On the northern tip of Martinique, on the west side, there is a wide peaceful bay populated by small wooden fishing boats. As we slowly approach it, the old buildings of a sleepy town at the foot of a massive bald mountain begin to take shape. The mountain is Mont Pelée: the deadliest volcano in modern history whose titanic eruption in 1902 killed nearly 30,000 people in this same town, St. Pierre.
The story of St Pierre and the volcano
Martinique was settled in 1635 by the French and St. Pierre, a vibrant colonial town, quickly became its most important city: ‘the Paris of the West Indies’, complete with an extravagant 800-seat theatre. By the end of the nineteenth century St. Pierre had a population of over 20,000, mostly local Martiniquans descendants of African slaves, but the wealth and political power was in the hands of the Creole and the few French colonial officials and civil servants. But in 1902 things were about to change. Very important elections were scheduled to take place on May 11 of that year to decide if the ruling Progressive party will maintain control of the island or the black candidate from the Radical party will take over for the first time.
When in February of 1902 the mountain exhaled sulphurous gases killing birds, and in April tremors shook the slopes and a cloud of ash showered the town and its residents, the officials couldn’t care less. Instead of evacuating, they declared that „there is nothing in the activity of Mt. Pelée that warrants a departure from St. Pierre,“ and ordered the voters to remain put and not to leave the town until after election day. On May 5 the rim of the crater lake whose water was beginning to boil broke and volcanic mudflow rushed down the slopes at 100 kilometers per hour killing 23 people, burying everything in its path all the way to the sea where it generated a tsunami and flooded the lowlands.
Hell begun. Snakes and insects fleeing the mountain slopes invaded the town and villages. Hordes of red ants, poisonous snakes, spiders, and huge centipedes crawled inside homes and barns as pigs, horses and dogs screamed with agony. Hundreds of domestic animals as well as children died by snake and centipede bites. People from the villages nearest to the volcano sought refuge in St Pierre, four miles directly under the crater, thinking it is safer there based on the government’s reassurances published in local newspapers. The population grew to nearly 28,000. Yet, some tried to leave the town of St Pierre and head south to the second largest city, Fort-de-France, but Governor Mouttet brought army troops to patrol the roads with orders not to let anyone leave the town until elections, on May 11.
At 7:50 a.m. on May 8, three days before the elections, the volcano erupted. The cataclysm started with a deafening roar, an atomic-like blast, and a black cloud of gas, ash and rock heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius replaced the sky and fell over St Pierre. Homes swallowed, people incinerated within minutes. 28,000 people… The 18 boats in the bay were also destroyed, their remains still lying on the bottom of the sea. Only few escaped in time. Only two survived the fury of the mountain.
A young girl terrified by the eruption jumped in a small wooden boat and managed to get to a tiny cave near the shore where she used to play with her friends. Later, she was found unconscious but alive drifting in her damaged little boat two miles away from the cave.
A shoemaker miraculously survived in the room of his home, badly burned but alive.
In the local jail, a convict who misbehaved was placed in isolation in a stone cell with thick walls and no windows, which saved his life. Later, his sins were pardoned and he joined a circus to be exhibited around the world as the Lone Survivor of St. Pierre.
Today, only the ruins of the old theatre, the church and the jail with its isolation cell remain. All other houses and public establishments destroyed by the volcanic explosion and the fires that lasted a few days have been rebuilt. St. Pierre is no longer the busy extravagant town it once was, but a small quiet fishermen’s village with a few restaurants, a church, and a French pastry shop.
Hiking to the top of the volcano
We take the bus from St. Pierre after waiting for more than one hour at the bus stop, and get to the village nearest to the mountain. From there we walk for over an hour on a road up to the trailhead which starts from a car park at 830m (2,700ft). We begin the two-hour climb to the summit.
The trail is excellent, with steps and narrow paths at places, and a few rock scrambles over old magma deposits, domes, and andesie flows. There are no trees, only low shrubs and grasses and a few frail palms near the summit. The air is misty and the mountain is enveloped in a thick cloud. It drizzles. There are snails all over the place. Small hummingbirds making tiny helicopter sounds with their wings often come very near to check us out.
The dome at the summit, 1379m (4583ft), inside the crater is covered in vegetation and there is no volcanic activity, no smell of sulfur, no gases coming out of the earth. The giant is quietly slumbering again.
Maya is jumping happily up and down the trail, leading us like usually, when suddenly she jumps sideways screaming with fear and starts crying. We freeze. There is a HUGE hairy brown spider in the middle of the path, like a tarantula!
The Antilles pinktoe tarantula, or Martinique red tree spider is native to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. He lives up in the trees where he builds elaborate spiderweb tunnels. These tarantulas are not poisonous, and are very „friendly“ and docile, as well as beautifully colored, for which reasons people capture them and keep them as pets. We think that wild creatures belong in the wild, not in captivity… In any case, this little Big Guy frightened us, as we didn’t know he was harmless; we found out that later.
Up at the summit we walk around the crater and the few domes, rest for a bit, and start heading back down. It’s a long way. We are at the car park by the early afternoon, but it takes us over an hour to walk down from the car park to the village. We are exhausted and hungry and can’t wait to get in the bus and sit down. We wait for a long time at the bus stop. People pass by. Finally we ask a guy when the bus is coming, and he tells us, there is no bus to St. Pierre in the afternoon, only in the morning. Great…
We start walking again down the road, hitchhiking. Many cars pass by. Big fancy cars with just one person in them, unwilling to give us a lift. If this was Saba or any other non-French island, we’d be home long time ago. We calculate how long it will take us to walk all the way down to St. Pierre. We tell Maya we will probably be back home, on the boat, in the middle of the night…
After a very long time, a very small car pulls over. The driver is a young French woman and she has two kids in the back. There are two spots left for the three of us, but we manage to squeeze in. We are so grateful. Some people with small cars have big hearts.
We can now imagine returning to our boat in the anchorage around sunset, the journey over, time to eat French baguette sandwiches, drink beer, and relax watching the clouds drifting down from the bald mountain and over the sea.