We are on our way to Dominica for a
couple of weeks. The plan originally was to set off yesterday morning and arrive
in Roseau, Dominica this evening. We were only planning to stay the night here
and be off first thing but the more we read about the history of this little
town - destroyed in 1902 by the nearby volcano, Mt. Pelée - the more interested
we became and decided to spend the day here in order to learn more. After trying
(and failing) to find anywhere to clear customs, we walked up to the town
museum, then around some of the ruins. To the best of my memory and with help
from a couple of guide books, here is what happened. In 1902, St. Pierre was the
main social and economic centre in Martinique.
Known as the “Paris of the
Caribbean” and also the “Pearl of Martinique”, it was home to 30,000 people and
held the wealth of the island thanks to the most successful plantations being
nearby. The bay was always full of trade ships from France.
In early April of that year,
rumblings began and the height of the mountain rose and fell by hundreds of
feet. About a thousand of the wiser occupants moved out of town but the majority
stayed. On the 2nd of May, a major eruption covered the town in ash
and a plantation owner and his men were killed by a scalding mudslide, south of
the city. On the 5th, the Guerin Estate, located to the north of St.
Pierre and one of the richest in the area, was completely buried under a torrent
of boiling mud, lava, rocks and gasses, killing hundreds of workers.
Partly because people thought this
eruption was the final one, and partly because the Governor was persuaded to sit
tight by rich plantation owners who didn’t want to lose trade, St. Pierre was
On the 8th of May 1902 at
2 minutes past eight in the morning (several pocket watches were on display at
the museum, frozen at the time their owners died), the side of Mt. Pelée that
faced St. Pierre exploded with more force than a nuclear bomb, releasing a
pyroplastic flow of gas and dust. Travelling at 200 mph and at a temperature of
1000 degrees C, the cloud wiped out the entire city and sank 12 of 13 ships in
the bay, a handful of survivors sailing their crippled ship to safety. In the
museum, there were all kinds of glass and metal objects that had been melted,
and the enormous church bell, made of inch-thick cast bronze, had been squashed
flat by the heat and force. (Unfortunately there was a no-camera policy in the
museum so we don’t have any photo’s for you.)
There were only two survivors in the
town. A man who happened to be in his cellar and a prisoner in a stone cell. The
prisoner was severely burned and survived on a trickle of water for 3 days
before rescuers found him. He quickly became a celebrity as a survivor his
charge of murder forgotten.
Mt. Pelée is a dormant volcano now,
but is closely monitored in case it ever becomes active again. St. Pierre was
rebuilt as the small town it is today, but has only a few thousand residents as
many are still scared to live near a killer volcano, dormant or not.
Anyway, we made it back to the boat
without any major eruptions that we knew of and went for our daily swim as per
boat rules, only to be stung by something. My guess is a hidden jellyfish as the
stings haven’t become inflamed, they just hurt. I have looked at my dive guide
and the upside-down jellyfish looks like it might be to blame as sea wasps cause
you to go into shock and if we’d fallen foul of the Portuguese Man o’ War, I
wouldn’t be typing - or breathing.
On that cheery note, goodnight.
We’ll try to check out the old Reid house so keep reading, family!
PS. After such a wordy, history
lesson of a blog, you'll no doubt be expecting lots of pictures - sorry,
no-can-do as we are using the sat-phone. Don't start rioting just yet, you'll
get your pictures as soon as we get WiFi in Dominica. However, I can offer one
to keep our Campbeltonian fans sweet;
Thank you and