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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 ashes.

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 the Caribbean.

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 following facts:

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, bare rock.

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 air."

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 grayish-brown color.

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.

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