Martinique was a quiet, West Indian island first discovered by Europeans in the person of Christopher Columbus in 1502. The native Carib people were killed off or assimilated into the black slave population brought by the French colonizers to operate the sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations, and they exported sugar beginning in the mid-1600s. The city of St. Pierre, on the northwest side of the island, became the main seaport, as well as the cultural, educational, and commercial center of Martinique. The city became known as the "Paris of the West Indies," with many rum distilleries, red-roofed white masonry buildings, banks, schools, beautiful beaches, all framed by a picturesque volcano in the background.
The island is part of the Lesser Antilles arc, sitting above a west-dipping subduction zone built on the eastern margin of the Caribbean plate. Oceanic crust of the Atlantic Ocean basin that is part of the North American plate is being pushed beneath the Caribbean plate at about an inch (2 cm) per year. The oldest volcanoes on Martinique, including Morne Jacob, the Pitons du Carbet, and Mount Conil, emerged from the sea about 3-4 million years ago. They were built on a submarine island arc that had been active for approximately the last 16 million years. Pelée is a much younger volcano, first known to have erupted about 200,000 years ago. It rises to a height of 4,580 feet (1,397 m) on the north end of the island and has had major historic eruptions in 65 b.c.e., 280, and 1300, and smaller eruptions about every 50-150 years. Mount Pelée is located uphill and only six miles (10 km) from St. Pierre. It derives its name from the French word for bald (or peeled), after the eruptions of 1792 and 1851 that removed all vegetation from the top of the volcano.
Mount Pelée began to awaken slowly in 1898, when sulfurous gases were noticed coming out of a crater on top of the mountain and in the river Blanche, which flows through a gorge on the southwest flank of the volcano. Minor eruptions of steam became abundant in 1901, and additional gaseous emissions were common as well. In spring 1902 Mount Pelée began to show increased activity, with boiling lakes and intermittent minor pyroclastic flows and eruptions, associated with minor earthquake activity. All these phenomena were connected with the rise of magma beneath the volcano and served as warnings about the upcoming eruption. A dome of magma began growing in one of the craters on top of the volcano, then a huge, 650-foot (200-m) wide tower of solidified magma known as "the spine" formed a plug that rose to 375 feet (115 m) before the catastrophic May 8 eruption.
By April most people were becoming worried about the increasingly intense activity, and they congregated in st. Pierre to catch boats to leave the island. St. Pierre was located only six miles (~10
km) from the volcano. Landslides in the upper river Blanche triggered a series of massive mudflows that rushed down the river, while others crashed down the valley when water in the crater lake in L'Etang Sec, the main volcanic vent on Pelée, broke through a crack in the crater rim and escaped down the flank of the volcano. These landslides and mudflows were probably triggered by minor seismic activity associated with magma rising upward beneath Pelée. On May 3 groundwater began rushing out of fissures that opened in the ground and carried soil, trees, and carcasses of dead animals down through St. Pierre and out to sea. Flooding was widespread and destroyed many farms and villages, such as Le Prêcheur, carrying the wreckage downstream.
On May 4 a fissure opened in the ground in the village of Ajoupa Bouillon northeast of Pelée and caused a huge steam and mud eruption that killed several people. Floods and mudflows continued to flow down other rivers, including those that passed through St. Pierre. Submarine landslides ruptured communication cables and carried them to depths of a half mile (0.7 km). A larger eruption occurred on May 5, killing 40 people in a pyroclastic flow that raced down the river Blanche. Residents desperately wanted to leave the island for safety, but elections were five days away, and Governor Louis Mouttet did not want the inhabitants to leave for fear he might lose the election. He ordered the military to halt the exodus from the island. Governor Mouttet was running as the head of the békés, an ultracon-servative white supremacist party opposed by a new mixed-race socialist party that was becoming increasingly powerful. A successful election by the socialists would have changed the balance of power in Martinique and other French colonies, so was resisted by any means (likely including election fraud) by the ruling békés. By this stage precursors to the eruption included strange behavior by animals and insects. A plague of armies of ants, venomous centipedes, poisonous snakes including pit vipers, and mammals began migrating in mass down the flanks of the volcano and invaded villages, plantations, and St. Pierre to the horror of residents. These insects and animals attacked people in factories, plantations, and homes, injuring and killing many. Poisonous gases killed birds in flight, which dropped on towns like ominous warnings from the sky. Mudflows continued down the volcano flanks and now included boiling lahars, one of which tore down the river Blanche, killing
(opposite page) (A) Map of the Caribbean and the Lesser Antilles arc, showing the location of Martinique and Mt. Pelée along a fault above a subduction zone; (B) map of the area around St. Pierre on Martinique devastated by the 1902 eruption; (C) map of the pyroclastic flows from the 1902 eruptions, in relation to the dome of Mount Pelée, and cities and settlements including St. Pierre, Carbet, Le Prêcheur
many people in factories and homes in the boiling mixture of mud, ash, and water. Others in St. Pierre were dying rapidly of a contagious plague caused by drinking water contaminated by ash and sewage. Workers on the docks went on strike, and there was little chance for anybody to escape the condemned city.
On May 6, residents of the city, now in a state of turmoil, woke to a new layer of ash covering city streets and fields. This ash was not from Pelée but from another massive eruption that had occurred overnight 80 miles (130 km) to the south on the British colony island of St. Vincent, where the volcano La Soufrière, killed 1,650 residents of that island. The Soufrière eruption triggered submarine slides that broke all communication lines to and from Martinique, totally isolating that island from the rest of the world during the disaster that was about to occur. Ironically, communication lines to St. Vincent remained intact and surviving residents there could dispatch cables to England for help. Ships were dispatched but when they arrived they assumed all the ash and debris in the water was from St. Vincent, and help was not sent to St. Pierre until much later, when it was realized that two major eruptions had occurred from two different volcanoes.
On May 7 the volcano was thundering with loud explosions heard throughout the Lesser Antilles. Smoke, fires, and flashes of lightning made for a frightening spectacle, especially at night when the fires reflected off the low-lying clouds and ash. Volcanic bombs were being spewed from Pelée and landing on homes and fields on the outskirts of St. Pierre, starting many fires. On May 7 Governor Mouttet and his wife visited St. Pierre from the capital, Fort-de-France, to try to convince residents that it was safe to remain and to vote in the elections. However, at 7:50 a.m. on May 8 several huge sonic blasts rocked the island and a tall eruption column rose quickly from the top of the volcano. A few minutes later a huge nuée ardente or glowing avalanche erupted from Mount Pelée at 2,200°F (900°C), and moved over the six miles (~10 km) to St. Pierre at 115 miles (185 km) per hour (some estimates are as high as 310 miles [500 km] per hour), reaching the city 10 minutes after the eruption began. This began as a lateral blast or a collapse of the eruption column, aimed directly at St. Pierre below. As the pyroclastic flow rushed down the mountain, it expanded and scorched forests, sugarcane fields, and villages on the flanks of the volcano. The temperature of the flow cooled to an estimated 410°-780°F (200°-400°C) by the time it reached the sea, but this was enough to burn almost anything in its path. When the hot ash cloud reached St. Pierre, it demolished buildings and ignited flash fires throughout the city. Thousands of casks of rum stored in the city ignited and flowed as rivers of fire to the sea, burning at temperatures high enough to melt glass. The eruption cloud continued past the city and screamed over the harbor on a cushion of hot steam, overturning and burning many ships at anchor, sending them to the seafloor and killing most sailors on board.
Many accounts of the eruption say that all but two of the city's 30,000 residents were killed. Although about 30 residents survived the initial eruption, more than 27,000 were killed in the first massive eruption. Most died in a matter of minutes during passage of the ash cloud, but others died slowly from suffocation from ash or volcanic gas. One of the survivors was a prisoner, Auguste Ciparis, who had been jailed for fighting and was spending his jail term in a deep, dungeonlike cell that sheltered him from the hot ash cloud. Ciparis spent the rest of his life paraded around freak shows in the United States by the Barnum and Bailey circus to show his badly burned body as "The Prisoner of St. Pierre." About 2,000 people from surrounding towns were killed in later eruptions. Governor Mouttet and his wife were buried in the flow and were never seen again.
After the catastrophic eruption magma continued to rise through the volcano and formed a new dome that rose above the crater's rim by the end of the month, and the "spine" rose to a height of 1,000 feet (300 m). Another pyroclastic eruption followed the same path on May 20, burning anything that had escaped the first eruption. Small eruptions continued to cover the region with ash until activity subsided in July 1905.
The 1902 eruption of Pelée was the first clearly documented example of a nuée ardente, or hot glowing avalanche cloud. Successive eruptions of Mount Pelée in 1904 provided additional documentation of this kind of eruption and its dangers to all in its path. Even though the amount of magma released in these flows may be relatively small, the destructiveness of these hot, fast-moving flows is dramatic.
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