La Martinique – Mount Pelée’s Legacy

French overseas department

La Martinique today

Today, La Martinique really lives up to its’ slogan – La Fleur de Caraïbes, seemingly bestowed with every natural gift an island could desire.   Tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the French overseas department is fully 4,350 miles away from the shores of France in a landscape that has been enjoyed by artists and authors, residents and visitors. 

The cultural mix of Amerindians, Europeans, Africans and Asians has imprinted a rich history of crafts and gastronomy and dynamic traditions.  The official language is French, but Creole reigns.  This story, though, is less about the island jewel we know today and more about the catastrophic eruption of Mount Pelée well over 100 years ago in May of 1902.

Standing more than 4,500 feet high, Mount Pelée devastated the whole port city of Saint-Pierre in a flood of ash, gas and fiery lava killing nearly 30,000 people.  Though warnings and light earth shocks offered slight hints of what might come, no one imagined the destruction that would rush down the River Blanche to destroy the city.

The Shoemaker, the Felon and the Little Girl

1902 eruption of Mount Pelee

The infamous Mount Pelee

As is so often the case, it is the story of only a few that sheds light on the entire chapter of history.  Just two men of Saint-Pierre survived and one young girl, “…who looked straight into the mouth of a volcanic vent just before Mount Pelée began to erupt.”

The young shoemaker was Léon Compere-Léandre sat on the doorstep of his house at the edge of the volcanic flow.  “I felt a terrible wind blowing, the earth began to tremble, and the sky suddenly became dark.”  He made his way into the house but was badly burned.  Everyone around him had been killed.

Louis-Auguste Cyparis was the convicted felon, serving in solitary confinement in the prison dungeon.  When the volcano erupted, he was in his cell with only a small grate cut into the wall.  Darkness fell over him accompanied by gusts of hot air and ash.  Though severely burned, somehow he survived for four days, before being rescued… and later pardoned.  He later toured with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, billed as the “Lone Survivor of St. Pierre.”

Quite early in the morning, a young girl – Havivra Da Ifrile – set out for her aunt’s pastry shop near a local attraction known as the Corkscrew, a tourist trail on the flank of the volcano.  She saw smoke rising and looked into the crater.  “There I saw the bottom of the pit all red, like boiling, with little blue flames coming from it.”

She managed to flee toward the city, while the lava boiled from the Corkscrew and ran down the road and river, cutting off escape for people running from their homes.  Havivra fled in her brother’s small boat, but saw the whole side of the mountain boil over the town.  She was later found, burned and injured, drifting two miles out to sea in her charred boat.

Fortunately today the island is characterized by gorgeous seascapes and appealing multi-cultural cuisine.  And there is little mention at the local Office of Tourism of the infamous Mount Pelée.

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