was the worst volcanic destruction of the twentieth century.
The two survivors included a tailor near the edge of town who was severely burned and a felon who was put in solitary confinement in the prison dungeon that morning; he later toured with the Barnum & Bailey Circus as “The Sole Survivor of St. Pierre.” A ten year old girl witnessed the eruption and rowed a boat to safety but was knocked unconscious and found drifting at sea. Others on the outskirts survived with severe burns.
Today, rebuilt St. Pierre is a popular tourist destination. It has narrow streets running parallel to the hillside. One can see the ruins of 1902 St. Pierre on those streets. Clouds come and go over still-active Pelée, but it has been relatively quiet since 1929.
Click on photos to enlarge.
P.S. Wrecks of some 18 ships destroyed by Pelée still lie near St. Pierre making it a wonderful place to scuba dive. The Roraima, 103.6 meters long, is probably the best of these.