Saint Pierre is a city built around the ruins of the devastating 1902 volcanic eruption of Mont Pelée. Interwoven with the modern city are the ruins of the old theater and prison, of small houses and the facades of great churches.
In order to understand just how much the eruption has influenced the face and history of this town, you need to understand what Saint Pierre was before it. Nearly a century and a half after Christopher Columbus first discovered the island of Martinique, Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, a nobleman from Normandy, claimed the island in the name of the King of France. He arrived and built a fort in what is now known as Saint Pierre.
By the time of the eruption, the capitol of Martinique was home to about 30,000 people who had built their homes in the shadow of Mont Pelée along the western coast of Martinique. It was a military strong point with a fort that looked over the harbor.
On May 8th, 1902, lava and smoke and hot steam rushed down the mountain into the city of Saint Pierre, killing all 30,000 residents, except for a man who was in a jail cell at the time. The rock from the jail cell prevented the lava from entering, but the steam and smoke gave the man burns and scars that he carried for the rest of his life. His name was Louis-Auguste Cyparis, and after the eruption he went to the United States and toured with the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
The musée de volcanisme in Saint Pierre is a small, one-room museum that discusses the eruption. It costs only 3 euros to enter, and you can see glass that melted into unrecognizable forms, piles of scissors that melted into a brick, food that survived the explosion (although not in any edible condition), a church bell that was destroyed in the explosion, and more. In both English and French, the museum takes its visitors through the days before the explosion and its aftermath.
One witness of the explosion said, “Des torrents de flammes se precipitaient, emplissant les vallées, avec un bruit infernal. Nous n’eumes que le temps de nous sauver a quelque metres plus haut….En moins de trois minutes, entendez-vous bien? La ville était consomée, ainsi que les bourgs avoisinants….Nous avons tout perdu. Ah! C’est affreux!…De ma famille, quarante-six personnes ont peri.”*
After visiting the museum, skip the museum’s café next door and wander down the street towards the ruins of the theater. If you’re thirsty, stop at a small green store called the “Arisan en Jus de Fruits et Légumes” for a homemade drink. It costs 3 euros for a juice and 4 euros for a juice cocktail, but it is money well-spent. This man knows what fruits taste good together, and he gave me a concoction of orange, passion fruit, pineapple, and mango that was heavenly.
Take your juice and wander through the ruins of the theater and the prison. The theater, in particular, is impressive. It was built at the end of the 18th century and based on a theater in Bordeaux. It witnessed the cultural life of Saint Pierre through concerts and plays but also the political life: in 1848, orators gave speeches to raise support for the abolition of slavery. It closed in 1901 for repairs—just one year before the eruption in which it was destroyed.
Next door to the theater, you can venture to the ruins of the prison via the aptly named “Rue de la Prison,” and see the cell where the sole survivor waited out the eruption. Imprisoned for drunk and disorderly behavior, Cyparis was discovered four days after the eruption by people venturing into the ruins.
Perhaps not immediately, but little by little the country began to clean up the ruins of the volcano and rebuild the city that had been its capitol. It will, in all likelihood, never be the city it once was. In 2012, Saint Pierre is only home to 5,000—a fraction of its population before 1902. This city was once the center of Martinique, but now it exists both geographically and culturally on its periphery. Still, it is a beautiful city with a rich history, and a city worth exploring if you are ever in Martinique.
* translation: “Torrents of flames rushed forward, filling the valleys with an infernal sound. We only had the time to flee a few meters higher…. In less than three minutes, do you understand? The city was consumed, along with the neighboring suburbs…. We lost everything. Ah! It’s dreadful!….From my family, forty-six people perished.”