Of Volcanoes and Politics


Thinking people the world over are rightfully apprehensive when approached by those from the government who are “here to help.” Very often their “help” is a flat-out disaster, and nowhere was that more true than on the island of Martinique in 1908. The island is home to Mt. Pele, a typical basaltic-andesitic Holocene stratovolcano resulting from a typical subduction zone formed by the Lesser Antilles arc. Nothing remarkable in that.

Mt. Pele rises above the town of St. Pierre

The picturesque town of St. Pierre was founded in 1635 by the French trader and adventurer Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, and was considered to be the Paris of the Caribbean at the time. It was the cultural capital of the island. We can be quite sure that Pierre the adventurer thought little of that mountain to the left at the time. Nor did the population until sometime later, but it would eventually get their attention in a rather large way.

Martinique was actually not the best place to set up housekeeping, and not just because of Mt. Pele. Most Atlantic hurricanes that start up off the west coast of Africa head right for the Lesser Antilles, and the Great Hurricane of 1780 hit Martinique with a 25 foot storm surge, inundating the city of  St. Pierre, destroying all the houses,  and killing  9000 inhabitants. After that you would think folks would get a clue, but no. Not to be deterred they rebuilt and just kept right on. It would prove to be an unwise move.

Now volcanoes usually give us ample advance warning that they are up to something and might just wipe us out in huge numbers and in horrifying ways, and we usually ignore those warnings totally. There are many historical examples of this, and it’s going on again today as Mt. Tambora heats up.

This isn't Mt. Pele, I just put it in here because it's cool.

Mt. Pele gave plenty of warning, years in advance, but no one was listening, or paying attention. In 1792 and 1851 there were phreatic explosions that should have put the island’s inhabitants on notice, but no, they ignored that.

Native Caribs had long known Pele to be a “fire mountain” but why would sophisticated and modern French settlers listen to the local primitives? In early April of 1902 it was noticed that there were sulfurous fumaroles gushing gas near the summit of Pele but this rather strong hint was disregarded. This had started and stopped in the past. No biggie.

Another hint was to follow. On April 23rd Pele dusted St. Pierre with a light coating of cinders and ash and nudged the city with a series of sharp underground shocks. Had I been there I’d have thought, “Ummm… this could be bad…” but again, people went about business as usual.

Gosh Marcell, what do you think it means???

Two days later Pele ejected a large cloud of rock and ash, causing some damage, but not enough to be meaningful to the locals. “Move along folks, nothing to see here.”

(Personally I’d have hopped a freighter long before this point.)

While almost everyone was ignoring the volcano there were some interested in what it was doing, and on April 27, a small group of them, including a school teacher, climbed to the mountaintop to find Étang Sec crater filled with water, forming a lake 590 ft. across. There was a 50 ft. high lava dome built up on one side, feeding the lake with a steady stream of boiling water.

Sounds resembling a cauldron with boiling water were heard from deep underground. The strong smell of sulfur was all over the city four miles away from the volcano, causing discomfort to people and horses. They still just did not get it.

Three days later the rivers Roxelane and Rivière des Pères swelled, carrying boulders and trees down from the mountaintop. The villages of Prêcheur and Sainte-Philomène were receiving a steady stream of ash. At 11:30 p.m. on May 2, the mountain produced loud explosions, earthquakes, and a massive pillar of dense black smoke. Ashes and fine-grained pumice covered the entire northern half of the island. The detonations continued in 5-6 hour intervals.

The response from the local newspaper was swift and decisive. They canceled the scheduled picnic on the volcano.

Farm animals had started dying from hunger and thirst, as their sources of water and food were contaminated with ash, and at this point many were considering just getting the hell out of there, which brings us to the political side our our story.

Governor Louis Mouttet

Martinique’s dapper French governor, Louis Mouttet, was facing an election on May 11th, and of course his paramount priority was not the welfare of his constituents, but that of staying in power, and if the people abandoned the island who would there be to vote for him? He had to do something to calm the populace and get them to stay put. He immediately launched efforts to do just that. As it turned out voter turnout was rather bad anyway.

Louis had been told by those who had climbed the volcano what they had seen at the summit, and being the astute politician he was he issued the following public service announcement.

“There is nothing in the activity of Mt. Pelée that warrants a departure from St. Pierre, the safety of St. Pierre is completely assured.”

This might not have comforted everyone, but no matter, the only people who had the money to get off the island were Mouttet’s wealthy political chums in his Progressive party, most of whom drank the Kool-Aid.

Still, some residents left the city for Fort-de-France. This prompted Governor Mouttet to send in troops to patrol the road to Fort-de-France, with orders to turn back refugees who were trying to leave.

At Mouttet’s behest the local paper printed soothing articles, declaring St. Pierre the safest place on the island to be, and so throngs of people from the countryside flooded into St. Pierre swelling it’s population to about 28,000. More votes for Louis, hooray!

Well… perhaps not. What Louis and his chums had overlooked, among many other things, was a large V shaped notch cut through the cliffs around the summit, like a colossal gun-sight pointed right at the city of St. Pierre, as though fate had drawn a bead on it.

Just before 8:00 in the morning on May 8th Pele erupted explosively with a deafening roar, and a pyroclastic surge of superheated rock, gas, and ash came cascading down the flanks of the volcano at over 100 mph from out of that giant V shaped notch in the crater. In less than 60 seconds it hit St. Pierre with devastating force, incinerating 28,000 people  in a flash as it rolled over the city, and producing a scene only equaled since by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mt. Pelee. From Heilprin, 1908

Voter turnout suffered tremendously as a direct result. Suffice to say that Louis Mouttet did not get his votes, or survive the eruption, the pyroclastic surge from which was actually photographed here on the right as it engulfed the city of St. Pierre. There were only two survivors. One of them, Leon Compere-Leandre gave this account of his experience:

“I felt a terrible wind blowing, the earth began to tremble, and the sky suddenly became dark. I turned to go into the house, with great difficuly climbed the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body. I dropped upon a table. At this moment four others sought refuge in my room, crying and writhing with pain, although their garmets showed no sign of having been touched by flame. At the end of 10 minutes one of these, the young Delavaud girl, aged about 10 years, fell dead; the others left.

The remains of St. Pierre

I got up and went to another room, where I found the father Delavaud, still clothed and lying on the bed, dead. He was purple and inflated, but the clothing was intact. Crazed and almost overcome, I threw myself on a bed, inert and awaiting death. My senses returned to me in perhaps an hour, when I beheld the roof burning. With sufficient strength left, my legs bleeding and covered with burns, I ran to Fonds-Sait-Denis, six kilometers from St. Pierre.”

As I write this we have an election coming up here in America. The politicians will make many claims and promises as they campaign, offering us hope for the future and assuring us of their noble and lofty goals from which we are all to benefit under their benign reign of beneficence and prosperity. How has that worked out for us so far?

The people of St. Pierre were sold hope, and they got change.

Think about it…

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About Martina Vaslovik

Volcano nerd and seismogeek
This entry was posted in Mt. Pele, politics, Uncategorized, Volcanology. Bookmark the permalink.

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