Reflections on the Mt Pelee's 1902
volcanic eruption, by Chris Doyle
Day the World Ended by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, 1969
Last Days of St. Pierre by Ernest Zebrowski, 2002
This first appeared in Caribbean Compass
With a postscript discussing La Catastrophe by Alwyn Scarth
St. Pierre 2008
Many years ago, I was delighted to buy a
second-hand copy of The Day the World
Ended by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. In those days it was hard to
find a good account in English of Mt Pelee's massive eruption on May 8th
1902 that destroyed the city of St. Pierre on the
. Nowadays, With Amazon.com, it is much easier, and since I had given away my
copy, I bought another, and along with it Ernest Zebrowski's The
Last Days of St. Pierre. Together they cost less than a modern paperback,
and I found them far more entertaining.
Both books read like novels. For
fast-paced excitement, you cannot beat The
Day the World Ended, which is a day-by-day account, starting on the 2nd
of May 1902 and ending on the 8th , that weaves into this time
several strong human interest
stories. It was written in 1969, 67 years after the eruption, when the authors
could still find a few people close to those times to interview. Zebrowski's
book was written in 2002, and is well researched, with the author spending time
, but is based more on historical documents. It gives a wider perspective,
detailing the eruptions that happened later that year, and follows in
fascinating detail the voyage of George Kennan, an American who visited
Martinique shortly after the eruption and couldn't wait to climb up and peer
into the crater of the very active volcano (it was making load roaring sound),
as a terrified populace was still fleeing the area. He also gives more details
on the almost simultaneous eruption of St. Vincent's Soufriere. Both books are
based on history, but written to be popular, including invented dialogue and
thoughts of their main characters.
About 30,000 people died during the
eruption, around a sixth of the total population of Martinique at that time.
When you think about this history, you have to start by imagining how
was at the turn of the century, not as it is now. Agriculture in the richly
verdant north end of
had, for many years, been the economic driving force of the island. It had
spawned over a dozen millionaire estate owners. By 1902, the profitability was
declining, though it was still hugely successful, especially in the production
and shipment of rum.
was the largest city in
and one of the largest in the
.The permanent population was
around 26,000 with many more temporary residents coming in to work. By
, the capital, had a population of about 17,000. Even Precheur, the small town
to the north of
, had in those days a population of over 5,000, about the current population of
today. Many more people lived in estates and villages surrounding
than do today.
St. Pierre, a busy, alive, and extremely
attractive city, had been called the "Paris
West Indies," with its theater and grand parties. The main artery for this city was the
waterfront; nearly everything and everyone came and went by boat. The road to
Fort de France was small and in poor condition. The same was true of the upper
road through the mountains. The main and fastest connection was the regular
ferry that ran between Fort de France and
. By the same token, rum and agricultural products were exported, and consumer
goods imported, directly by ship. When people went on vacation or business to
, they sailed on these same ships.
As May approached, coming elections had
become important to the establishment, as the status quo was being challenged by
black politicians. Amadee Knight, a
plantation owner, supporter of worker's rights and education, and a member of
the radical party, was already the elected senator representing
, and was the first black man to hold this post. The current election was for
the French Chamber of Deputies. The first round in a three-way race had resulted
in a narrow win for Fernand Clerk. Clerk, a member of the Progressive party, had
been selected because he was very liberal for the times, supporting many of the
same things as Amadee Knight. It was thought this would give him a chance
against the radical party. He was a rich white plantation owner, very much a
proper family man and church member, much too straight-laced for most his peers.
He was aghast at the prostitution, sailors' bars, and many other profitable
town ventures, and wanted to clean them up. But he was supported by the
establishment, which knew he would be easier to deal with than Louis Percin, a
radical socialist who was the runner-up. Joseph Lagrosillere, the socialist
workers candidate, received the fewest votes and dropped out. A run-off between
the two main contenders was slated for Sunday, May 11.
A man up to his neck in politics, who
would prove quite influential over the course of this history was Andreus Hurard,
owner, editor and publisher of Les Colonies, the main newspaper. Hurard was
determined that Fernand Clerk should win (although he was not overly fond of him
personally), and made it his mission to try to stop the volcano from interfering
with the election.
The man on whose shoulders the
responsibility for the population lay was the Governor, Louis Mouttet. Mottet
was self-made man who had married well, a career civil servant who had done his
time in less desirable locations, and who regarded
as the place he would like to stay for the rest of his career. He had only
arrived five months before the eruption and had a mixed reception. Amadee Knight
snubbed him, and considered him of no importance. He found Fernand Clerk rather
stiff, and was somewhat put off by his old-money upper-class status. He got on
well with Andreus Hurard, who was much more relaxed and had insight into the
politics and power of the colony. Had this personal chemistry between the main
players been different, it is possible things might have turned out better.
volcano comes to life
1902 was not the first time in human
had erupted. There had been a minor eruption in 1851; elderly inhabitants could
remember it well. Ash covered some areas of vegetation and then the volcano
became dormant again
Subtle signs of activity started as
early as May 1901 and Professor Gaston Landes, at the Lycee in St. Pierre, and
the most scientifically educated man on the island, had been watching it through
his telescope, recording wisps of smoke.
April the 2nd 1902
, it started belching clouds of steam and smoke, and the surrounding villages
were infested with snakes, rodents, and beetles that were driven out of their
mountainside habitat. A strong smell of sulfur became pervasive. On April 22nd
Landes notes some small earthquakes on his seismoscope, and the main undersea
cable line to Guadeloupe broke. On April 23 there was a sizeable eruption, with
tremors felt throughout the north end of the island, and when people awoke on
April 24, a layer of white ash covered everything.
In today's world this would have been
plenty of warning to initiate an evacuation. However, in 1902 little was known
about volcanoes. Those in
and the Pacific, which had been the most studied, erupted in a fairly
controlled manner, sending out a slow moving stream of red hot lava, which was
fairly easily avoided. Although explosive pyroclastic flows of the kind we have
had occurred within human history, they had not been well recorded, studied, or
even named. So, at this time, the
population was alarmed, but not yet sure how much of a threat this was. After
all, 50 years earlier, the volcano had obligingly gone back to sleep; they hoped
this would happen again soon.
And for while, things seemed to quiet
down, until April 28 when several rivers started overflowing their banks,
despite a complete lack of rain. On April 30 Landes noted several more
earthquakes and there were monstrous flash floods on the river Roxelane and
River des Peres, so sudden and severe that several washerwomen were swept away
and drowned. But the volcano was still quiet and people hoped that this had
released the pressure and marked the end of the activity.
May 1st started fine and clear, then
there was an eruption, followed by a fall of dust, and all was quiet again.
On May 2 there was both an eruption and
heavy rain. Zebrowski reports that ash fell so thickly in Precheur that they had
to light lamps to see. Thomas and Witts relate that on his day Laveniere, in his
estate four miles south of
, was swept away in a violent river overflow characterized by a lot of volcanic
The volcano erupted with even more force
on May 3, with violent earth tremors and bright lightning. Morne Rouge was ankle
deep in mud and the priest, Father Mary, had his flock in the church praying.
The ash fall reached Fort-de-France and, according to Zebrowski, Mouttet took
the regular ferry to
and then chartered a small boat to visit Precheur. He found some houses with
roofs collapsing under the weight of ash and a panicked population. He did his
best to reassure them, promising that, if things got worse, he would evacuate
them. He sent a telegram to the Colonial ministry in
, alerting them to the eruption. Many people living in outlaying areas under the
volcano abandoned their houses and fled to
, swelling the population.
At this point, Fernand Clerk started his
efforts to persuade people that they should evacuate
; that it was crazy to stay. Just after
on May 3 he assembled 12 of the town's most influential people and put his
case to them. They thought he was mad. Evacuation was insane. How could it be
done? Where would people go? Think of the interruption to commerce. In any case,
said the detractors, there were enough valleys between the crater and
that there was no way for lava to reach the town.
Amadee Knight, not wanting to side with
his political opponent, went around telling people that the volcano would only
quiet down when they voted the white progressive party out of power. That sounds
nuts, but when I sat for a week in St. Vincent watching the volcano erupt in
1979, I remember hearing the one of the clergy telling people on a radio program
that God sent the volcano because they had not been attending church enough, so
people do say these things.
Meanwhile Le Colonies had an upbeat
special edition written by Hurard which started "Yesterday the people of
were treated to a grandiose spectacle in the majesty of the smoking
volcano..." He let it be known that he thought there was no risk in the town, but that they
should welcome refugees from the hills. He finished by saying that they had to
postpone a planned trip to the crater, but would reschedule as soon as possible.
On Sunday May 4 people observed hundreds
of dead birds. The volcano had been rumbling all night, and ash reached
. Mouttet knew he would have to somehow take the situation in hand. Evacuating
would be almost impossible. There were not enough boats to move people out, the
road would not take sustained heavy carriage traffic. The healthy could walk
out, but they would have to leave everything behind where it would be subject to
looting, and there was no way to move the infirm.
, with its population of 17,000, could not accommodate 30,000 refugees; there
was nowhere to put them. As a first step, he decided to organize a commission of
experts to assess the risk. The committee was quite sanely put together. It
included Professor Landes and two other professors, the chief artillery officer
who could figure out how far rocks could be thrown, and the head pharmacist who
might know of toxic risks. There was only one problem; none of them really knew
about volcanoes. At that time, no one did.
In St. Pierre's cathedral that Sunday
morning, the acting head of the Catholic church, Monseigneur Gabriel Parel (the
bishop was on a retreat in France), announced to the public that the commission
was on its way, and that if they had enough faith in God, God would keep them
safe.Clerk felt particularly
discouraged, the whole world seemed to have gone mad and refused to realize the
danger. He had hoped, having failed to rally the civic leaders, the church might
help, but to no avail. He decided to get out of St. Pierre with his family and
go to his estate in Parnasse. However, when he got home he was met at his house
by several friends who were fleeing the volcano and begged to stay with him. He
decided to stay for the time being.
The influx of refugees was also causing
problems with robberies and general unrest. The telegraph cable to
DISASTER AFTER DISASTER
As you sail north out of
, a mile or two down the coast, you pass a plant that is mining sand and gravel
from the eruptions of 1902. However, in the morning of
May 5, 1902
this was the site of a large, prosperous and well maintained rum factory owned
by Dr. Auguste Guerin. It was at the mouth of a river called Riviere Blanche. It
was a big operation, employing over 200 people, and as the volcano was
misbehaving Guerin had been trying to harvest what he could of the sugar crop
before it was ruined. The rum factory was working flat out, but he was having
problems. Hordes of insects had fled down the mountain and were hindering his
operations, the river was flowing so fast spectators had come from town to
watch, and he was worried about the volcano. He had booked a passage to send his
on the Roraima on May 9. In addition, a friend's yacht, Le Carbet, was right
offshore and he advised his son and daughter in law to be ready to leave on the
yacht should anything happen.
Shortly after noon Guerin heard a noise,
looked up, and saw to his horror a giant avalanche roaring down the hill. In his
words:"A black avalanche,
beneath white smoke, an enormous mass more than 10 meters high and 159 meters
wide, full of huge boulders was coming down the mountain with a great din."
Guerin, who was on higher ground, narrowly escaped, but his family, who ran for
the coast died. In his words: "Three of those black waves came down, making a
noise like thunder, and made the sea retreat..." The desolation was
indescribable. Where a prosperous factory - the work of a lifetime - had stood
a moment before, there was now nothing left but an expanse of mud forming a
black shroud for my son, his wife, and my workmen." (Later it was found that
159 people had died and it was estimated that the avalanche reached 120 feet
At the same time this happened, and
possibly caused by it, there was tidal wave that swept into
. Fernand Clerk, who saw it coming, estimated it to be "nearly 50 feet high
and making the noise like the hissing of a million snakes." Zebrowski, treats
this lightly: "The damage to St. Pierre was minimal: one yacht sunk and some
cargo on the docks lost" Whereas
Thomas and Witts talk of widespread panic, warehouses being ripped from their
foundations and splintered, and quite a few deaths, including Emile le Cure, the
manager of a major bank, and two of his clerks.
It was unfortunate that about this time,
Mouttet, in Fort de France was, with great relief, reading the report from his
Commission on the Volcano; it concluded: "There is nothing in the activity of
Pelee that warrants a departure from St. Pierre." They concluded that the
position of the craters and valley opening onto the sea was such that "The
was absolutely assured."
Shortly after, he got a cable from his
garrison commander in
that seemed crazy. He talked about widespread panic, the tidal wave, and the
tragedy at the Guerin estate.
On May 6 the mayor of
had put posters all over town telling people they were not in danger. Mouttet
sent provisions by ship to
and Precheur, which was now effectively cut off from the rest of the island by
the Guerin avalanche that destroyed the road to
. Mouttet and members of his Commission visited the spot where the Guerin
factory had stood. It is here that things get bizarre.
As they stood overlooking the ruins,
they decided this did not really change the conclusions of their report.
was safe, the avalanche had probably relieved a lot of pressure from the
volcano, making it safer. This was wishful speculation. They had not expected
the Guerin disaster, and should by now have concluded that they had no idea what
might happen. Why did Professor Landes, the most knowledgeable of the group,
lend his name to this?Zebrowski
creates a scene in his book where he has real doubts, but offers absolutely no
evidence for this. Witts and Thomas make a telling point: The 18-page report on
an event that was threatening much of the population of the island, devoted
fully one third of its contents to the damage to the Botanical Garden in St.
Pierre, dear to Landes's heart. This was a man with his head either in the
clouds or buried in the leaves of his precious garden.
This is the moment Mouttet needed to act
if he was going to save most of the population of
. He didn't. He would have had to
use his own common sense and judgment, and gone against his commission, much too
risky a proposition for a decent man who was good career civil servant. Had the
commission decided differently he probably would have acted differently. But the
only person telling him to evacuate was Fernand Clerk, whose judgment he did not
For Mouttet, the evacuation of
was fraught with danger. There would have been huge dislocation, enormous
financial losses, and a massive problem of policing, housing, and feeding a mass
of refugees almost twice the population of Ford-de-France. Most of the powerful
were equally deluded in thinking there was little risk. If he evacuated and
nothing happened, it would be the end of his career. It is not surprising that
he did nothing.
But what about everyone else? People
were being told both by the mayor and by Les Colonies they were safe and to stay
put. Poor people and refugees did not have a lot of choice. They were getting
food here, how would they survive if they moved? Some accounts claim Mouttet
posted troops to stop refugees from fleeing south for fear of spreading disease
(some kind of pox had broken out), as well as fearing a spreading of theft and
Hundreds of people of means did get out.
The ferries were leaving full, and some families chartered boats. But most did
not want to leave their businesses and property.
On the morning of May 7 the volcano
continued to erupt. The final undersea telegraph cable broke.
's most important communication link was dead. The
captain of the ship Orsolina showed uncommon good sense. He abandoned taking
cargo and left against customs orders without clearance. He knew nothing about
volcanoes but could see the volcano was dangerous. He was in a minority; about a
dozen other ships stayed.
That evening Mouttet and his wife
arrived. According to Thomas and Witts, the mayor was to put on a huge governor's
ball that night, but when Mouttet saw the state of the town, some of it feet
deep in ash, he cancelled it. He had another meeting of his commission and again
they assured him
was safe. His presence had a calming effect on the population.
St. Pierre 1902 after the volcano
Sunday, May the 8th was
Ascension Day, one of the biggest and most important Church services of the
year. Fernand Clerk awoke and started to dress for the service. He heard a
strange burping noise from the volcano and went to check the barometer he kept
on the balcony. He could not believe his eyes, the needle was oscillating
wildly. He aroused everyone in the house and told them to leave at once for Fort
de France. He put his wife and four children in a carriage he kept waiting, and
fled for his estate in Parnasse.
Apart from all the residents, many
people had come from
for the church service. Quite a few people approaching
from the mountain road stopped when they saw something strange; a wind like a
mini-hurricane bent trees and broke branches around the summit. A glowing rock
stratum grew around the summit of the volcano. At this point Fernand Clerk
arrived at high speed in his carriage. He jumped out and pointed to his
barometer - it was stuck, it had broken when he pulled it off the balcony. A
big dark cloud covered the mountain and hid the sun. A glowing red ball grew out
of the side of
with a terrifying roar, then slowly detached itself and swept down on
The glowing red ball was a cloud of
superheated gas and steam, it set fire and destroyed everything in its path,
to rubble, and cremating most people alive. Around 30,000 people died,
including Governor Mouttet, Professor Landes, and Andreus Hurard. It moved into
the bay destroying the ships at anchor. One steamship, the Roddam, with horribly
burnt survivors, managed to limp away. A few survivors were later taken off
other burning ships.
In town there were two confirmed
survivors, a cobbler called Leandre, and the now famous Cyparis. Leandre must
have just got really lucky and been in a quieter part of the cloud in the
southeastern part of town. He was badly burnt, but unlike all those around him
and even those in his house, he survived.
was in the thick of the cloud, but he was in a heavy stone dungeon two floors
down in the police station. It was a few days before he was discovered.
According to Thomas and Witts, Cyparis, who was black, had murdered a white man
in a drunken brawl and been sentenced to be executed. In their book he was a
somewhat central figure, with the governor planning to pardon him just before
the election in the hope of helping Fernand Clerk.
Zebrowski is much more uncertain about
why Cyparis was there, and suggests it may just have just been a drunken brawl,
a popular story with tourist histories, though I would think his location, in
the only heavy stone dungeon in town, made a conviction of murder much more
likely.Zebrowski suggests he
may have asked to be there, because he had a fever and it was pleasantly cool.
That I find ridiculous.
In any event, he was hired by the Barnum
and Bailey Circus as an exhibit. Within a year he got drunk again and stabbed
and nearly killed one of the other employees, went to jail, and disappeared from
One of the more interesting and amazing
survivor stories is told by Zebrowski. The ferry Diamant had just landed its
passengers and was tied to the dock. The ship's boy, Jean Baptiste Innocent,
was on the quay. As he saw the firestorm approach he dived underwater and stayed
below as long as he could. While he was under, Diamant's boiler exploded and
it capsized. When he surfaced the whole town was on fire. He clung to a floating
plank and was rescued some 7 hours later.
The volcano continued to erupt for
months. An even worse pyroclastic flow finished off what little there was left
of the town.During the eruptions a
curious pinnacle formed, sticking hundreds of feet out of the volcano and
looking like a monument, it was called the Tower of Pelee, and eventually
crumbled. Some years after the eruption, people moved back into
and by 1929, when the volcano erupted again, there were a few thousand
inhabitants.This time everyone
evacuated without question; we live and learn. The eruption was not as bad in
1929, and St. Pierre was mainly spared and continues to thrive. It makes one of
the most interesting historical anchorages in the Caribbean. Apart from the
ruins, including Cyparis's dungeon, you can visit the little volcano museum,
which was created by Fernand Clerk.
I hope some of you will seek out the two
books mentioned, both are currently available at a bargain price through Amazon.
In them you will find a great wealth of intrigue, politics and romance.
History, like science, is based on
evidence, but unlike science, replication is not possible, so there is always
conjecture. The stories you will read in these books differ and are occasionally
contradictory.Thomas and Witts have
sections on prison riots, a voodoo uprising, and troops being posted to stop
refugees leaving, which are completely missing in Zebrowski. The evidence was
probably stories they heard. How true they were, we will never know.Zebrowski is a strong supporter of both Mouttet and Landes, this flavors
his narrative.Nowadays the accepted
truth is that there was no way anyone could really have known what was to
happen, so the disaster was inevitable. But,
a minority relied on their gut reaction to what they saw, and got the hell out;
they were right. If one of those was governor, would history have been
different? If so, was it really inevitable?
La Catastrophe by Alwyn Scarth
Since I wrote the above review I came
across another account: La Catastrophe
by Alwyn Scarth. This is also available from Amazon for a few dollars. It was
published in 2002. Whereas the other two authors were journalists, Scarth is an
academic (geography) and there is a lot to like in his book. He was more careful
with some sources and information, and has a much more academic approach to the
background. His sources for population came from the census of July 1901 and are
probably much more accurate than the other books. According to these, the
population of St. Pierre was 26,011, which corresponds with the other accounts.
But his population for Fort de France was much higher at 22,164.
He also gave a much better map of
salient features in St. Pierre, which gave me a rally good idea where the
survivor cobbler Leandre's house was (I had always wondered). It was close to
the center of town, but tucked right back under the hill. His survival was truly
Scarth's book is also proof that
academics can go off the rails at least as much, if not more, than journalists.
He vilifies Fernand Clerk, no academic
"Fernand Clerk's assertions were the
affirmations of a rather despicable politician out for short-term gain. Such an
individual would probably not greatly worry that he had done much to destroy the
reputation of an honorable man."
Take that you lying politician dog!
Except it is completely contrary to the very detailed picture painted of Le
Clerc in the other books, both of which portray Le Clerc as a man who, while
drafted into politics, was not particularly politically ambitious, who was very
straight-laced, and who really cared (as much as any planter did) for the
The reason for Scarth's ire is that
after the eruption, Le Clerc criticized the now late Mouttet for not considering
evacuation, and for doing his best to persuade people to stay put.
Scarth wrote: "Fernand Clerc's own
behavior does not stand scrutiny. He himself took no steps to save lives. He had
ample opportunity to publish his misgivings in Les
Colonies, the editor of which Marius Hurard, was one of his strongest
According to both other books, Fernand
Clerk did his best to start a movement for evacuation and was thoroughly
rebuffed. Also according to both other books, while Hurard did support Clerc for
the election, he was not overly fond of him, and they were diametrically opposed
on the question of the volcano and safety. There is no reason to suppose that
Hurard would have published such an opposing view.
But where Scarth really drinks the Kool
aid is his idea, expressed more than once, that those who saved themselves were
weak-kneed, panicky individuals, while it was the rational, clear-thinking
courageous people who got eaten by the inferno. Just one example:
"Thus at St. Pierre, the rational
people, with common sense and intelligence, saw less danger from the volcano and
died, whereas those who followed their gut reactions and panicked survived,
because Mount Pelee produced a weapon that defied all expectation and all the
logic that they knew"
To me, the contrarians, like Le Clerc,
and the captain of Orsolina were the true heroes. It was not that they were
irrational or panicky; it was that they took a good look at that mother of an
erupting volcano, and decided, quite rightly as it turned out, that it was
unsafe. This was not irrational; it was based on millions of years of evolution
that allows any one of us to make judgments about safety. This is true common
sense. There may be occasions where it makes sense to override these instincts
in the face of scientific knowledge. But this clearly was not one of them.
Science knew little about volcanoes in those days, and in any case there was no
scientist around to lend his voice, just Landes, the science teacher at the high
I stayed in Blue lagoon and watched a
more recent volcano in St. Vincent erupting for about a week. (After each
eruption, all of us sailors had to hunker below and close all hatches because of
the heavy downfall of ash. It was a big deck clean-up operation between
eruptions.) Having read these books I am not sure how smart that was (big surges
rolled round into Fort de France on 1902, it could have happened in Blue
Lagoon). But one thing I can tell you is that, if I had been anchored a just few
miles from the volcano, like St. Pierre was, say in Chateaubelair, there is no
way I would have stayed around, no matter who proclaimed it safe.