By Guest Lecturer Sandy Cares
In 1902, Saint-Pierre, Martinique boasted the height of French culture and fashion. The town exported rum, bananas and tropical flowers from its bustling port. Fresh mountain water gushed down gutters engineered to wash the streets. A robust public market, a tram system employing female conductors, an opera theater with a resident troupe and even a psychiatric clinic all fostered a Parisian lifestyle four thousand miles from France. A climate that scoffed at glass windows made Saint-Pierre a tourist destination for both American and European travelers.
But in early May of 1902, looming Mount Pelée hurled forth a cloud of gases accompanied by an incandescent explosion over the town and into the harbor, heading toward Saint-Pierre, just four miles away. In geologic terms, that distance only took a minute to cross with hurricane speeds up to 400 miles per hour and temperatures reaching 2,000º Fahrenheit. In three minutes, 30,000 lay dead along its destructive path.
Visiting this site today is akin to an experience at Pompeii. Modern Saint-Pierre is built over the burnt out remains of old Saint-Pierre. The ruins of the opera theater and prison cell serve as grave reminders of the many victims. The cathedral where people sought refuge in vain has been restored, and a modern volcano museum houses the original church bell that folded and cracked from the heat. The hospital clock stopped at ten minutes to eight, the fateful moment on that morning of May 8, 1902.
At the edge of the sleepy village of 5,000, a modern memorial decorates the view of Mount Pelée, its top perpetually hidden by clouds. A fortunate thing, according to local legend, which says that when the clouds disappear from Mount Pelée is the day it will erupt again.
Join me in the Caribbean this fall or winter for more fascinating history and culture
throughout the region: