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The Voyage of Spectacle St. Pierre and Mont Pele

The Voyage


Andy and Melissa are sailing around the world on their 48-foot sailboat, Spectacle.

The Position

Bali, Indonesia

The Pictures

The Voyage of Spectacle

St. Pierre and Mont Pele

In the late 1800’s, St. Pierre was referred to as the Paris of the Lesser Antilles.  As the cultural and commercial center of Martinique, St. Pierre was also considered the prettiest city of all the Caribbean with its hillside red-roofed buildings, cobblestone streets, and seafront promenade overlooking a magnificent bay.  With a population of about 30,000, the modern “Little Paris” enjoyed prosperity with electricity and telephones and theaters and industry.

Mont PeleAlas, legend has it that as the European settlers murdered the last of the indigenous Caribs in 1658, they invoked the horrible curse of Mont Pele (known to them as “the mountain of fire”) to take revenge.  No one can be sure about the curse, but unbeknownst to the fancy Creole society women with their midday parasols, and multi-millionaire plantation owners of the inland plains, and the French sailors escaping the home land for Caribbean adventure and indulgence, Mont Pele was one of the most violent volcanoes in the Caribbean.

Quiet for the first 200 years of St. Pierre’s existence, Mont Pele rumbled in 1851 covering the town in ash and creating a lake in the crater.  Towards the end of April, 1902, Mont Pele demanded to be heard.  A research party investigated the peak and found that a cauldron of boiling mud had replaced the lake.  The surrounding rivers became sulphurous and poisonous, killing the fish.  Rumblings, plumes of smoke, and showers of ash continued.  On May 2, 1902, plantation owner Pierre Laveniere went to inspect his crops with a group of workers only to be swept away in an avalanche of boiling mud.  On May 5, 1902, an eruption of effluent mud and lava estimated to be one quarter mile wide and 100 feet high destroyed the Guerin Estate (one of the richest in the area).

Even with this clear warning, all but about 1000 Pierrotins opted not to evacuate.  St. Pierre’s mayor delivered reassuring proclamations despite the recent deaths.  The local newspaper, Les Colonies, publicly ridiculed evacuees as hysterical and panic-ridden.  Word came from St. Vincent that Mount Soufriere had blown which would “relieve Pele’s pressure.”  Additionally, the new Governor Louis Mouttet was thought to be overwhelmed by the idea of a mass evacuation and wished the whole situation would just go away.  Influential business owners further persuaded Mouttet against evacuation to avoid financial losses.

On May 8, 1902, Ascension Day, as Catholic residents sat in church to take Communion, the mountainside glowed red and Mont Pele split open releasing more energy than an atomic bomb.  The Mach 3 shockwave of fiery and poisonous gas was followed by pyroclastic molten flow traveling at a shocking 250 miles per hour.  In two minutes, St. Pierre was vaporized and approximately 30,000 people burned to death, carbonized where they lay.  With temperatures of 750 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas and lava proceeded into the ocean transforming the harbor into a smoldering cauldron with ships engulfed in flames and capsized by the resultant tidal waves.

Almost nothing was spared, and survival stories are sparse and freakish.  One of two survivors, Auguste Cybaris, was in the jailhouse which provided protection with thick stone walls and only a small, grilled window.  Cybaris was in jail for drunk and disorderly (or for murder — depending on the source), The Ruins of the Jailhouse Which Spared Auguste Cybaris from the Devastating Volcanoalthough the minimum security jail was typically used for short term sentences, so you can decide for yourself.  Cybaris made a career out of his ordeal by joining the Barnum Circus and appearing in a replica of his life-saving cell until his death in 1955.  Leon Leandre, a cobbler, survived the disaster by skipping Ascension Day church services and working in his cellar.  The one surviving ship, the HMS Roddam, limped into the harbor at Castries, St. Lucia, later that day with the Captain severely burned but still at the helm.  Much of the crew burned to death on deck or jumped ship to certain death before a tidal wave broke the ship’s mooring loose.

Mont Pele continued to rumble for several months, and in November of 1902, a glowing spindle of solidified lava emerged from the crater eventually reaching a height of 800 feet until it collapsed nine months later.

Needless to say, the 1902 eruption of Mont Pele was a cataclysmic disaster from which the glamorous city of St. Pierre never recovered.  Currently, only 5,000 people inhabit the city, and though the volcano has been quiet for a very long time, researchers and vulcanologists monitor the mountain carefully.

Many ruins still stand, with blackened walls, occasional modern add-ons, and climbing, flowered vines.  The skeletons of the old theater (a replica from Bordeaux which must have been spectacular) and the neighboring jailhouse (including Cybaris’ own cell in fact) are by far the best of the ruins.  Originally built in 1635 by the very first settlers, pieces of the fort still remain as well.  The small Musee Volcanique contains old pictures of the fabulous, pre-eruption St. Pierre as well as post-eruption artifacts including beautiful china cups and saucers fused together in stacks from the heat.

When avoiding cheesy things like the tram (just walk, it’s only like two miles), the Melissa and the Theater Staircasehydraulic bumping low rider cars in the significant traffic congestion, and the inevitable T-shirt shops, St. Pierre is eerie and ghostlike.  Standing alone at the top of theater’s double staircase, looking out on the sparkling blue water of the strikingly beautiful bay, imagining the parties and high life and culture of St. Pierre, it’s impossible not to be affected by this very distant, but catastrophic, tragedy.  More Pictures

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