Friday 8 May 2009

Caribbean catastrophe

On this day....107 years ago, the volcano Montagne Pelée erupted above the town of St Pierre on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Apart from a minor eruption in 1851, there hadn’t been a peep out of the mountain for a long time, but in April 1902, it started to grumble, and on the bright sunny morning of May 8, 1902, it went berserk.

As people gathered in the churches of St Pierre - the “Paris of the West Indies” – for eight o’ clock mass, smoke blotted out the sun, and boiling lava poured down the hill into the town killing everyone in its wake. More than a dozen ships were destroyed in the harbour; one having its masts and funnel sheared off “as if they had been cut by a knife.”

Of St Pierre’s 26,000 inhabitants, only a handful survived. One was a convicted murderer awaiting execution who was saved thanks to the thick walls and tiny windows of his prison. He was reprieved, and began a new career with Barnum & Bailey’s circus – sitting in a replica of his cell as the “lone” survivor of the “Silent City of Death”.

St Pierre would be partially rebuilt, only to be hit by another eruption in 1929, and would never again recover its colourful and rather racy reputation. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

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