109th Anniversary of the 1902 Martinique Eruption

Yesterday marked the 109th anniversary of the deadly 1902 eruption of Martinique’s Mont Pelée volcano. Here it is described by Edward William Freeman, Captain of the Roddam, anchored in full view of the blazing city of St. Pierre on May 8th, 1902:

I saw the whole thing—and I think it must have been the most terrible, the most horrible event that ever happened in the history of the world. I have read of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, how the Lord rained brimstone and fire upon them out of Heaven—of Pompeii—of great earthquakes like Port Royal, Lisbon, Yeddo, of how Krakatoa erupted and changed the face of Java—of the mighty wave that engulfed Galveston—but nothing that I have read of these things equals the horror of St. Pierre’s doom. I think that the Flood, though it destroyed every living thing on the face of the earth, was less, for drowning is pleasant. This thing was a living picture of Hell.

The Mont Pelée volcano of Martinique is a gently sloping cone surrounded by luxuriant forests, scored here and there by deep ravines, some five miles north of the city of St. Pierre and fifteen miles northwest of the capital city of Fort-de-France. The mountain, its peak permanently draped in heavy clouds, serves as a monumental backdrop to the Bay of St. Pierre, one of the most beautiful natural harbors in the Caribbean. The volcano, its massive presence notwithstanding, had never been particularly feared before its massive explosion on May 8, 1902; only minor eruptions had been recorded previously, the most dramatic having occurred in 1792 and 1851. In 1902, however, the stratovolcano displayed its overwhelming destructive power by sending a nuée ardente—a pyroclastic cloud—sweeping down the valley to the port of St. Pierre. Within minutes the town and virtually all its inhabitants, some 29,000 people (15% of the population of the island of Martinique), were incinerated. So dramatic was this event that the mountain gave its name to a specific kind of volcanic eruption—the Pelean-type—associated with explosive outbursts that generate dense mixtures of hot volcanic fragments and gas. The fluidized slurries produced by eruptions such as that of Mont Pelée in 1902 send glowing avalanches (nuées ardentes) and ash flows pouring down valleys and slopes at speeds exceeding 60 miles per hour. Given the short distance between the volcano and the town, St. Pierre received the full strength of the blast. Within seconds the city exploded:

There came a sudden roar that shook the earth and the sea. The mountain uplifted, blew out, was rent in twain from top to bottom. From the vast chasm there belched up high into the sky a column of flashing flame, and a great black pillar of cloud. That was all—just the one big roar of the shattering explosion, one flare, and then the cloud, shooting out from the rent, rushing down mountain-side on to the doomed city. It came down like a tornado, destroying everything as it passed, spreading out fan-wise as it neared the bottom—clearing the lower hills, it sprang upon St. Pierre, where the people were hurrying to mass, enveloping every street in darkness and in dust, in an instant—and then sweeping, leaping on down upon the shipping in the harbour, it rushed straight for the Roddam—a devouring tornado of fire from the bowels of the mountain.

The May 8th 1902 catastrophe in Martinique represents the most traumatic historical event in the history of Martinique. It was, in fact, the most traumatic natural disaster in the history of the Caribbean before an earthquake brought unimaginable death and destruction to the city of Port-au-Prince in January 2010.

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