The destruction of St. Pierre

By Lennox Honychurch

At ten minutes past 8.00am on Thursday 8 May 1902, Morne Pelée, the volcano on Martinique, tore itself apart in a violent eruption and destroyed the city of St. Pierre, killing some 30,000 people in the process.

Less than thirty miles away, the people of Roseau (Dominica's capital) and southern Dominica stood in shock as giant clouds of ash rolled towards them and they heard great blasts of sound from across the channel that one official thought were perhaps the guns of naval warships: “There it goes again. Boom, boom, booo-m! It is not thunder and yet it seems to come from somewhere in the sky. Most extraordinary.” The streets of Roseau had been covered in ash since the night before. At Morne Rouge Estate, which faces Martinique, old Joseph Bellot told his labourers to put on their nightgowns, kneel in prayer and prepare for the end of the world. Meanwhile for the citizens of St.Pierre, their world had indeed ended.

The city that had been known as ‘the Paris of the Antilles’ had been swept from the face of the earth by a volcanic combination of heated gas, ash and rock traveling at over 100km an hour. It is an event that we now call a pyroclastic flow. The leaders of the city had for weeks been trying to convince the townspeople that it would not happen. There was to be an election that week and they were keen that all the potential voters would remain together in town. There was the Feast of Pentecost to celebrate. Even the Governor and his wife moved from Fort de France to St.Pierre to show everyone that there was nothing to fear.

The citizens were told that the tremors they were feeling had happened several times before over the past centuries; That the gray ash that was landing everywhere was good for the fertility of the soil; That St. Pierre was too far away from the mountain to be in any danger and that besides, there were two ravines between the city and the slopes of Pelée that would deflect the lava to the sea. But it was not lava that burst forth from the summit of Morne Pelée that day, it was the ‘burning cloud’, that ‘nue ardente’ that could leap over ravines, skim across water and destroy even the ships at anchor in the bay.

During the previous night the Administrator of Dominica, Hesketh Bell, had been woken by his police guard and was shown that the grounds of Government House on Victoria Street was being covered in fine gray ash. “I noticed that his dark-blue uniform was covered by a thick powdering of what looked like fine snow. I then saw that the lawn and the leaves on the trees were all coated with the same strange powder, and that the atmosphere was thick with it.”

At her home at the corner of Cork Street and Granby Street, now Independence Street, the 11-year-old Gwen Rees-Williams, later in life to be known as Jean Rhys, was taken to a window by her mother and was shown the glow to the south and the falling ash:

“My mother woke me and without saying anything led me to the window. There was a huge black cloud over Martinique. I couldn’t ever describe that cloud, so huge and black it was, but I have never forgotten it. There was no moon, no stars, but the edges of the cloud were flame-coloured and in the middle what looked to me like lightening flickered, never stopping. My mother said: ‘You will never see anything like this in your life again.’

For days before the catastrophe and for days afterwards small panic-stricken groups of Martiniquans were arriving in canoes, landing at the southern villages of Fond St.Jean, Cashacrou, Soufriere and Pointe Michel, seeking safety from the wrath of Morne Pelée and shelter in the face of the destruction of their homes at the fishing villages of Precheur, L’Anse Belleville and others nearby. Hesketh Bell tried to keep abreast of what was going on.

“About twenty-five men, who have come in canoes from the north end of Martinique were brought to me this morning. They report that the eruptions of Mont Pelée have been perfectly terrible…Fearing a speedy and horrible death, the people of this village groped their way down to the shore and, taking their canoes, crossed over to Dominica.” Some settled here and never moved back, like the two year old girl whose mother was killed by the volcano and who was brought by her father to Pointe Michel, where she lived out her days, dying there in 1991. A Martiniquan author has told the tale of such a crossing by a boy in his ‘ti’canot’ or ‘pwi-pwi’, in his novel “Ti’Koyo and the Shark.”

On the morning of the eruption, Dr.Henry Nicholls walked out into his garden at St.Aroment and collected samples of the volcanic ash to send abroad and to keep for posterity. He put a cupful into a small glass jar and it can still be seen today at The Dominica Museum. Down in Roseau two children, friends of Jean Rhys, were doing the same thing, pasting carefully written labels onto their jars: “Ash collected from the streets of Roseau on May 8th, 1902.”

Years later Jean Rhys remembered the mood of the people in the town, the ash and the silence. “Nobody talked in the street, nobody talked while we ate, or hardly at all. I know now that they were all frightened. They thought our volcano was going up…Our volcano was called the boiling lake.”

Since the day before, Administrator Hesketh Bell had given orders that a team should go to the Boiling Lake “to see whether it shows any unwonted signs of activity.” He had heard about some volcanic activity at Morne Soufriere on St.Vincent occurring at the same time, but he was not as well informed about what had been happening in Martinique. Just twenty-two years before, a steam, or phreatic eruption, in the area of the Boiling Lake had covered Roseau in ash and had caused alarm. This time it was not until the 9th May that the inspection party returned to Roseau to say that everything at the lake was in a normal condition.

The underwater telegraph cables connecting Dominica to Martinique and islands to the south had been cut the day before by earthquake activity. No ships had arrived here from the south. Dominica was totally without information of what had happened across the channel. It was the fishermen of Newtown and Roseau who brought the first news of the dreadful tragedy. “The Roseau fishermen went out very early, as they did in those days. They met the fishermen from Fort de France who knew.” remembers Jean Rhys, “That was how we heard before the cablegrams, the papers and all the rest came flooding in.”

Hesketh Bell, up at Government House, heard the wailing of the people of Roseau as the news spread. “I was dressing for dinner, just now, when I suddenly heard a terrible cry rise almost simultaneously from all parts of town. A moment later my orderly rushed in exclaiming, ‘Oh Sir! The whole town of St.Pierre has been destroyed today and everyone is dead.’ It made my blood run cold, and it seemed impossible to grasp such a fact.”

At his home on Cross Street, Dr. Daniel Thaly, the Dominican-born poet of the French Antilles, reflected sadly in verse on his happy days as a youth in St.Pierre, where he had gone to school at the lycee and had worked in the city library.

Once the news had sunk in, rumours swept through Roseau as they still do today in the wake of any catastrophe. “It was after this that the gossip started.” recalls Jean Rhys, “That went on for years so I can remember it well. St.Pierre, they said, was a very wicked city. It had not only a theatre, but an opera house, which was probably wickeder still. Companies from Paris performed there. But worse was the behaviour of the women who were the prettiest in the West Indies…And that wasn’t all. The last bishop who had visited the city had taken off his shoes and solemnly shaken them over it. After that of course, you couldn’t wonder.”

Hesketh Bell seems to have been hearing the same gossip: “All sorts of stories are, of course, being circulated in connection with this terrible catastrophe. St.Pierre always had a reputation in the West Indies, as being a very gay city, in which morals, among some sections of the population, were very lax…we are told that scenes of a sacrilegious nature were seen during the recent carnival…So incensed and scandalized by these occurrences was the bishop of St.Pierre that he is said to have left the city in indignation and to have foretold Divine punishment.”

The following month, on 18 June, Bell organized an excursion to visit St.Pierre aboard the local coastal steamer the Yare. Everybody who was anybody in Roseau society was aboard: Dr.Nicholls, Dr.Rees-Williams, Dr.Thaly, Sterns Fadelle, Judge Pemberton, members of the Legislative Council and Town Board. They arrived upon a scene of ruin and desolation; the bodies of the dead were still strewn around and smelling to high heaven. Clambering through the debris they searched for mementos of the disaster. Dr.Rees-Williams claimed a pair of large candlesticks that the heat had twisted into an extraordinary shape. Bell removed a porcelain image of the Virgin Mary from the clutches of a corpse, a statue that “the poor old creature had died clasping to her breast”, he observed. At the end of the day as the Yare sailed back to Dominica it was agreed that “the expedition had been an unforgettable and awe-inspiring experience” as had been the entire month of May.


     Mt. Pelée today