St. Pierre, Martinique, Annihilated By A Volcano
( Originally Published 1906 )
Fifty Thousand Men, Women and Children Slain in an- Instant—The Island Capital Obliterated—Molten Fire and Suffocating Gases Rob Multitudes of Life—Death Reigns in the Streets of the Stricken City—The Governor and Foreign Consuls Die at their Posts of Duty—Burst of Flame from Mount Pelee Completes the Ruin—No Escape for the Hapless Residents in the Fated Town—Scenes of Suffering Described—St. Pierre the Pompeii of Today-Desolation over All—Few Left to Tell the Tale of the Morning of Disaster.
BEHOLD a peaceful city in the Caribbean sea, beautiful with the luxuriant vegetation of a tropic isle, happy as the carefree dwellers in such a spot may well be, at ease with the comforts of climate and the natural products which make severe labor unnecessary in these sea-girt colonies. Rising from the waterfront to the hillsides that lead back toward the slopes of Mount Pelee, St. Pierre, metropolis of the French island of Martinique, sits in picturesque languor, the blue waves of the Caribbean murmuring on the beaches, the verdure-clad ridges of the mountain range forming a background of greenery for the charming picture. Palms shade the narrow, clean, white, paved streets; trade goes on at the wharves; the people visit in social gaiety, dressed in white or bright-colored garments, as is the fashion in these islands, where somberness seldom rules; all the forms of life are cheerful, light-hearted,, even thoughtless.
Suddenly a thrall of black despair is cast over the happy island. The city of pleasure becomes one great tomb. Of its 30,000 men, women and children, all but a few are slain. The Angel of Death has spread his pall over them, a fiery breath has smitten them, and they have fallen as dry stubble before the sweep of flame. A city is dead. An island is desolate. A world is grief-stricken.
And what was the awful power of evil that robbed of life 50,000 in city and neighboring villages almost in a moment? It was this verdure-clad Mount Pelee, their familiar sentinel, in the shade of whose sheltering palms they had built their summer resorts or found their innocent pleasures. It was this shadowing summit, now suddenly become a fiery vent through which earth's artilleries blazed forth their terrible volleys of molten projectiles, lava masses, huge drifts of ashes, and clouds of flaming, noxious, gaseous emanations to suffocate every living thing. Nothing could withstand such a bombardment from the exhaustless magazines within the vast chambers of the planet, no longer kindly Mother Earth, benign in the beauty of May-time, but cruel, relentless, merciless alike to all.
St. Pierre and the island of Martinique are no strangers to destructive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In August, 1767, an earthquake killed 1,600 persons in St. Pierre. In 1851 Mount Pelee threatened the city with destruction. St. Pierre was practically destroyed once before, in August, 1891, by the great hurricane which swept over the islands. The harbor of St. Pierre has been a famous one for centuries. It was off this harbor on April 12, 1782, that Admiral Rodney's fleet defeated the French squadron under the Comte de Grasse and wrested the West Indies from France.
St. Pierre was the largest town and the commercial center of the island It was the largest town in the French West Indies, and was well built and prosperous. It had a population of about 30,000. It was divided into two parts, known as the upper and lower towns. The lower town was compact with narrow streets, and unhealthy. The upper town was cleaner, healthier, and handsomely laid out. There was in the upper town a botanical garden and an old Catholic college, as well as a fine hospital.
Mount Pelee, the largest of the group of volcanic mountains, is about 4,400 feet high. It had long been inactive as a volcano, although in August, 1851, it had a violent eruption. It is in the northwestern end of the island, and near the foot of its western slope, fronting the bay, St. Pierre was built.
The Consuls resident at St. Pierre were: For the United States, T. T. Prentis; Great Britain, J. Japp; Denmark, M. E. S. Meyer; Italy, P. Plissonneau; Mexico, E. Dupie; Sweden and Norway, Gustave Borde. There were four banks in the city—the Banque de la Martinique, Banque Transatlantique, Colonial Bank of London, and the Crédit Foncier Colonial. There were sixteen commission merchants, twelve dry-goods stores, twenty-two provision dealers, twenty-six rum manufacturers, eleven colonial produce merchants, four brokers, and two hardware dealers.
The whole area of the island, near 400 square miles, is mountainous. Besides Mount Pelee, there are, further south and about midway of the oval, the three crests of Courbet, and all along the great ridge are the black and ragged cones of old volcanoes. In the section south of the deep bay there are two less elevated and more irregular ridges, one running southeast and terminating in the Piton Vauclin, and the other extending westward and presenting to view on the coast Mounts Caraibe and Constant.
The mountainous interior is torn and gashed with ancient earthquake upheavals, and there are perpendicular cliffs, deep clefts and gorges, black holes filled with water, and swift tor= rents dashing over precipices and falling into caverns—in a word, all the fantastic savagery of volcanic scenery, but the whole covered with the rich verdure of the tropics.
The total population of the island was reckoned at 175,000, of whom 10,000 were whites, 15,000 of Asiatic origin, and 150,-000 blacks of all shades from ebony to light octoroon.
Martinique has two interesting claims to distinction in that the Empress Josephine was born there and that Mme. de Maintenon passed her girlhood on the island as Franciose d'Aubigne. At Fort de France there is a marble statue of the Empress Josephine.
It was just before eight o'clock on the morning of Thursday, May 8, 1902, that the lava and gases of the crater of Mount Pelee burst their bounds and bore destruction to the fated city. Within thirty seconds perhaps 50,000 persons were killed, and the streets of St. Pierre were heaped with dead bodies, soon to be incinerated or buried in the ashes that fell from the fountain of flame. Within ten minutes the city itself had disappeared in a whirling flame vomited from the mountain, though for some hours the inflammable portions of the buildings continued to burn, until all was consumed that could be. The volcano whose ancient crater for more than fifty years had been occupied by a quiet lake in which picnic parties bathed, discharged a torrent of fiery mud, which rolled toward the sea, engulfing everything before it. The city was no more.
St. Pierre was destroyed, not by lava streams and not by showers of red-hot rocks, but by one all-consuming blast of suffocating, poisonous, burning gases. Death came to the inhabitants instantly. It was not a matter of hours or minutes. It was a matter of seconds. They did not burn to death. They died by breathing flame and their bodies were burned afterward. It is not merely true that no person inside the limits of the town escaped, but it is probably a literal fact that no person lived long enough to take two steps toward escape' These facts will go on record as the most astounding in the history of human catastrophes.
The manner of the annihilation of St. Pierre is unique in the history of the world. Pompeii was not a parallel, for Pompeii was eaten up by demoniac rivers of lava, and lava became its tomb. But where St. Pierre once stood there is not even a lava bed now. The city is gone from the earth.
The half-dead victims who escaped on the Roddam or were brought away by the Suchet, talked of a "hurricane of flame" that had come upon them. That phrase was no figure of speech, but a literal statement of what happened.
When the first rescue parties reached the scene they found bodies lying in the streets of the city—or rather on the ground where streets once were, for in many places it was impossible to trace the line between streets and building sites—to which death came so suddenly that the smiles on the faces did not have time to change to the lines of agony.
That does not mean death by burning, though the bodies had been charred and half-consumed, nor does it mean suffocation, for suffocation is slow. It can mean only that the bath of burning fumes into which the city was plunged affected the victims like a terribly virulent poison when the first whiff of the gases entered their lungs.
There were many of the victims who died with their hands to their mouths. That one motion of the arm was probably the only one that they made before they became unconscious. Others fell to their faces and died with their lips pressed into the earth. There was no time to run, perhaps no time even to cry out, no time to breathe a prayer. It was as St. Pierre had been just dipped into an immense white-hot furnace and then set out to 'cool. Mount Pelee went sputtering on, but that made no longer any difference. In the city all life was destroyed.
Every combustible thing was burned. Animal bodies, full of moisture, glowed awhile and then remained charred wrecks. Wood and other easily combustible things burned to ashes. On the ground lay the bodies, amidst heaps of hot mud, heaps of gleaming ashes and piles of volcanic stones. That was all.
That St. Pierre and the strip of coast to the north and south of it were burned in an instant was probably due to the first break in the mountain coming on its western side and immiediately above them, though the direction of the wind may have had a little to do with it. In this way one can understand how the mountain resort of Morne Rouge, where about 600 people were staying, escaped annihilation. Rocks and dust and boiling mud fell upon it, no doubt harming it, but they did not destroy it, for it was out of the pathway of the first awful blast.
For days after this most awful of blasts, beginning indeed immediately after the first explosion, Mount Pelee continued sending down lava streams in many directions. They filled the ravines and followed river courses and made their way to the sea. They did great destruction, but most of the inhabitants in their course had some chance at least to escape.
From Le Precheur around the northern end of the island, to Grande Riviere, Macouba, and Grande Anse, directly across the island from St. Pierre, the lava was flowing. Great crevasses opened from time to time in the hills. The earth undulated like waves. Rivers were thrown out of their courses by the change in land levels. In some places they submerged the land and formed lakes. In other places they were licked up by the lava that flowed on them and turned them to steam.
Constant rumblings, thunder and lightning storms made the surroundings so terrible that many persons actually died of fright.
The West Indian newspapers printed just before the day of the great eruption, and received in foreign countries after the catastrophe, serve to give a graphic picture of the situation in St. Pierre as it was before the outer world knew of the threat of danger. To them, and the letters written and mailed to foreign correspondents before the fatal day, we owe the clear idea of what was going on.
The Voice of St. Lucia, printed at Castries, had this story on May 8 of the days preceding the destruction of St. Pierre:
"Mount Pelee began to show signs of uneasiness in the last days of April. On the 3d inst. it began to throw out dense volumes of smoke, and at midnight belched out flames, accompanied by rumbling noises. Flames were again visible at half-past five o'clock the next morning, and similar noises were audible. At the foot of Mount Pelee are the villages of Precheurs and Ste. Philomene. The inhabitants were thrown into great consternation by the sights and sounds, and especially by the darkening of the day by volumes of thick smoke and clouds of ashes, which were falling. There was an exodus from all over the district.
"St. Pierre was on the morning of May 3 covered with a layer of ashes about a quarter of an inch thick, and appeared as if enveloped in a fog. The mountain was wrapped in the smoke which issued from it. The greatest anxiety prevailed, and all business was suspended.
"A very anxious morning was passed on the island May 4. Thanks, however, to a sea breeze, the situation appeared bet-ter at eleven o'clock, but as the breeze died away at sunset, ashes again began to fall, and the mountain and its environs presented a most dismal spectacle, causing much alarm as to what the night would bring forth. Nothing happened, how-ever, and on Monday morning May 5, although everything was not quite serene, the aspect was decidedly encouraging. Less excitement was visible.
"At about nine o'clock on the morning of the 6th a private telegram came from Martinique, stating that the Plissonneau family had chartered the steamer Topaze, one of the boats of the Compagnie Girard, and had started for St. Lucia. At about eleven o'clock the Topaze arrived with Mrs. Plissonneau, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Plissonneau and three children, Mrs. Pierre Plissonneau and child, and others.
"They report that at noon on Monday a stream of burning lava suddenly rushed down the southwestern slope of the mountain, and, following the course of the Riviere Blanche, the bed of which is dry at this season of the year, overwhelmed everything which obstructed its rush to the sea. Estates and buildings were covered up by the fiery wave, which appeared to rise to a height of some twenty feet over an area of nearly a quarter of a mile. When the torrent had poured itself into the sea, it was found that the Guerin sugar factory, on the beach, five miles from the mountain and two from St. Pierre, was imbedded in lava. The burning mass of liquid had taken only three minutes from the time it was first perceived to reach the sea, five miles away.
"Then a remarkable phenomenon occurred. The sea receded all along the western coast for about a hundred yards and returned with gentle strength, covering the whole of the sea front of St. Pierre and reaching the first houses on the Place Bertin. This created a general panic, and the people made for the hills. Though the sea retired again, without great damage being done ashore or afloat, the panic continued, intensified by terrible detonations, which broke from the mountain at short intervals, accompanied with dense emissions of smoke and lurid flashes of flame.
"This was awful in daylight, but, when darkness fell, it was more terrible still, and, at each manifestation of the volcano's anger, people, in their nightclothes, carrying children, and lighted by any sort of lamp or candle they had caught up in their haste, ran out into the dark streets, wailing and screaming, and running aimlessly about the town.
"The mental strain becoming unendurable, the Topaze was got ready, and the refugees hurriedly went on board and started for St. Lucia. In the afternoon the gentlemen of the party, having placed their families in safety, returned by the Topaze to Martinique.
"In the meantime, telegrams were being sent from Martinique, imploring that a steamer be chartered to bring away terifled people from St. Pierre. But the superintendent of the Royal Mail company, at Barbados, would not allow one of the coasting boats, the only steamer available, to go to Martinique. At a little before five o'clock in the afternoon cable communication was interrupted and remains so."
Martinique mails, forwarded just prior to the disaster, arrived in Paris on May 18. The newspapers printed a number of private letters from St. Pierre, giving many details of events immediately preceding the catastrophe. The most interesting of these was a letter from a young lady, who was among the victims, dated May 3. After describing the aspect of St. Pierre before dawn, the town being lit up with flames from the volcano, everything covered with ashes, and the people excited, yet not panic-stricken, she said:
"My calmness astonished me. I am awaiting the event tranquilly. My only suffering is from the dust which penetrates everywhere, even through closed windows and doors. We are all calm. Mama is not a bit anxious. Edith alone is frightened. If death awaits us there will be a numerous company to leave the world. Will it be by fire or asphyxia? It will be what God wills. You will have our last thought. Tell brother Robert that we are still alive. This will, perhaps, be no longer true when this letter reaches you."
The Edith mentioned was a lady visitor who was among the rescued. This and other letters inclosed samples of the ashes which fell over the doomed town. The ashes were a bluish-gray, impalpable powder, resembling -newly ground flour and slightly smelling of sulphur.
Another letter, written during the afternoon of May 3, says:
"The population of the neighborhood of the mountain is flocking to the city. Business is suspended, the inhabitants are panic-stricken and the firemen are sprinkling the streets and roofs, to settle the ashes, which are filling the air."
The letters indicate that evidences of the impending disaster were numerous five days before it occurred.
Still another letter says: -
"St. Pierre presents an aspect unknown to the natives. It is a city sprinkled with gray snow, a winter scene without cold.
The inhabitants of the neighborhood are abandoning their houses, villas and cottages, and are flocking to the city. It is a curious pell-mell of women, children and barefooted peas-ants, big, black fellows loaded with household goods. The air is oppressing; your nose burns. Are we going to die asphyxiated? What has to-morrow in store for us? A flow of lava, rain or stones or a cataclysm from the sea? Who can tell? Will give you my last thought if I must die."
A St. Pierre paper of May 3 announces that an excursion arranged for the next day to Mount Pelee had been postponed, as the crater was inaccessible, adding that notice would be issued when the excursion would take place.
An inhabitant of Morne Rouge, a town of 600 inhabitants, seven kilometers from St. Pierre, who was watching the volcano at the moment of the catastrophe, said that there were seven luminous points on the volcano's side just before it burst.
He said that all about him when the explosion came, there was a terrible suction of air which seemed to be dragging him irresistibly toward the mountain in spite of all his resistance. The volcano then emitted a sheet of flame which swept down toward St. Pierre. There was no sharp, distinct roar of explosion as when a great cannon is fired, but only awful jarring rumblings.
He thought that the entire outburst that did all the work of havoc did not last more than thirty seconds. Then there was complete darkness for ten minutes, caused by the dense volumes of sulphurous smoke and clouds of dust and shattered rocks. The entire country all about St. Pierre was turned into a chaotic waste All the trees were either torn up by the roots or snapped off, to lie level with the ground.
The outlines of the town but imperfectly remained. The tangle of debris was such that after the rescuers came, it was with difficulty that the course of streets could be followed.
In spite of the horrible surroundings, and the universal wave of human sympathy which had been evoked, looting began almost as soon as relief. As soon as it was possible to land, ghouls began to rob the bodies of the victims. The monsters plied their nefarious trade in small boats. Skimming along the shore they would watch for an opening when troops and rescue parties were elsewhere, then land, grab what they could, and sail away again.
The United States government tug Potomac, while on her way to Fort de France with supplies from San Juan, Porto Rico, overhauled a small boat containing five negroes and a white man. Something in the appearance of the men excited the suspicions of the commander of the Potomac, Lieutenant McCormick, and he ordered them to come on board. When they were searched, their pockets were found to be filled with coin and jewelry. Rings in their possession had evidently been stripped from the fingers of the dead. Lieutenant McCormick placed them all under arrest, and later turned them over to the commander of the French cruiser Suchet for punishment.
Thus it was that no detail of grewsome horror was lacking to make the shocking tale of the destruction of St. Pierre complete.
The hour of the disaster is placed at about eight o'clock. A clerk in Fort de France called up another by telephone in St. Pierre and was talking with him at 7:55 by Fort de France time, when he heard a sudden, awful shriek, and then could hear no more.
"The little that actually happened then can be briefly, very briefly told," says W. S. Merriwether, the New York Herald correspondent. "It is known that at one minute there lay a city smiling in the summer morning; that in another it was a mass of swirling flames, with every soul of its 30,000 writhing in the throes of death. One moment and church bells were ringing joyful chimes in the ears of St. Pierre's 30,000 people—the next the flame-clogged bells were sobbing a requiem for 30,000 dead. One waft of morning breeze flowed over cathedral spires and domes, over facades and arches and roofs and angles of a populous and light-hearted city—the next swept r lone mass of white hot ruins. The sun glistened one moment on sparkling fountains, green parks and fronded palms—its next ray shone on fusing metal, blistered, flame-wrecked squares and charred stumps of trees. One day and the city was all light and color, all gayety and grace—the next its ruins looked as though they had been crusted over with twenty centuries of solitude and silence."
St. Pierre was a vast charnel-house. Skirting for nearly a league the blue waters of the Caribbean, its smoking ruins became the funeral pyre of 30,000, not one of whom lived long enough to tell adequately a story that will stand grim, awful, unforgotten as that of Herculaneum, when the world is older by a thousand years.
St. Pierre was as dead as Pompeii. Most of her people lay fathoms deep in a tomb made in the twinkling of an eye by the collapse of their homes, and sealed forever under tons of boiling mud, avalanches of scoria and a hurricane of volcanic dust.
Over the entombed city the volcano from a dozen vents yet poured its steaming vapors in long, curling wreaths, that mounted thousands of feet aloft, like smoking incense from a gigantic censer above the bier of some mighty dead.
Such was the disaster which burst upon the hapless people of the island of Martinique, while almost at the same moment a sister isle, St. Vincent, was suffering a kindred fate. Similar in natural conditions, these two little colonies of the West Indies, one French and one English by affiliation, underwent the shock of nature's assault and sank in grief before a horror-stricken world.