Tour Of The Caribbean – St. Pierre, The City That Was

The debonair, the adored city of Martinique, was swept off the earth by the fearful eruption of Mont Pele in the month of May 1902. The chronicles of the town, as well as the many views of it which survive, make it evident that St. Pierre was one of the most delectable abodes of men in the West Indies. It stood in a blue bay, along a beach bent like a bow, with green hills behind it and the towering mass of the awful mountain on its northern side.

There was one man at least for whom the ill-fated city had an irresistible fascination—Lafcadio Hearn—for he writes of it as one under a spell. To him it was ever ” the quaint, whimsical, wonderfully coloured little town . . . the sweetest, queerest, darlingest little city in the Antilles.” 1 No description of the place can be more vivid, more affectionate than that given by his pen. This is his account of the Grande Rue, the Rue Victor Hugo, and of the town generally :

” A bright, long, narrow street rising towards a far mass of glowing green. Not a street of this age, but of the seventeenth century ; a street of yellow facades, with yellow garden walls between the facades. In sharp bursts of blue light the sea appears at intervals—blue light blazing up old, old flights of mossy steps descending to the bay. And through these openings ships are visible, far below, riding in azure.

” Walls are lemon colour ; quaint balconies and lattices are green. Palm trees rise from courts and gardens into the warm blue sky, indescribably blue, that appears almost to touch the feathery heads of them. And all things within or without the yellow vista are steeped in a sunshine electrically white, in a radiance so powerful that it lends even to the pavements of basalt the glitter of silver ore.”‘

“Everywhere rushes mountain water—cool and crystal-clear, washing the streets ;—from time to time you come to some public fountain flinging a silvery column to the sun, or showering bright spray over a group of black bronze tritons or bronze swans. The Tritons on the Place Bertin you will not readily forget ; their curving torsos might have been modelled from the forms of those ebon men who toil there tirelessly all day in the great heat, rolling hogsheads of sugar or casks of rum. And often you will note, in the course of a walk, little drinking-fountains contrived in the angle of a building, or in the thick walls bordering the bulwarks or enclosing public squares ; glittering threads of water spurting through lion-lips of stone.

” Seen from the bay the little red-white-and-yellow city forms but one multi-coloured streak against the burning green of the lofty island. There is no naked soil, no bare rock ; the chains of the mountains, rising by successive ridges towards the interior, are still covered with forests.”‘

The town—as may be gathered—was built on rising tiers, mounting up the hillside. The higher quarters were reached by steep flights of steps, such as one sees in many an old Italian sea-town. These stone stairs did not lack for pretty names. One still to be found among the ruins was known as La Rue Monteau-Ciel. The streets were narrow because shade is comfortable. They were well paved and trim. Besides the substantial and imposing cathedral there were other churches in the town, a bishop’s palace, a convent, great military barracks, fine public buildings, and certain ancient forts. On the banks of the Roxelane river, with its many bridges, and in the suburbs beyond were bright painted villas and dainty gardens.

The town had been famous for its Jardin des Plantes ; it supported a large theatre and other places of amusement. Its chief joy, however, was the Place Bertin—an open promenade by the sea—where were the fountains Hearn describes, and where the gandins loved to disport themselves on high days and holidays. There was also the mouillage—the landing-place—where, from under the shade of trees, the idler could watch the rolling to and fro of casks, the hauling of ropes, and the unloading of ships. The city was prosperous and well esteemed, bustling with life, rippling with gaiety. It may be that it was a little prone to pleasure, and that it did not strive tediously after a high reputation for morality. If this be true, the same has been said of the gay and careless town of Pompeii.

The population numbered about 20,000, and the women of St. Pierre, while they were of the same engaging types as their sisters of Fort de France, are reputed to have excelled even them in handsome looks.

It was on May 8 that the town was destroyed. For many days before that date the great mountain had been showing signs of angry uneasiness. Strange clouds of cauliflower shape rose out of the crater. Terrible cannonadings were to be heard, while upon the city there drifted, from time to time, a haze of fine ash borne along by a hot and suffocating wind. On May 5 an avalanche of boiling mud, many acres wide, tumbled down from the volcano, and went roaring along the bed of the Riviere Blanche at the rate of a mile a minute. A large sugar factory was engulphed and some 15o lives lost. The torrent poured into the sea, throwing up fountains of steam, as if a lake of molten iron had been emptied into the deep.

The final cataclysm that struck the city with utter desolation took place at 7.52 on the morning of Thursday, May 8. It was witnessed by a cable-ship lying some miles out at sea, and by people who lived upon such neighbouring hills as were beyond the range of the destroying force.

Suddenly, without warning of any kind, the summit of the mountain seemed to open, and from the lurid rent there burst a violet-grey cloud, the forepart of which was luminous and brilliant. It was shot from the torn crater as a charge from a cannon. It struck the town with terrific force, and then spread out over the sea and the hills. Loud detonations were heard. The flames in the cloud, as it swept along, were whirled into eddies and twisted into spirals.

In a moment the whole of St. Pierre was ablaze from a thousand points. In another moment everything—the city, the near hills, the bay—was blotted out by an impenetrable black cloud of smoke and ash, which veiled the sun and hid the awful deed under the darkness of night.

Thus in a few seconds was a town swept off the face of the earth, and 30,000 people left charred and dead.

The force of the destructive blast must have been prodigious. Whole streets of houses were mown down by the flaming scythe. Walls three to four feet in thickness were blown away by the furnace blast like things of lath, while massive machinery was crumpled up as if it had been gripped and crushed by a titanic hand. The town was raked by a veritable tornado of fire, by a hurricane of incandescent dust and of super-heated vapour. It came down upon the ships in the harbour like a breaking wave, striking the Roddam broadside with such violence as to nearly capsize her. The bodies of all those who were found among the ruins were bare of clothing, the garments having been simultaneously charred and blown away by the withering wind.

The area of total destruction of life was about eight square miles, but outside this was an extensive district known as the ” singed zone.” Out of the eighteen ships in the harbour one alone escaped—the Roddam (page 127). She had only come in at 7 A.M. on that very morning, and had fortunately been ordered to the quarantine station some distance off.

The only human being spared the universal holocaust was a prisoner in the dungeon of the city jail, a negro named Augusta Ciparis. The dungeon—still to be seen—is on that side of the prison which is away from La Pelee. It was sheltered by a high wall and had itself a domed roof of stone and plaster. There was a heavy door to the small building but no window. An iron grating, some two feet above the door, alone admitted light and air to the cell. The account that Ciparis gave of his unparalleled experiences is told by Heilprin in the following words :

” He was waiting for his usual breakfast on the 8th, when it suddenly grew dark, and immediately afterwards hot air, laden with ash, entered his room through the door-grating. It came gently but fiercely. His flesh was instantly burned, and he jumped about in agony, vainly calling for help. The heat that scorched him was intense, but lasted for an instant only, and during that time he almost ceased to breathe. There was no accompanying smoke, no noise of any kind, and no odour to suggest a burning gas. Ciparis was clad at the time in hat, shirt and trousers, but his clothing did not take fire ; yet beneath his shirt the back was terribly burned. . . . For three days and more he was without food of any kind, and his only sustaining nourishment was the water of his cell.” It was not until Sunday, the 11 th, that he was liberated, his cries for help having been heard by two negroes who were hunting about among the ruins.

The state of the city immediately after the catastrophe can be well conceived from the numerous photographs taken at the time, and from the descriptions of those who were the first to enter the mangled streets. In the place of the busy, pleasure-loving town was a silent desert of stones and dust. Tier above tier the ruins mounted up to the scorched hills. The land around had been swept bare of everything that was green, for the whole mountain side—once as bright as a robe of many colours—had been shrivelled to one desolate tint of cinder-grey. The streets were blocked up with stones and stucco, burnt timbers, scattered tiles, fragments of iron railings, tree trunks turned to coal, and dead charred bodies lying, for the most part, face downwards. Over all was a soft veil of volcanic dust.

The cobble-stoned quay had been swept clean by the tide.

Those who first landed there found only a bare skull and a bundle of white ribs lying by the side of a ship’s steel hawser in its ring. One writer, who came to St. Pierre towards the end of May, expresses the state of ruin by saying, ” We seemed to be wandering through a city that had been blown from the mouth of a cannon, and not one that had been destroyed by any force of nature.” All this desolation, be it remembered, was the work of a few minutes.

Many buildings left erect after the visitation of May 8 were demolished by a second eruption of Mont Pele, which took place on May 20 at 5.15 A.M. This second outbreak was even more violent than the first. It happily involved no loss of life, but it completed the wreck of the city, leaving it as it is found to this day.