The vibrant port city of St Pierre, or ‘Little Paris’, in the lush tropical paradise of Martinique, was the commercial and cultural heart of the French West Indies.
It lay in the shadow of Mont Pelée, a huge volcano at the northern end of the island. Pelée had been more or less dormant since an eruption of 1851; the only traces of activity were the delicate wisps of steam wafting from fumaroles in the summit craters – a source of wonder for visitors to the island.
As the 20th century dawned, Pelée began to wake up. The first sign was the smell of sulphur, but nobody was unduly alarmed by the volcanic rumblings until, in the spring of 1902, climbers noticed sulphurous boiling water filling the summit crater. Stuttering explosions and earth tremors signaled something serious. As the wealthy packed their bags, people poured into St. Pierre from the surrounding countryside, seeking safety in numbers.
Pélee erupted at 07.52 on May 8: ‘the whole side of the mountain . . . seemed to open and boil down on the screaming people’ in a nuée ardente (glowing cloud) of incandescent lava. Vast quantities of gas, dust and ash darkened the sky for 80 km (50 mi) around as glowing tongues of lava descended on St. Pierre in a pyroclastic flow so fast there was no escape. The boiling cloud was accompanied by a tsunami, causing havoc to ships at anchor, the city was smothered in lava and the harbor was awash with bodies.
Some months later a bizarre lava dome began to emerge from the crater floor, growing up to as much as 15 m (50 ft) a day. The ‘Tower of Pelée’ caused great excitement among volcanologists. At night it glowed in the dark and it grew to 300 m (1,000 ft) before it suddenly collapsed in March 1903.
When was the Mont Pelée Eruption: May 8 1902
Where was was the Mont Pelée Eruption: Martinique, Windward islands, Lesser Antilles
What was the Mont Pelée Eruption death toll: More than 30,000 people in and around the capital of St. Pierre were burned or suffocated to death. There were only three survivors in the entire city – a shoemaker, a ten-year-old girl who took refuge in a cave on the seashore and a prisoner in the town’s gaol.
You should know: Survivor Louis-Auguste Cyparis had been in a violent street brawl the day before the eruption and was thrown into the town’s gaol. The thick stone walls of his dungeon protected him from the volcanic fallout. Four days later rescuers heard his cries for help and he was released, badly burned but very much alive. You can still see the cell today.