Early on the morning of the 8th of May 1902 the harbour front at Castries, the main town of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia was lightly touched by a thin drizzle that seemed to appear from a faultless sky. An iron steamer moved slowly into the channel. The sound of her engines was loud against the silence of the still sleeping town. Coming about, her engines stopped, and she let drop her anchor with a clattering roar into the still tepid sea. Her ropes appeared charred, the point burnt from her iron plates. The man at her helm appeared on the point of death, fainting, he clung to her wheel with hands burnt raw. There were on board some twenty-odd men, some were already dead, many were dying. Within minutes the Port Authority launch had come alongside. To the port officers who came aboard the Captain could only whisper “We came from hell.” His ship, “the Rodam”, was the only one to have escaped from the harbour of St. Pierre on the neighbouring island of Martinique, when Mount Pelée erupted.
The destruction of the town of St. Pierre in Martinique was the greatest single natural disaster which we have recorded in the Caribbean, and is reconstructed here from notes given to Dr. Sir Phillip Sherlock by Lately Thomas.
It was during the first week of April of 1902 that Claudette La Parde arranged to meet Charles César du Bochet on the eastern slope of Mount Pelée for the purpose of love-making. It was a clandestine affair. She, a mature matron of the town, he, hardly more than a boy. In the heat of their passion the earth seemed to move and the atmosphere burn; there was a smell of something smoldering and whiff of sulfur and brimstone. They, believing, that their love was the source of these manifestations, felt compelled to ever greater efforts. Later, as the sun slipped into the evening’s cool, they made their way back down to St. Pierre, noticing some vents and smoke holes and an even stronger smell of sulfur. All this was more than a little unusual, for the volcano had been asleep for a very long time. They naturally did not make a report, so there was nothing to alarm the people in the pretty little town of 30,000 souls that lay at the foot of the mountain. The sun had turned the sky to gold, which in turn reflected itself in the roadstead, circled by palm trees and sheltered from the boisterous trade winds by an embrace of low hills.
A couple days later, on April 23rd, there was an earthquake and a rain of cinders. Two days later Mount Pelée threw rocks and ashes in to the air. The mountain seemed restless. Claudette wrote a note to her lover, “Old Pelée is smoking again. Perhaps we started something.” The mountain was active for the first time in fifty years. A party of people who went up the mountain to the Grand Sec, a long dry hollow, found that it had become a lake six hundred yards wide with a cone fifty feet high. At one side, the cone issued a steady stream of hot water.
On the night of May 2nd, as Claudette La Parde paced her fruit gallery, anxiously waiting for her husband to leave for the Mason’s Hall, St. Pierre was shaken by a series of explosions. Flames shot from the volcano in great lightening flashes. The earth heaved with shock after shock. People grew alarmed, yet somehow, life went on all the same. The next day the mountain was quiet. Claudette complained to the baker that there were cinders in the bread!
The following day, fear grew again when news came that the Soufrière in St. Vincent was active. The fields around St. Pierre were beginning to show signs of the mountain’s power. One writer said that the soils, plants and houses were all covered with a grayish snow and that in the countryside there was a strange silence except for the animals which were restless, bleating, neighing and bellowing in despair. On Monday, May 5th, a terrifying thing happened. The sea drew back 300 to 400 yards from the shore, then flooded forward in a great wave and then quickly withdrew. A tsunami! Later the cause became known.
One wall of the Grand Sec, where the hot lake had been formed , collapsed and a torrent of boiling water and mud had rushed down the river bed, burying beneath it the ruins of the old section of the Guerin Sugar Factory at the mouth of the river, entombing Claudette and Charles Cézar where they lay. Their bodies would not be discovered for more than fifty years. The avalanche of boiling mud killed 130 people. The experts of the day concluded that the town was not in danger.
Yet, Wednesday continued to be a day of terror as people left the town in quantities in every possible means of transport. At the same time country folk from the villages and hamlets round about were pouring into St. Pierre for refuge. The local paper ran a headline “Where else better could one be than in St. Pierre”.
There was one sea captain who thought it was wise to get out. He was an Italian and his boat “Orsolina” was only half laden with cargo. The shippers protested when he said he was going. The Port Authority would not give him clearance and threatened him with arrest. But he set sail and left after telling them “I know nothing of Mt. Pelée, but if Mt. Vesuvius looked the way your volcano did, I would get out of Naples.” He left with the falling tide, leaving behind 16 ships. The only one to survive was the “Roddam.”
Early on the morning of May 8th there was an eruption at 7:25 am. An explosion which seemed to tear the heavens asunder. A black cloud turned the freshly made day back into night with a blackness so complete that people dropped to their knees, too frightened even to pray - within a few minutes, they were all dead. The earth quaked and buildings stumbled. The heat generated by the all-consuming cloud burnt everything, melting even the elaborate iron railings and causing the lead pipes to become liquid. A boiling rain dell. The inferno, spectacular, drew no description, for everyone was killed. With the streets melted, the town appeared to have slipped into the sea.
Those in Fort de France, the capital of Martinique, waited word from St. Pierre - in vain. At midday, a warship arrived to investigate. The heat prevented anyone from landing until 3 pm. Nothing, nobody was alive, not a tree, not a plant, not a human being. Burning ruins and corpses were everywhere. For three days, the rescue party worked. Only one man had escaped of all the 30,000 inhabitants of the St. Pierre.
If we read this survivor’s story in a novel, we would say that it was not true! Ludgar Sylbaris had been sentenced to imprisonment and had been locked in an subterranean dungeon without windows, with only a narrow grating in the door for ventilation. He was waiting for his breakfast when suddenly it became dark, and hot air mixed with fine ashes entered through the grating of the door and burnt him. He saw no fire, but his body beneath his clothes was bacly burned.
For three days, he kept moaning and calling, until some rescue workers heard him and released him. For several years he was an exhibit in Barnum and Bailey Circus in the United States - the only man who came out of St. Pierre alive.
Martinique's economy was affected by the catastrophe. Several displaced people came to Trinidad, and their descendants live among us.