Mont Pelée

Franck Fernandez – translator, interpreter, philologist

The Antilles, which are east of the Caribbean Sea, are made up of the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles. The Lesser Antilles, in turn, are made up of an arch of small and very exuberant islands, of which I have the pleasure of knowing some of them. They range from Puerto Rico to off the coast of Venezuela. Some of them remain as overseas territories or foreign departments for their former colonizers. There we have the British Virgin Islands, the USA Virgin Islands, which the United States bought from Denmark at the beginning of the 20th century, Saint Barthélemy, which is divided between the Netherlands and France, and also Guadeloupe and Martinique, considered overseas territories and which enjoy the same conditions and laws of Metropolitan France.

The capital of Martinique is Fort-de-France, a relatively important city. To the north is another smaller one, Saint-Pierre and to the south Sainte-Anne. While the capital has always been Fort-de-France, the economic boom since the 19th century was seen most in the northern city, Saint Pierre, known as Little Paris of the Antilles. In Martinique, in the town of Les-Trois-Îlets, Josefina de Bouharnais was born, who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife.

Today, we will talk about the eruption of May 8, 1902, which destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre and caused the death of its 30 thousand inhabitants.

North-west of Saint-Pierre is one of the still active volcanoes of the Lesser Antilles, Mont Pelée. In French, Pelé means bare and the French called it Mont Pelée. The ancient aborigines of these islands, the Caribs, called it the Mountain of Fire and it is known that shortly before the French arrived to colonize Martinique, a major eruption had occurred. Proof of this was all the desolation they found in its surroundings, hence its name of Mont Pelée.

Known for a long time were the horrors of a great volcanic eruption: the human being remembered what had happened in Pompeii, the Icelandic volcano, Laki, which caused the loss of wheat crops with the glacial mini-season that it produced in Europe. Therefore, the bread scarcity and consequently of great increases in its price that led the Parisian people to the taking of the Bastille in 1789. Most recent, at the end of the 19th century, it was the explosion of the immense Krakatoa in Indonesia. It produced rare clouds that could be seen in the sky from London to the United States, in the antipodes of the place of the tragedy.

Since April 1902, Mount Pelée had been signaling that something was about to happen. Unlike earthquakes, volcanoes do announce themselves and a volcanic eruption never catches us off guard. It is always preceded by a whole series of warnings such as fumaroles, earth tremors, gas emissions. However, the island’s governor, Louis Mouttet, awaited the runoff of the elections to be held on May 12 in which he had all his political aspirations set. The symptoms of Mont Pelée were many: a cloud of mosquitoes came down from the mountain, as well as an autochthonous variety of a very poisonous snake, from whose bites several people died, fumaroles and gas emanations, earth tremors, a river of boiling water went down from the mountain, taking the life of the one he met on his way. However, the governor, in his power desires and to minimize the facts, called a “scientific” commission made up of some of the city’s notables and led by a teacher from the city’s high school. By order of the governor, they ruled that there was no reason to worry and the local press, also pressured by the governor, echoed these unwise conclusions.

Some wanted to flee due to the evident situation, but the governor sent the military to block the exit routes so that everyone was present on the day of the vote and thus be able to win his reelection.

On May 8, 1902 at 7:50 a.m., the inevitable occurred. A big bang followed by a pyroclastic flow. Only two people managed to save his life. One of them was imprisoned in one of the dungeons of the city jail. In the bay of the city, 15 merchant ships handled the sugar and rum trade that the city produced. They also succumbed.

Aid arrived from Fort-de-France at midday, but the heat was so intense that the ships that came from the capital only got close to the smoking remains of Saint-Pierre around three in the afternoon. The few survivors died soon after.

This shows us that while some natural disasters due to their foresight can cause less damage, stupidity, greed and the lack of foresight of men can lead to many losses to regret.

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