Driving through the city of Saint Pierre, Martinique, you wouldn’t think it was anything special. It’s just a normal small town on this beautiful, French-Caribbean island. The stores and restaurants are scrunched together and crafted in the average European-Caribbean style. The Haitians call this style “gingerbread”… but here it’s so ubiquitous there is no special name. The sea is close, but nothing special. No glamorous beaches with beautiful people sunbathing as the palm trees sway and the waves gently glide
onto the shore. No, it really doesn’t seem remarkable.
But as the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover.
In one period, Saint-Pierre was considered the “Pearl of the Antilles.” It was THE place to be. Many elite members of French society lived there and it was considerably wealthy. They had the best the world had to offer – a world class theatre (that was rich enough to pay for the best French theatre troupes to travel there and perform), a magnificent
cathedral that was built in the 1600s, and access to the latest trends and fashions from Europe. What made Saint-Pierre so alluring was not so much the landscape but the land itself – being rich and able to produce wonderful, in-demand products like coffee, sugar, cacao, and vanilla. Therefore, they came in droves and they made the rather unassuming and homely town into a bustling, exciting city that truly had to be a sight to behold.
However, all good things must come to an end.
1902 was an election year. And as people in the U.S. are reminded right now – crazy stuff can (and does) happen during election years.
The elections for Martinique were arranged for May 8, 1902. Everything was in place. Campaigning had been fierce, ballots were ready, and local election officials were totally prepared to execute their duties. And then it happened. The volcano began… gurgling.
By gurgling I mean that it was starting to puff out some smoke and make some noise. It was obvious that something bigger was on its way. However, the question was: when? The government debated. Do we evacuate the towns in the north of the island before the elections (therefore postponing them and basically making all of our hard work moot – which would be especially awful it if took the volcano several weeks to erupt), or wait until immediately after elections to evacuate everyone in the north (therefore allowing elections to continue as planned and still (hopefully) keeping everyone safe)?
There were pros and cons to both options, and, unfortunately, either choice may end up with a negative political ramification. If they evacuate the people early and postpone the election, but the volcano doesn’t erupt for several weeks, the people would blame the government for wasting so much money. However, if they evacuate after the election but the volcano erupts before then… the government would certainly be blamed for that, too. It was a rock and a hard place, for sure. But, in the end, the government decided that the threat was not imminent and the elections should continue as planned.
No evacuations were made.
Not only that, but extra folks came into the city, just to prove to residents that it was completely safe. The local governor, for example, traveled to Saint-Pierre to vote in the election with his entire family in tow as a grand gesture. Hindsight is 20-20, I suppose.
At 8 AM on May 8, 1902, the volcano erupted and a pyroclastic flow descended on the town instantly killing everyone who was there. Yes, including the poor governor and his wife and kids. And with that, what was possibly the richest town in the Caribbean at the time, filled with celebrities, business moguls, and the like… was obliterated in mere minutes.
There was a survivor.
Now, apparently, there may have been more than one, but there was only one known survivor who was in the heart of the destruction.
His name was Louis-August Cyparis. And before May 8, 1902, he was somewhat well-known as the town drunk.
As the story (legend?) goes, Cyparis was drunk (again) and he was being a nuisance. So someone thought to throw him in the prison overnight to sober up. This act, strangely enough, saved his life. When the morning came and the volcano erupted, the walls
of the cell were so thick and the ventilation was just right that he survived. He did not escape untouched (he ended up with several burns on his skin), but he lived.
In fact, his story was so miraculous that he ended up traveling around with Barnum and Bailey circus in the States. Weird things happen sometimes.
But the rest perished. There was the church, for example, that was hosting their morning worship and was in the middle of their service of communion when the volcano erupted. It is estimated that approximately 400 people were trapped inside. Beyond that, most were just starting on their morning routine – eating breakfast, heading to work, tending to the livestock, visiting the local shops, and within minutes they were gone. 30-40 thousand people lived in Saint-Pierre at the time and all of them… gone.
In the wake of this tragedy, many people asked, “Why?” Why had God chosen to strike down this city – this grand and important city? Some speculated that it was a “Sodom and
Gomorrah” of sorts with too much sinning going on – drinking, prostitution, gambling, all that kind of stuff. That God couldn’t find one good thing about it so God decided to obliterate the whole thing. Of course, my theological mind doesn’t really agree with that line of theological thinking… but even if it did, it’s kind of difficult to follow that line of thought when the ONE person saved was the “town drunk.” Regardless, the question still seems to remain today, and in the aftermath of such a trauma, the “Pearl of the Antilles” never returned to reclaim its crown.
So there you have it: a brief history of the eruption of Mont Pelée in 1902 and the destruction of the town of Saint-Pierre. It’s an incredible story that I was lucky enough to explore and learn more about this weekend. The Caribbean is a fascinating place.