Rue de Saint-Pierre Photograph by J. Murray Jordan, 1898. © Library of Congress
SAINT-PIERRE BEFORE 1902
The town of Saint-Pierre, founded in 1635 and located on the sea routes between Europe and the Americas, was the colony’s principal trading centre and warehouse. Despite its vulnerable natural harbour and lack of port facilities, it remained an attractive destination due to its dynamism. The shipping agents, merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, employees and workers who congregated there mingled with the migrant and seagoing population to form a picturesque urban society.
In the late 19th century, Saint-Pierre declined economically and experienced the social mutations prompted by the definitive abolition of slavery in 1848 and the creation of the 3rd Republic a generation later.
Public debate thrived, fuelled by the declaration of universal manhood suffrage and the development of the press, represented by Les Antilles, Les Colonies and La Défense coloniale. Divergent interests crystallised in the 1880s when the secularization of education became a controversial issue. In the late 19th century, the Church was in crisis and as elections approached the town became a theatre for fierce partisan struggles.
The Cathedral. The Sunday Before the Catastrophe. Postcard, Cunge, 1902. Fondation Clément, coll. Loïs Hayot, C014.01.227
THE 1902 ERUPTION
Martinique was no stranger to devastating earthquakes, tidal waves and hurricanes. In 1902 the legislative election campaign was in full swing when Mount Pelée began to show obvious signs of activity, fifty years after it had last manifested itself. The volcano had come to be regarded as “just one more curiosity of Martinique’s natural history”.
Between the election’s first and second ballots disaster victims began arriving in Saint-Pierre from Le Prêcheur and the surrounding area, and curious inhabitants went to see the lake that had formed at Étang Sec. Life in the town became difficult and business slowed almost to a standstill. The number of passengers embarking for Fort-de-France increased daily, the schools closed and events reached a paroxysm on 5 May when a mudflow engulfed the Guérin factory at the mouth of the Rivière Blanche. Public opinion was split between incredulity, anxiety and fatalism. A commission charged with “studying the nature of the irruption” was appointed on 7 May, composed of an artillery officer, the pharmacist of the colonial forces, a civil engineer and two natural science teachers at the lycée.
Saint-Pierre from Morne d'Orange after 8 May 1902 Photograph, Fabre, 1902 Fondation Clément, coll. Marcel Hayot, C033.0324
Those who witnessed the irruption on 8 May 1902 described a deafening explosion followed by a violent squall, a dark cloud of gas and vapour traversed by rolling sheets of lightning then a deluge of rocks and scalding mud. In a minute, the cloud reached Saint-Pierre, igniting the town and the ships at anchor offshore.
The west side of Mount Pelée was devastated from Le Prêcheur to Petite Anse du Carbet. All buildings in the central zone were destroyed. There was no trace of a living soul. Utter chaos, uncertainty as to population movements preceding the catastrophe and the probable overestimation of the number of inhabitants in the 1901 census made it difficult to assess the number of victims, roughly estimated at 28,000. Although this number now seems exaggerated, it was enormous on the scale of the island.
3,400 survivors trapped at Le Prêcheur were evacuated by sea on 10 and 11 May, while the exodus of the island’s northern population continued with each successive eruption. Some 20,000 refugees flocked to Fort-de-France.
Les nouveaux villages. Fonds-Lahaye. Maisons construites pour les sinistrés Carte postale 1902 Fondation Clément F014.02.103
After Saint-Pierre’s annihilation, the island’s economic and trading centre shifted to its administrative capital, Fort-de-France. The catastrophe, and even more the memory of it, may well have accelerated a trend already apparent in the late 19th century.
As a new population gradually settled there and Saint-Pierre’s territory became part of the commune of Le Carbet in 1910. The town regained its administrative autonomy in 1923 and the census four years later registered 3,250 inhabitants. With a mixture of resilience, recklessness and courage, life slowly returned to normal and the threat posed by the volcano became an increasingly distant memory.
The ruins attracted inquisitive travellers. Tourism was still reserved for the wealthy and a mainly American pursuit. Objects found as the site was cleared, derisory and priceless testimonies of a lost world, often found their way into private collections or were kept by families. The reality of the annihilated town gradually dissolved into the myth created by the nostalgia of those who had once known it.