Check out my new books, including:

Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures: Outer Banks


This Site   

Looking for the music?
You'll find different tunes accompanying selected articles on my site. 
Click on the notes.


Writing Tips
Book Writing Tips
Freelance Writing Tips
Movies for Motivation
Travel Writing Tips
Tech Tips

All contents of this site
  Bob Brooke Communications

The Story of St. Pierre—The Pompeii of the Caribbean
by Bob Brooke


For the past hour, Leon Compere had been repairing shoes in his home workshop in Saint Pierre, Martinique. Sylbaris, a black man serving time in the town prison for assault and battery, was just finishing his meager breakfast. Neither man could have known that within minutes their lives were about to change forever. It was 7:45 A.M. on Thursday, May 8, 1902.

Saint Pierre, known as the "Paris of the West Indies," lay clean and pristine after an overnight thunderstorm. It was all stone-built and stone-paved, with narrow streets, wooden or zinc awnings, and peaked roofs of red tile, pierced by gabled dormers. Most of the buildings, painted in a clear yellow tone, contrasted with the burning blue ribbon of the tropical sky. No street ran absolutely level. Nearly all of them climbed the hills, descended into hollows, curved and twisted in sudden angles.

Everywhere the loud murmur of running water filled the air, pouring through deep gutters contrived between the paved thoroughfares and the absurd little sidewalks, varying in width from one to three feet. The architecture appeared quite old, 17th-century probably, reminding visitors of New Orleans' French Quarter. The windows were frameless openings without glass, some with iron bars, all with heavy green or bluish-gray wooden shutters with moveable slats, through which light and air could enter. Almost every house had a freshwater fountain inside.

The town covered about 30 acres, with 2,985 houses on 103 streets, squares and lanes with a length of about 12 miles. Built along a sandy beach rising in tiers on gently sloping ground, St. Pierre consisted of two districts by the Roxelane River.

In the center of town stood a large paved square, Place Bertin, on one side of which stood a tower, the Semaphore, and a continuously flowing fountain. On the opposite side stood the galleried Chamber of Commerce with a clock on the front. Nearby stood the archbishop's residence and cathedral, as almost all of the residents were Catholic.

Saint Pierre boasted several banks, six consulates, three newspapers, four printing offices, a score of distilleries, a foundry, ten butchers, fifteen bakers, and a hundred food dealers, plus a myriad of shops and warehouses along the waterfront.

Residents, known as Pierrotins, enjoyed promenading in the Jardin de Plantes, a botanical garden created at the beginning of the 19th century, located at the farthest end of town. But St. Pierre's most beautiful ornament had to be its theater, built a few years before the French Revolution. At the beginning of the 20th century, Saint Pierre was, by far, the most modern town in the Antilles, equipped with electricity, two transatlantic cables, the telephone, plus a tramway connecting its center to its western suburb.

Such was Saint Pierre when the volcano, Mount Pelee, awoke.

Mount Pelee first erupted in 1792. Half a century went by. In August, 1851, the volcano manifested itself once again. The blast covered Saint Pierre in ashes, the countryside strewn with dead birds choked by the sulphurous vapors. Half a century later, the mountain awoke yet again.

Warnings began in February of 1902, with the strong smell of sulphur and dead birds. During the last week of April, activity increased.

On Saturday, May 3, the crater vomited flames and hurled large stones as far as one and a half miles away. Again, the volcano covered Saint Pierre with ashes grey ashes as fine as sawdust that crept in everywhere. The people crowded the cathedral in the afternoon seeking absolution.

For the next four days ashes continued to fall. By Wednesday afternoon panic began to spread among the population. No one in Saint Pierre slept much that night. Ceaseless denotations and odd noises kept everyone awake. Rain poured down while columns of dark smoke streaked with tongues of flames broke forth from the crater. Muffled and sinister rumbles coming out of the mountain spread terror among the population.

About 4:00 A.M. a lull came. Some people, exhausted, their nerves frayed, threw themselves on their beds to get some rest, while others were feverishly gathering their most precious belongings, getting ready to depart from the town. A crowd was already trying to storm its way to the harbor and the boats.

Even at this early hour, the streets were busy. Passers-by called to one another. Some had put on the first clothes they found, others dressed in their Sunday best, their missel and beads in hand, going to church hoping, on this Ascension Day, to calm down Nature’s Divine Wrath by their prayers.

At 7:45 A.M., the Angelus bell rang. In fact, it was tolling. And God only knew that the last minutes of the town were now spilling away.

Sensing impending doom, Leon Compere gathered up what few belongings he could carry and ran down the road toward Saint-Denis.

Suddenly, the mountain split from top to base to let go a blazing flame-filled thick black cloud streaked with lightening. With a great roar, it rushed down the mountainsides at tremendous speed and threw itself upon the town, covered and smothered it and set it ablaze. It reached the sea in less than two minutes, playing havoc in its passage. Nothing could resist this blazing whirl of over 3,500 degrees F. A shower of small stones fell upon the town along with a rain of slimy blackish mud and burning ashes.

Those not directly hit by the blazing avalanche, hot ashes and the boiling vapors of the cloud burned many people. At 7:50 A.M., life stopped in Saint Pierre.

The volcano vomited for nearly two hours, until seemingly breathless, it calmed down.

As the atmosphere cleared, the curtain rose on a horrific sight. A 35-square-mile area had been reduced to absolute nothingness. The town was completely set ablaze. Explosions, caused by the barrels and boilers of the distilleries exploding like machine-gun shots, simultaneously burst out in different parts of town.

Not a breath of life came from Saint Pierre. Desolation and ruins were everywhere. Tumbled down stone buildings, burned out wooden houses, sagged roofs, a few dilapidated walls rising toward the sky. Pulled down, leafless trees blocked and littered the streets. Columns of smoke rose here and there. As if a monument to the destruction, a piece of wall of the Military Hospital still stood, the hands of its clock stuck upon the Hour of Death.

The air reeked with putrid smells mixed with the acrid smell of burned flesh. Blackened and stiffened corpses were everywhere. Here the carrion of an animal, there the shriveled remains of a human body with an arm lifted up above its head in a pitiful and vain gesture of defense. There again, a skeleton. As the wind stirred, it crumbled to dust. Once, it was a man.

Saint Pierre became a vast crematorium for its 30,000 unfortunate souls. Included among the dead were the American consul, Thomas Prentiss and his wife, Clara.

The government in Fort de France, Martinique’s capital, sent in a search party. They shouted again and again, but no one answered. Three days later, several people wandering the streets heard a kind of low moaning at the end of Victor Hugo Street. It came from where the theater once stood.

At last, after much digging through debris, they succeeded in locating the sound. It came from the dark underground cell of the prison. There huddled Sylbaris, shaking all over.

"It was about eight... suddenly, a tremendous noise burst out," he said. "Everyone called for help, crying out, 'I am burning, I am dying.' Five minutes later, there were no more cries, except mine."

Another firey blast, at least as violent as the first, occurred on May 20, leveling what remained of the buildings in Saint Pierre.

The people of Martinique never accepted that the old city should lie deserted. The town once again rose from its ruins, although not the flourishing place it once was.

Leon Compere returned to his house, protected from destruction by a hill, to continue repairing shoes. Sylbaris later joined P.T. Barnum's circus to show his face and body covered with scars resulting from his numerous burns.

                                                                             * * * * * * * * * * * *

I couldn't help feeling sad and somewhat emotional as I walked along the streets, many still paved with the old paving. Here and there, I could see the remains of some stones and buildings.

Today, Saint Pierre is a sleepy town of 6,000—with a big history. Broken statues toppled from villa gardens lie in silent testimony. Boulevards eerily vanish beneath a tangle of tropical growth.

The most touching ruin in Saint Pierre is the cathedral, with remains of its altar once adorned with marble statues, the place where the bell tower stood, and the pediment, thrust several yards ahead by the blazing cloud.

But the most interesting ruin is that of the Health Colonial House, on the north side of town. A old lunatic asylum, it features cells and iron seats provided with a bar to hold down the raving lunatics.

Frank Alvard Perret, an American vulcanologist, was also touched by Saint Pierre. In 1933, he founded the Vulcanology Museum. It stands on the site of the old Esnotz Battery which defended the harbor. A flight of stairs to the former Chemin de Ronde or watchtower, a favorite promenade for town dwellers, still exists. It also contains the remains of a private house, a fountain with a jet of water and a grotto.

Restored and modernized in 1969, the museum contains a great number of engravings, photos, maps and documents evoking the everyday life of Saint Pierre before the eruption, as well as an important collection of relics, including fused coins, a charred sewing machine, and a melted bottle with perfume still inside.

It tells the story of the last days of Saint Pierre in vivid displays—twisted and tortured clocks that stopped at the hour the volcano erupted--as well as before and after photographs that are hard to believe in comparison to the sleepy village that has taken the place of this once-thriving city.

Below it lie the ruins of shops and warehouses, with rolls of barbed wire agglomerated under the action of the heat emitted by the burning clouds. A testament to the power of Nature.

< Back to History Articles                                                                                             Go to next History article >

All articles and photographs on this site are available for purchase by print and online publications.  
For more information contact
Bob Brooke.

Site design and development by BBC Web Services