Volcanoes that left their mark: Mont-Pelée, Martinique


Martinique is an island of about 1,100 square kilometers, therefore smaller than Gran Canaria and also flatter. Its highest height is the volcano that we are going to visit and it does not reach 1,400 meters. It is also greener and rainier and has a population of about 400,000 inhabitants with a standard of living similar to that of the Canary Islands. It was Spanish. It ‘discovered’ and conquered Columbus, then French in 1635, for a time English and returned to France, of what is now an outermost region in the EU.

Its history and society are closely linked to slavery. France wiped out the Carib Indians who originally populated the island (they say they cursed their rulers: The Mountain of Fire will avenge us) and replaced them with Africans who worked in the sugar mills and who staged some revolts to free themselves in the manner of those of Haiti, but without success. We can add that the Carib Indians had fared somewhat better with the Spanish as rulers. All this has left a clear mark on the typology of its inhabitants.

Among my visits on Saturday is in Fort-de France a house-museum of the Creoles who controlled the island in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a colonial-style building, largely made of wood, with furniture and decoration typical of the fashion of the French Empire. Curious no more. And there is not much else for tourists except the island itself, of splendid nature that invites you to know it.

Fort-de France is the city where he was born, it is the most famous Creole character on the island, Josefina Rose Tascher de la Pagerie (1763-1814), better known as Josefina Bonaparte, empress of the French and ancestor of the current kings from various European countries (all Nordic countries and Belgium). However, she is not much loved here because she and her family were staunch defenders of slavery and managed to prevent the laws passed after the French Revolution from being applied to end this hateful practice. Despite this we see in the city a statue that remembers it. I add a family affair: Josefina had been previously married to the knight of Beauharnais, from whom she divorced and who ended up guillotined. We know that Napoleon divorced her and married Maria Luisa of Austria and that the latter, when her husband was sent to Saint Helena, soon replaced him in her bed with Count Adam Albert von Neipperg with whom she had three children. Later, she still wanted, after Neipperg’s death, she married Count Carlos René de Bombelles. Makes for a good TV show.

In a rented car on Sunday we approached the north of the island where are the ruins of the town of San Pedro (Saint Pierre) that was razed on May 8, 1902. We have many accounts of what happened. I take from B. Booth and F. Fitch the main of the following: Since February 1902 the inhabitants of the area had begun to notice the smell of sulfur, small earthquakes, underground noises and other symptoms that the volcano of neighboring Mont Pelée, he’s seven kilometers away, he was waking up. On April 25, a large explosion occurred and began to emit incandescent ash. The matter went to major but the population of St. Pierre did not understand that they were in serious danger. At that time, it was a city of 28,000 inhabitants with a dynamic port through which production from the north of the island was imported and exported.

On May 2, things got serious and a huge black column of ash and incandescent material formed on the top of the mountain between great detonations. People began to pray, but did not think of evacuating the place and not even the ships that were anchored in the port left it.

The following days were calm, and on May 7, the authorities issued a statement: “According to the observations made, the intensity of the volcano is palpably decreasing. This morning the height of the ash column was only 2,400 meters, while on Sunday night it was about 5,200 meters. Many tourists have gone to visit the crater.

One of the technicians in charge of monitoring the eruption declared: “In my opinion, Mont Pelée does not represent a greater threat to Saint Pierre than Vesuvius does to Naples.” Naturally that was enough to alarm the population who began to build barricades to take refuge, but the governor was encouraged to visit the volcano. Never came back”.

On May 8, at 7:50 a.m. a huge explosion was heard, a very high cloud of pyroclasts rose over the volcano, collapsing under its own weight and becoming a fiery flow that, like a powerful wave, descended from the top from the mountain to St. Pierre, devastating everything in its path. He killed all the inhabitants of the city and the crew of the ships that anchored in the port, except for Augustus Cyparis, imprisoned in an underground cell for having participated in a street brawl. He was the only one among 30,000 people who was able to escape the volcano’s flow.

Today we call volcanoes fighters that present a similar typology and are considered very dangerous.

We have reached a car park where the road that goes up to Mont Pelée ends. You have to keep walking 200 or 300 meters to get to the top. The mountain does not keep signs of that centennial explosion and there is really nothing more than the ‘morbid’ that advises to climb there.

The ruins of Saint Pierre on the coast under the volcano can be visited, they do not have any charm, and we also see the cell in which Augustus Cyparis was saved. This character made a living by exhibiting in a circus in the United States as “the only survivor of the Mont Pelée volcano.” During the visit, lost the impression of how close in time, I did not find anything of interest.

Near the city, on a beach not frequented at that time, we dined on a grilled lobster in which I can’t find the flavor that those from the Canaries have. It is probably a symptom of homelessness.

The explosion had another unexpected consequence. Around the same time, the United States had taken over the ownership of the Panama Canal and had appointed a commission (the Walker Commission) to study the most reasonable route: crossing the isthmus of Panama or taking advantage of Lake Nicaragua in that country. Naturally, important economic interests were involved in one or another option. The supporters of the isthmus took advantage of the explosion of Mont Pelée to ‘bring the ember to their sardine’, claiming that the Momotombo volcano in Nicaragua posed a great danger. The hysteria that led to the aforementioned explosion (even Georges Méliès made a catastrophic film about the volcano) tipped the balance and that is why we now have the Panama Canal and not the Nicaragua Canal.

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