Martinique, France 2016
In March of 2016, Becky (my wife) and I visited St. Pierre and the notorious Mount Pelée Volcano, (Morn Abel) at the northern tip of the island of Martinique. This was the site of the twentieth century’s worst volcanic disaster. The town was a thriving outpost of France’s colonial empire, grown prosperous on the profits from the island’s sugar plantations. Built on a sheltered bay, St. Pierre was hyperbolically celebrated as “the Paris of the Wet Indies”. It’s elegant houses, tree-lined squares, fountains, theater, and cathedral all bore the stamp of French culture. although many citizens were descendants of slaves.
St. Pierre was located only 7 km from Mount Pelée, an active volcano. Small eruptions in 1792 and 1851, causing no significant damage, had confirmed a belief that volcanic activity posed no serious threat to the population.
On May 8, 1902 (Ascension Day) it erupted, emitting a huge pyroclastic flow. This massive cloud of hot gas and volcanic rubble rushed toward St. Pierre at a speed of up to 500 km/hr., destroying the coastal town of St. Pierre and killing around 28,000 people.
Inhalation of hot ash and fumes from the eruption managed to kill everybody within a matter of just minutes.
Only two people within the town survived the blast, including a man who was contained in a poorly-ventilated jail cell,(pictured above), at the time. The thick walls, the rare openings oriented toward the south-west, on the opposite side to the volcano, or virtually backing on to eastern perimeter wall, meant that the prisoner avoided direct contact with a massive infux of burning gas. He was rescued after four days, and went on to become a minor celebrity.
The very location of the dungeon, situated at the foot of Morn Abel and equipped itself with tow restraining walls, protected the dungeon from the blast caused by the explosion on May 8th, 1902.
It was thanks to four St. Pierre merchants that the theatre was created in 1786, a few years before it was at the heart of the revolutionary events that shook the colony.
Damaged by the 1813 hurricane, it was restored then inaugurated in 1817. At the same time, it was given over to the town. It was the golden age of theatre.
After the 1891 hurricane, it was necessary to wait until 1900 for the theatre to be renovated at a cost of heavy loans that drove the director to ruin. Then on May 8th, of 1902 is was nearly destroyed by the Mount Pelée eruption.
The theatre displayed a certain cultural conformism with a European flavor. It as a witness to the great social evolutions that marked the colony. It would be one of the essential seats of the creolization of the colonial society from which the contredanse and beguine dances, for example, would emerge on a cultural level. Picture above, I’m standing close to the statue Madeleiine Jouvray. She is presenting a face twisted in pain. It aims to symbolize the town of St. Pierre, destitute the day after the Catastrophe and yet fiercely determined to lift itself up from the ashes.