Martinique’s Mont Pelée volcano is a gently sloping cone surrounded by luxuriant forests, scored here and there by deep ravines, five miles north of the town of St. Pierre. 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 catastrophic eruption on May 8, 1902; only minor eruptions had been recorded previously, the most dramatic 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 gases that can travel at speeds exceeding 60 miles per hour.
The May 8th 1902 catastrophe was the most traumatic historical event in Martinican history—and indeed the most traumatic natural disaster in Caribbean history before an earthquake brought unimaginable death and destruction to Port-au-Prince in January 2010. The eruption coincided with two crucial moments in Caribbean history: a period of incipient modernity when technological advancements in communications made it possible for events in a previously isolated corner of the world to consume international public attention; and a moment of ambiguity in colonial relations following the Spanish-American War during which the burgeoning American empire sought to gain a stronger foothold on the region. The fate of Martinique was debated fiercely in the international press, and even more fiercely in diplomatic circles aware that the consequences of the eruption could destabilize colonial relations in the Caribbean.
The tragedy produced a deluge of narratives in its immediate aftermath. Witnesses, those who had lost relatives and friends, journalists, scientists—and for the first time in a tragedy of this magnitude—photographers, served as conduits for a multiplicity of narratives about the impact and significance of the devastating events. The international reading public, insatiable for details on the destruction and untold deaths stemming from the eruption, consumed a prodigious amount of official reports, newspaper articles, magazine essays, first-hand accounts, correspondence, diaries, and sermons. By the close of 1902, there were some forty books and pamphlets in print accompanied by dramatic photographs of death and destruction. In the 118 years that have intervened since the catastrophe, the Martinican tragedy has not lost its power to inspire writers and move readers. It is central to the recognized classics of modern Martinican literature, like Aimé Césaire’s poetry, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, André and Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Un Plat de porc aux bananes vertes, and Raphaël Confiant’s Nuée Ardente, as well as to lesser-known works in Martinique and throughout the Lesser Antilles.
Paul Gauguin, Coming and Going, Martinique (1887) Oil on canvas.
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