I quicken my step as I walk along the rue Bouillé. It is almost 11 a.m. and suddenly I am worried that I may be too late for a spot on the morning run of Le Petit Train. As I round the corner I see that I was right to be concerned, the train looks like it is already full and I join the small clump of people at the locomotive trying to convince the driver selling the tickets to let them on. The three ahead of me are out of luck, they will have to join the afternoon tour, but for me, being on my own, he still has one seat left. That the history tour is popular among tourists is solely due to Fernand Pain whose account of the disaster that struck St Pierre on May the 8th 1902, deservedly earns him the distinction of maître raconteur, master story teller.
I arrived in St Pierre yesterday, a few hours earlier than I had previously announced to André and Maryse of the Hotel Villa St Pierre, because the Musée Paul Gauguin on the outskirts of town, which according to my guide book was undergoing a six-month reservation in 2008, had still not managed to re-open its doors.
“I know there is the Musée Historique et Vulcanologique (MHV) in town and the Centre de Découverte des Sciences de la Terre (CDST) on the flanks of Mt Pelée just out of town and that there are various sites all over the town”, I had put to André, “but what is the best way to get a good impression of the disaster that struck St Pierre, by walking the city?” That was when André gave me his verdict: the CDST was fastidieux (boring) and I should impérativement take the Petit Train tour because of Monsieur Pain.
It is a little over eleven when the Petit Train trundles of along the rue Bouillé towards the Place Bertin and Fernand starts his story of the 1902 disaster by pointing out the vacant lots and blackened spaces that remain even today where houses once stood. “St Pierre was a prosperous city, known as the Paris of the West Indies”, he starts out, “and even though Fort-de-France had become the administrative capital of the island in 1692, it was eclipsed by St Pierre in population and prosperity. St Pierre boomed with trade as it was the unavoidable stop for all French ships en route to and from Europe. A state of the art theatre hosting the latest shows from France and many luxurious townhouses lined the streets of the city, the first in the Caribbean to have electric streetlights. However because of the nature of the disaster, entire families where lost, together with all records. This meant that there was simply no one left to claim property and also no information available to establish title over the abandoned lots after the event". Fernand continues to explain that even the entire administrative existence of St Pierre was abandoned and would only return decades later, when, little by little a few people had returned. Even today the town has a mere 4,500 inhabitants, compared to the 28,000 who lived there in 1902.
Early signs of increased activity by Mount Pelée were seen in 1900, but it was only on April 23rd 1902 that the first eruptions of sulfurous smoke and cinders began. The activity persisted over the following days and by April 27th a boiling lake was forming in what was until then the Etang Sec (dry lake) caldera. On May 2nd the volcano produced loud explosions, earthquakes and a column of smoke and ashes covered the northern part of the island. Then on May 5th one side of the Etang Sec caldera collapsed and a stream of mud, following the course of the Blanche River, buried the Guerin sugar works, located at the mouth of the river, and some 150 people under 60 metres of mud.
Immediately after the Maison de la Bourse at the end of Place Bertin, our little train turns onto rue Dupuy and then onto rue Victor Hugo, where Fernand recounts the stories of the rebuilt cathedral and a few more buildings reconstructed after the catastrophe and we come to a stop near the rue du Theatre. There the 54 of us follow him to the elegant double staircase that used to lead up to where the pride of sophisticated St Pierre would once gather.
“People were worried of course, and many tried to leave. However, it was not so easy to do so as the only connection with Fort-de-France was by boat and all vessels were packed. At the same time many people from the surroundings came to the town to seek shelter“, Fernand continues his story, “swelling the numbers to over 28,000. The authorities tried to reassure the inhabitants by pointing out that, according to the vulcanologist, the earlier eruption of May 5th had alleviated the pressure on the mountain and that even if new eruptions would come, these would also follow, like the one on May 5th, the path of the rivers down to the sea and were not likely to affect St Pierre (to be fair, that would likely have been the case if the eruption had not produced the exceptional pyroclastic cloud but just the usual mud and lava). The townspeople were further buoyed by the news on May 7th that the Soufrière on St Vincent had erupted as it was thought that that would also lessen the internal pressures. They were also reassured by the fact that the Governor Louis Mouttet and his young wife had arrived from Fort-de-France to, by their own presence, demonstrate the authorities’ faith in their own assurances. With Ascension Day festivities set for the next day, many decided to stay and of those that still wanted to leave town, many were forbidden to do so.“
Mount Pelée had quietened down on the evening of the 7th, but then on the morning of the 8th , just before 8 a.m. the top of the mountain ripped open, spewing out one dense black cloud upwards and another one horizontally which, it was later calculated, sped towards the city at 670 kph, covering the 6.4 kilometres in under one minute and at 8:02 a.m. reached the city where the blast effects, the 200 to 250° C temperatures and toxic gasses killed virtually everyone instantly.
Fernand is showing around the pictures of the devastation that followed. The city burned for three days and very little was left standing or even recognisable. “The events had of course been noticed from a distance”, he continues,” and soon people from the neighbouring villages came over, to see what had happened and to help, however few inhabitants of St Pierre had survived long enough for help to matter. Many also set out to loot the valuables of the prosperous city. Women had been dressing up for Ascension and had put on their jewelery, which was now stolen from their charred remains, and the ruined houses were searched for valuables that had survived the heat and destruction.”
Fernand motions us to follow him from the theatre area to the adjacent area where a sturdy-looking little round building stands “It was four days later“, he picks up his story again,” that some of these ‘rescuers’ heard muffled sounds from these ruins and when they dug into the rubble were very surprised to find a survivor in this little building, in an underground solitary confinement cell. It was Louis-Auguste Cyparis who had been locked up for drunk and disorderly behaviour and who due to the thick walls of his windowless underground cell, or, due to the level of alcohol in his blood“, as Fernand ventures, “could withstand the searing heat and somehow managed to stay alive the days after“. 'It was a feat that changed his life, because, billed as the only survivor of the St Pierre disaster, he went on to make a living as a curiosity on display in the Barnum and Bailey circus all over the world', Fernand ends the story. (Surviving miraculously for four days without food and water while the city is a raging inferno too hot for rescue parties to enter is what some, like the journalist of the Petit Paris paper, considered entirely unbelievable; they contend Cyparis was one of the looters himself (his prior career as a felon would support both versions) caught in the act and making up the story to avoid harsh punishment; if that were the case, him later benefiting from that bald-faced lie would be a text book case of turning a threat into an opportunity.)
In reality there were two other named survivors of the event (Léon Compère Léandre, a shoemaker living on the outskirts and Havivra da Ifrile, a little girl) and a number of other nameless ones, living on the fringes of the blast area, who were burned badly and who mostly survived only for a few hours, and some sailors, blown off their ships, who were picked out of the sea, all with severe injuries and burns from the blast and the boiling water. The acting governor in Fort-de-France ordered a warship to investigate what had happened and despite the raging fires a landing party managed to land at the Place Bertin by 3 p.m. and reported that the square was littered with dead people, their clothing torn off by the fierce blast, while searing heat and a suffocating stench precluded any further penetration of the city.
Le Petit Train arrives back after an hour and a half and Fernand’s entertaining monologue comes to an end. At this point I have to admit that my account is not doing Fernand entirely justice, because his stories are sprinkled with bon mots, little jokes and even a small quiz to see if you paid attention, only for the women though, since, out of male solidarity, the men are spared the embarrassment of failing his questions. All in good spirit though and at the end of the tour, one patron after another comes up to him with a tip for his performance. He pockets the money with a smile, “I will drink to your health“, he assures each tipper, probably mindful of Louis Cyparis and the ever unpredictable Mount Pelée.
After lunch in seaside restaurant La Vague, I get to the Vulcanological museum . It is small and gives less salubrious details than Fernand did, but has an interesting display of pictures of St Pierre before and after the disaster and a collection of recovered household items that bring home the mundane detail of the story. Next I visit the blackened foundations of ‘La Maison Coloniale de Santé’ that are a somber reminder again, as all the incarcerated psychiatric patients and the nuns that treated them, perished there. Before I move on to the CDST I stop at to the remains of L'Eglise du Fort that seem to have lain there undisturbed since the day they crumbled.
"It is better if you come back tomorrow", the tall and decidedly overweight girl at the entrance of the Centre de Découverte des Sciences de la Terre (CDST) tells a group of six Frenchmen as I walk up to buy my ticket, "a visit takes about three hours so you could not finish it today and if you come back tomorrow morning your ticket is also valid in the afternoon". While the Frenchmen debate among themselves what to do, I lean on the ticket window ledge, 'three hours for a museum', I muse, that is very long, most people lose interest after an hour or so and 'if you can continue your morning visit on the same ticket when you come back from lunch for the afternoon', why not make it possible to continue your afternoon visit the next morning' and most importantly 'sending people away at 3 p.m., two hours before it closes at 5', is that good policy? The Frenchmen have decided to go do something else instead and the girl turns to me and she seems slightly surprised when I decidedly ignore her advice and buy my ticket anyway.
In the event the museum is certainly not as fastidieux (boring) as André made it out to be. It has the usual explanation of physical principles and accompanying little experiments aimed at younger kids, a detailed countdown of the events leading up to the eruption of Mount Pelée and a lucid explanation of the geological formations that underlie the vulcanological phenomena in the Caribbean Basin. It strongly it reminds me of the 921 Earthquake Museum in Taichung and, as I was in that one, I am surprised to find myself alone in the museum, or rather I am less surprised here, now that I have seen how people are actively discouraged from entering by the staff.
Two island arcs delineate the frontier where the Atlantic plate and the Caribbean plate collide. An older one where the vulcanological activity has died down (Anguilla, St Maarten, St Barts, Barbuda, Antigua and the Grande Terre part of Guadeloupe are the islands on that arc) and an active arc consisting of islands with active volcanoes: Guadeloupe (the Basse Terre part; evacuated in August 1977 when the Soufriere erupted, people were allowed back again in December as the eruptions died down), Dominica (most recent crisis in the 1990s with prolonged earthquakes and activities of the Soufriere), St Lucia (only geothermal activities since 1766), St Vincent (Soufriere volcano had a powerful eruption on May 7th 1902, the eve of the disaster on Martinique giving false hope to the people in St Pierre [who might have been less buoyed, if they had already known that a pyroclastic cloud killed 1565 people that day on St Vincent]), Montserrat (eruptions started in 1995 and are still ongoing, the capital Plymouth is buried under 12 metres of mud and the southern half the island is now an exclusion zone) and newcomer Kick 'em Jenny (underwater volcano just north of Grenada that has seen several eruptions and has steadily risen from -232 metres under the surface in 1962 to -130 metres under the surface in 2002).
Barbados is a different story again. It is not the result of volcanic activity, but of subduction of the South American plate under the Caribbean plate which results in sediment being 'scraped’ off, allowing Barbados to rise 25milimeters every thousand years.
I cover the exhibition area in a half hour or so and am in time for the video 'Volcans des Antilles', when the tall girl comes up to me to tell me that they will close the exhibition rooms at 16:30 p.m., half an hour before the official closing time….(Turning people away who arrive after 2 p.m., closing early; it all seems like a classic case of public service ‘petit fonctionnaire’ mentality I touched upon in: Guadeloupe: The French Way). The 52-minute video however is very good and I would have bought one if it had been reasonably priced at, say €10 a copy, and not the €35 they were asking for.
"So you are a rich man then", I tease Fernand a little when I walk up to the departure point of the Petit Train again the next morning to take a better picture of him and his train. "No not really…", he protests. "Well I counted the people yesterday", I calculate for him on the top of my head, "there are 18 seats per wagon and three wagons, at €10 a piece that makes €540 for the morning ride and maybe half that for the afternoon one, say €750 per day, that is…. €22,500 per month, minus your costs of course. Not too bad for three hours of work per day, I would think". That should needle him a bit and he actually protests less than I had expected when he agrees that it is over €500 a day, but he stresses that it is only for three months per year. Even then it comes to somewhere around €60.000 a year and I have not even factored in the tips yet, but after my CDST experience I think he already deserves it for effort. We talk a bit more about how tourism is doing while the last people are getting on board. ‘Not as good as a few years ago‘, he tells me, ‘when there were more French tourists coming over. The numbers have apparently been affected now that they have less money to spend‘. Then his train is ready and he gets on board: “St Pierre was a prosperous city, known as the Paris of the West Indies...”, I hear, as the train gets under way.
On the rhythm of my steps my roller case rattles behind me over the pavement as I walk the five minutes from Hotel L’Impératrice to the ferry harbour along the Savane Park, the same route I walked up ten days earlier. ‘Nous regrettons de vous informer que le traversier en provenance de Roseau sera retardé d’une heure’, the speaker system announces. ‘One hour delay‘, I don’t mind really, I am sitting in the back of the waiting area with my laptop connected to a wall socket, sorting through pictures and making a few notes for my future entry on Martinique. The L’Express des Iles catamaran starts in Point-à-Pitre early in the morning and then makes stops in Roseau, Fort-de-France and then its final destination Castries on St Lucia, my next stop.
While still on Dominica I had changed my original plan to stay a week on both Martinique and St Lucia and had decided to stay longer on Martinique because it seemed more interesting and I also wanted some time to finish two blog entries.
‘Eeeeyaa, Eeeeyaa, vous êtes demandés d’évacuer le bâtiment immédiatement’. ‘Eeeeyaa, Eeeeyaa, vous êtes demandés d’évacuer le bâtiment immédiatement’, the very shrill warning sound pierces my thoughts over how the ten days worked out.
Everybody looks at everybody else and nobody makes a move, assuming it is some malfunctioning of the warning system. ‘Vous pouvez rester sur place, restez sur place’, the official who has walked to the centre of the room, motions everybody to stay seated, confirming the collective suspicion, and I get back to my musings.
The first three days before St Pierre, in Fort de France, were strikingly different: on Saturday the 29th of January when I arrived, the centre of the town was a bustling crowd for the carnival parade, on Sunday the city centre was completely deserted, with all shops, cafés and museums closed and on Monday I could at last enjoy a lively Fort-de-France, see the remarkable Bibliothèque Schoelcher and other sights. What’s more, in the charming Parisian ambiance of the Brasserie Théatre Perrinon, over quite a few coffees, I pulled the last strands together to finish the St Maarten blog entry.
After St Pierre, my three nights at the Hotel Frégate Bleue in Le François on the Atlantic coast provided the perfect setting to finish the entry on Fermi’s Paradox, an entry that had already been percolating in my mind for some time. Now, pensively taking in the stunning ocean view from my balcony, I could try and figure out how to precisely reformulate the paradox. That done, I had still a few days left to visit the Presqu’île de la Caravelle (the only place with open cafés on a Sunday), the Musée du Rhum and the Habitation Clément and on the last full day followed the southern coastal road back to Fort-de-France, the Hotel de L’Impératrice and a last taste of French-Caribbean atmosphere before I go on to sample a fresh slice of British-Caribbean culture.
‘Vous pouvez embarquer maintenant’, I unplug my laptop and join the throng of people walking down the ramp to the ferry. No need to hurry, this is my third ferry leg and by now I know there are plenty of seats on board.