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26 June, 2013
The Great Republic by the Master Historians|
Martinique and St. Vincent
by Bancroft, Hubert H.
|Saturday, May 10, 1902, will long figure as a day of terror and horror in the
news of the world, and notably in the United States. The press report of the
matter exceeded in horror any story of battle ever told:
St. Pierre, the principal city of Martinique, the gem of the Windward Islands,
has been blotted out under a storm of fire and avalanches of molten rock and
With a population of upward of 25,000 persons, the city has been totally
destroyed, and the survivors are reported to number less than two score, nearly
all of them burned, wounded, and suffering awful tortures.
Loss of life in Morne Rouge, and other neighboring towns and parishes, it is
feared, will swell the death list to the appalling total of 40,000.
No such calamity has been chronicled in recent times. For anything approximating
a parallel in horror and in the extent of the disaster one must hark back to the
fate of cities of the plain or to the doom of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Even
under that historic outpouring from Vesuvius the loss of life was probably not
so great as that which occurred on Thursday in the sun-kissed little island of
Mount Pelee, a great volcano, long ago believed to be extinct, suddenly awoke
from the sleep of many years. Out of the mouth of the treacherous crater, around
which nestled the summer villas and the pretty homes of the wealthier of the
French West Indian residents, suddenly belched smoke and flame. Then, like the
discharge from a Titanic gun, the whole crest of the mountain leaped thousands
of feet into the air, and from the awful caldron's mouth poured down rivers of
fire, swallowing up everything that lay in their path to the sea.
Torrents of red-hot ashes buried the country road about for miles, covering it
as the blizzard blankets the earth in January. Groves, orchards, towns, and city
burst into flame under the shower of death, and even the shipping in the
roadstead of St. Pierre had no time to up anchor and get to sea.
The Roraima, of the Quebec line, which sailed from New York on April 26th, was
lost, and it is believed that all on board perished. Most, if not all, of her
passengers from the north had disembarked previously at other ports.
Of the officers and crew of the British steamship Roddam nearly all are reported
dead or dying. The supercargo and ten men leaped into the sea and went down as
the storm of fire enveloped them.
The Island of Martinique is a French possession and belongs to the Windward
group of islands and is about thirty miles southeast of Dominica, and twenty
miles north of St. Lucia, has an area of 381 square miles, and a total
population of 187,692, only about 25,000 of whom are whites. Although St. Pierre
is the largest town, the seat of the government is at Fort Royal, sometimes
called Fort de France, which has a population of about 16,000. The disaster now
reported is not the first which has occurred on the island.
It was visited in 1667, and history records that 16,000 perished. The disaster
now recorded is perhaps the most appalling of the last 125 years, keeping in
mind however the loss of 200,000 brown men on the coast of Sumatra and
surrounding islands in 1885, when Krakatoa blew up, and the damage wrought in
Spain in 1884 when 2,000 were destroyed.
Martinique is of volcanic origin, contains five or six extinct craters, and is
subject to earthquakes. In the interior are three mountains, the highest of
which is Mount Pelee, 4,438 feet above the sea level. Apparently it is this
volcano which caused the havoc now reported.
The island has not always been French property. It was seized by the British in
1762, 1781, 1794, and 1809, and was finally restored to France by the treaty of
Paris in 1814. Slavery was abolished in 1848, and since 1866 the island has
legislated for itself in regard to customs duties and public works.
It was on this island that Josephine, the first empress of the French, was born,
within a few miles of St. Pierre, on the plantation of her father, M. Tascher de
la Pagerie, of an old French Creole family. There she met her first husband,
Vicomte Alexander de Beauharnais, who had also been born on the island.
Josephine died at Malmaison while Napoleon was at Elba. A beautiful statue of
her was erected by the people of Martinique in one of the squares of St. Pierre.
In the naval history of this country St. Pierre will be remembered as the place
where Cervera's squadron first turned up on this side of the Atlantic after
leaving the Cape Verde Islands. Cervera put in there for coal, and within a few
hours the Navy Department at Washington, which had been scouring the world for
news of him, learned of his arrival.
The years between 1600 and 1800 were years of awful disaster by volcano,
earthquake, and tidal wave. In 1793, fierce eruptions destroyed 200,000 people
in Yeddo, Japan. Twenty years later volcanic forces in a few minutes
extinguished 400,000 human beings in Pekin. In 1754, 40,000 were destroyed in
Grand Cairo, Egypt, and in the following year 50,000 in Portugal, principally in
Lisbon. Six years after the first visitation of Martinique 80,000 persons were
wiped out in Guatemala, and Santiago was destroyed in toto. In 1692 a volcanic
eruption killed 2,000, and in 1538 Lisston suffered a loss of 30,000. History
offers the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, when the people fled from the
flowing lava and were buried beneath falling ashes as were the unfortunate
citizens of St. Pierre. In 446 B. C., Sparta lost 30,000 of its Greeks, and
about 283, Lysimachina, a Greek city, was entirely destroyed. In 104 B. C., two
cities in Greece and two in Galatia were annihilated in a few minutes. Mention
might also be made of the legendary destruction of Lost Atlantis, of which
volumes of numbers have been written, when a continent was submerged in a few
hours by the action of fires at its foundations.
The consul at St. Pierre during the years 1895-1899, Col. J. G. Tucker, said in
Washington, upon the first news of the great disaster:
It may possibly be wondered at why the people did not escape in time. When it is
considered however that to one side lay the volcano, to another a steep
mountain, and in front the sea, while the only avenue of escape towards Fort de
France was within the radius of the volcano's power, the true situation may be
seen. The people were simply like rats in a trap and had no way to turn.
We never thought of an eruption proceeding from the volcano. It seemed entirely
extinct, and the fact that a little lake lay at the bottom of the crater lent
strength to this supposition.
The crater lays about twelve miles to the north and west of St. Pierre, and
could be climbed after hard work. It was very steep, with precipitous sides and
rough rocks and lava beds. The crater proper was about 200 yards in diameter and
80 feet deep. At the bottom was the lake, containing clear, limpid water. The
strange part about this lake was its unfathomable depth. All kinds of soundings
were tried, but no one ever succeeded in finding the bottom.
There is only one industry on the Island of Martinique -- that of sugar raising.
Surprising to state no sugar is exported. It is all turned into rum, and then
shipped to France. Everything necessary to the life of the inhabitants is got
from the United States. But nothing is exported to this country. Despite the
fact that the manufacture of rum was the principal industry the inhabitants were
never drunk. I never saw a drunken native on the island during my entire stay.
The only intoxicated persons I ever saw were foreigners.
A lifelong resident of St. Pierre related in the New York World of May 10th the
Many times have I been on old Mount Pelee. It was a scene of gayety for the
people of the town, the place where they went for their picnics, and, forty days
after every Easter, the Mecca to which all the religious people of the town
repaired for the feast of Pentecost. No one feared the old mountain, the highest
of the thickly-grouped chain of mountains which rise up behind the town. Older
people there tell of an eruption in August, 1851, when ashes were showered upon
the town. Since then a little lake has formed right where the eruption spouted
out, and it was there when I was last on the mountain not long ago.
St. Pierre lies curving along the water front. There is no harbor there, just an
open roadstead, and the sailing vessels coming fasten to a chain brought from
shore and throw an anchor out to seaward. There are no piers big enough for big
steamers to come up to and the cargoes are discharged on lighters. There are
three sections of the town. The first they call colloquially "The Moorage," and
the others "The Old Town," and "The New Town." The old town is built on a level
with the sea. Above it rises sheer up for several hundred feet a rugged cliff,
Further around the bend of the coast is what is called the new town. It is built
on sloping ground and is the better and more modern part of the town.
Mount Pelee rises up behind the town, some two miles away. To get to the top of
it you must travel over twenty miles. Circuitous roads leading around the rugged
mountains climb up to a point on the mountain where the vehicles must be
abandoned and the rest of the journey made on foot.
Far up on the mountain is the village of Morne Rouge, the home of the rich
merchants and plantation-owners. It is a place of between 3,000 and 4,000
people. It has many pretty homes, and is very cool and pleasant in summer, the
sea breezes reaching it without obstruction. It is right in the shadow of the
deadly crater. It is here that persons going up to the top must leave their
carriages and walk the rest of the way. It is inevitable that the beautiful
village of Morne Rouge was utterly destroyed if the eruption was anything like
what it is described to be.
Ah, the cool, little lake on the top of Mount Pelee. High up there, 4,400 feet
above the water, set amid luxurious trees, with vistas of the sea and of the
town below in the distance, there could be no more beautiful place. It was
always a great place for picnics and outings and gatherings of every kind. There
was plenty of room, much pretty scenery, and it was cool and delightful.
No one ever thought of fearing the volcano, which all thought to be extinct. It
never smoked, and the only evidence of its activity fifty-one years ago was the
placid, little lake, some sixty feet in circumference, right at the very top.
The people crowded about by thousands, never dreaming that there was any danger.
A press report which reached Paris May 19th said:
Martinique mails, forwarded just prior to the disaster, arrived here yesterday.
The newspapers print a number of private letters from St. Pierre, giving many
details of occurrences immediately preceding the catastrophe. The most
interesting of these is a letter from a young woman who was among the victims,
dated May 3d. 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 greatly excited, yet not panicstricken, she said:
"My calmness astomishes 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. Mamma 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 thoughts. 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 visitor, who was among the rescued. This and other
letters inclosed samples of the ashes which fell over the doomed town. They are
a bluish-gray, impalpable powder, resembling newly ground flour, and slightly
smelling of sulphur.
Another letter, written during the afternoon of May 3d, 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
These and other letters seem to indicate that evidences of the impending
disaster were numerous five days before it occurred.
It is difficult to understand how it was that a general exodus of the population
of St. Pierre did not take place before May 8th. 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 pellmell of women, children, and barefooted peasants--big, black
fellows, loaded with household goods. The air is oppressive; your nose burns.
Are we going to die asphyxiated? What has to-morrow in store for us? A flow of
lava, rain of stones, or a cataclysm from the sea? Who can tell? Will give you
my last thought if I must die."
A St. Pierre paper at May 3d 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.
A London press report of May 23d said:
The West India Committee received by mail this morning a sample of the volcanic
dust thrown out by the eruption of La Soufriere, Island of St. Vincent. A
preliminary chemical examination has been made by Professor D'Albuquerque, who
is of opinion that the dust, when mixed with heavy clay lands, might tend to
improve the texture of the surface layers, although it has no fertilizing
capacity. The dust is very minute, being almost like common flour, but is of a
Dr. Langfield Smith also examined the sample and found the dust to consist of
volcanic minerals and glass, the former predominating. The minerals were chiefly
silicates of iron and magnesia, there being also a considerable proportion of
quartz and some potash and feldspar. He compared the volcanic iron with a sample
of that which fell on the island in 1812 and found that the two differ greatly.
The dust of 1812 is much finer and contains very few mineral crystals,
consisting chiefly of dark-brown volcanic glass.
Hardly had the horrors of St. Pierre's destruction been told all over the world
before news of a similar, though less terrible, outbreak and destruction, came
from the British West Indies, Island of St. Vincent. A press report of Saturday,
May 10th, from Kingston, St. Vincent, said:
After numerous earthquakes, during the preceding fortnight, accompanied by
subterranean noises in the direction of the Soufriere volcano, in the
northwestern part of the island, a loud explosion occurred Monday last from the
crater and the water in the crater lake ascended in a stupendous cloud of steam
and exploded heavily. The noises grew louder continually till Wednesday morning,
when the old crater, three miles in circumference, and the new crater, formed by
the last eruption, belched smoke and stones, forcing the residents of Wallibou
and Richmond Valley, beneath the volcano, to flee to Chateau Belair for refuge.
The thunderous noises, which were continually increasing, were heard in
neighboring islands 200 miles away.
At midday the craters ejected enormous columns of steamy vapor, rising
majestically eight miles high and expanding into wonderful shapes, resembling
enormous cauliflowers, gigantic wheels, and beautiful flower forms, all streaked
up and down and crosswise with vivid flashes of lighting, awing the beholder and
impressing the mind with fear. The mountain labored to rid itself of a mass of
molten lava, which later flowed over, in six streams, down the side of the
volcano, and the greater noises following united in one great, continuous roar
all evening, through the night to Thursday morning, accompanied with black rain,
falling dust, and favillae scoriae, attended with midnight darkness all
Wednesday, creating feelings of fear and anxious suspense.
On the morning of Friday there was a fresh eruption and ejections of fiery
matter, more dust covering the island, in some places two feet deep.
The crater is still active as this dispatch is sent and great loss of life is
believed to have occurred. The lava has destroyed several districts, with their
live stock. People are fleeing to this town; streams are dried up and in many
places a food and water famine is threatened. The government is feeding numbers
of sufferers from the outbreak.
Great physical changes have taken place in the neighborhood of the Soufriere.
Several districts have not yet been heard from and the scene of the eruption is
unapproachable. Every hour brings sadder news. The nurses and doctors are
overworked. It is impossible to give full details at present.
As a result of the disaster on this island all business has been suspended for
three days. The public mind is still unsettled, fearing further disaster.
Among the deaths are whole families, whose corpses are, in several places, still
lying unburied. The dead will be buried in trenches.