The Prisoner Who Survived

One of the most interesting places we visited while in Martinique was St. Pierre in the northern part of the island.  Now it’s a town of about 4,300 people, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a place of such bustling sophistication and culture, it was nicknamed “the Paris of the Caribbean.”  Over 30,000 people lived there, until May 8, 1902 when a volcanic eruption killed everyone, except two people, one of them a prisoner.

Mount Pelée (means “bald” mountain in French) lies to the north of the town.  People observed that the volcano seemed to be awakening, but they thought they would have time to avoid a lava flow.  However, when the volcano erupted, it sent forth a huge black cloud of gas and heat, estimated at over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  This cloud covered the city, instantly igniting anything flammable it touched.  Everything immediately caught fire and was destroyed.

The Wikipedia link has some fascinating eye witness accounts and black and white photos from the time.  The ones of the actual eruption were taken from boats at sea.

One of the only survivors was a man locked in the prison in solitary confinement.  Although he was badly burned, the theory for why he lived was due to the thick walls of the prison, his cell was partially buried underground, and the fact there were no windows in his cell, only a partial grating in the door.  Until he was rescued, he survived by the water that dripped down his cell’s walls.  Later he joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus as one of their acts and became a minor celebrity.

Prison is the round hut to the right of the theater entrance ruins

The city of St. Pierre never recovered from this disaster. Less than a quarter of the number of people live there now.

When I visited St. Pierre, I was struck by the contrast between modern buildings and ruins existing side by side. It reminded me of what a town trying to recover from being in the middle of a battle zone must look like. I wondered why the ruins haven’t been cleared away in over a century. Is it to attract the tourists? There is more land in the town than people who live there? Are the ownership claims to the ruined land unclear and no one can build because none know who owns the land? Lots of possibilities. This was a terrible tragedy but a beautiful place when I saw it.

Street views of St. Pierre today showing modern life and ruins: