Sunday, September 11, 2011

Eyewitness Account to Eruption of Mont Pelee Matinique St Pierre Fort de France

By Ellery S. Scott.

I am a plain sailor and it is not easy for me to tell of those awful hours on the deck of the "Roraima" in St. Pierre harbor when death and destruction were all about me. That scene is like a nightmare to me now. At times it rises before me in all its vividness - at others I wonder if it was not all a horrible dream. Well do I know that it was not a dream, for though leagues of water now separate me from St. Pierre, before me ever is the face of my eldest boy, whose life was snuffed out, as were the lives of more than twenty-five thousand, on that fatal morning of May 8th when Mont Pe­lee with such swiftness poured a deluge of fire and ashes, and a hall of hot stones, upon St. Pierre - when the city was wiped from the face of the earth in a few minutes; when all except one of the ships in the harbor were overwhelmed, first by a wave that swept shoreward with resistless force and then by the rain from Pelee's crater.

In the face of such an overwhelming disaster, the greatest of its kind in the world, the tongue is dumb. Words can­not describe it accurately. I have read Bulwer-Lytton's description of the ruin of Pompeii. If I had the pen of' a Lytton - but even Bulwer-Lytton, if alive today, could not tell adequately of Pelee's fearful eruption. Mere words cannot describe it. No artist could draw it.

When my mind reverts to it now, I feel my heart sink. I feel like covering my eyes with my hands in vain effort to shut out from my mind the picture that comes and goes - as it will all my life.

Sometimes, by sheer force of will I can send my thoughts back to the Martinique of a few brief weeks ago  - the Martinique that was like a jewel of the sea. The island, some twenty-five miles long and perhaps fifteen broad, is between the 14th and 15th parallels of latitude. Longitude 61° West fairly cuts through its center from north to south.

Often have I gazed over that verdant land when our ship floated on the placid waters of the harbor. It was an island of beautiful trees and shrubs, of rippling brooks and cascades, of pretty nooks, of fair fields, and of little lakes that reflected your face as you looked into their waters.

It was a fruitful land, a land that seemed made for a dreaming people-and a dreaming people inhab­ited it.

St, Pierre was at the base of the mountains that loomed up back of it, peak on peak. Mont Pelee was a way to the north west, the highest of them all, but, like all the others, it had vegetation growing almost to the very mouth of its seem­ingly extinct crater, a crater that had resolved itself into a lake. The waters of it were clear as crystal; but I have heard that the taste was bitter, as if these waters had been steeped in herbs. On Pelee's side were brooks and rivulets of sweet water, and picnic parties often ascended almost to the very crater's edge before spreading their lunches on cloths laid on the smooth green­sward.

It was a vision of fairyland to see the sun rise in Martinique. It has no dawn as we understand it, and no twilight such as we have in the north. The sun rises very abruptly. The blue of the sky always seemed deeper to me at Martinique than anywhere else, it was such- an intense blue. As the sun lifted above the horizon, you could see all things tinted with lilac. Then yellow and violet waves seemed to be running together and intermingling in the air. The sea lost its green color. It be­came orange in the morning. At night, as the sun sank it would look almost blood­ red.

St. Pierre was a queer old city. Its buildings were ancient. Many of them were relics, I have been told, of the seven­teenth century. It was always interesting to me, when business would allow, to take a short walk through this quaint old city. During my various visits, before that last fearsome one, I had managed to walk pretty nearly all over the place. Once I slept in the city, in a queer, low-ceiled room with one of those curious old dormer ­windows. The bed was a heavy mahogany affair, with ponderous posts. Pictures in heavy frames adorned the walls.

The houses in St. Pierre were all of stone; the narrow streets were flagged in heavy stone blocks. It was the style, I suppose, in those ancient cities of three hundred years ago. And yet St. Pierre could as easily have had wide streets. There was room enough on which to build a city even on this ledge at the foot of the mountain-range, along the shores of the bay where ancient St. Pierre stood.

I do not believe there was an entirely level street in the whole city, nor one that was absolutely straight. They all turned and twisted about, around curves, and up­ and downhill. Sometimes, to continue your walk along a street it was necessary to ascend or descend stairways or else a steep incline. Wooden awnings covered with zinc shaded many of the shop fronts. The roofs of the houses were steep and full of gables.

Yellow was the color used to paint the houses, where paint was used at all. The stones of which they were built had grown gray with age, and lichen and moss covered the crevices.

Over some of the many gabled buildings, running vines climbed. Iron or wooden slats took the place of glass in the win­dows. All of them, too, were supplied with heavy wooden shutters that could be closed, making the interiors dark.

The people of St. Pierre were like the people all over the island - slow, dreamy, content. On the entire island before the eruption there were probably one hundred and fifty thou­sand of negro blood, from a dense black to a creamy white. The rest of the population in­cluded probably fifteen thousand Asiatics, and possibly the same number of pure whites. The whites, as a class, were the poor people of the island. The blacks had much of the trade. Of course, I refer, not to the foreign financial in­stitutions that had been established in St. Pierre, such as the. Banque Transat­lantique and others, but to the native-born whites.

The negroes, like those of the Southern States of Amer­ica, were a music loving peo­ple. I have often listened with delight to their songs. Some of the half-breeds were fine, stalwart looking, intelligent men. The women, some of whom were nearly white, were often entitled to be called beautiful.

They were a very super­stitious people. The natives regarded Pelee as a saint. They were firm in the belief that he would never visit them with fire again.

The overwhelming of St. Pierre did not come without warning. The people knew that the volcano threatened, as early as May 3d. Then the first belch of smoke came from its crater. Even before, a warning had come of impending eruption, for the people of Le Precheur, a village built at the very base of the western slope of Pelee had for some time been smelling sul­phurous gases in the air, the forerunner of the great outburst that was even then ma­king ready to shoot forth from beneath the rocky crust of the volcano. Pelee had indulged in a long sleep. It had not been active in more than half a century, except for the ominous rumbling some twenty-five years ago.

But this warning of May 3d was more than a mere rumbling. It was an outburst of fire and smoke. Great clouds of smoke began to pour from the crater on the after­noon of May 3d. Apparently the lake in the once extinct crater had been licked up by the heat. The smoke gave place to flame that shot hundreds of feet into the air at midnight of that day.

Then came shocks as of earthquakes. The earth trembled. The flashes of fire from the great crater kept up all that night. In the morning St. Pierre was cov­ered with a shower of hot ashes to a depth of two inches or more. Mont Pelee's top was hidden by smoke. It had not been easy to see the top even on a clear day, because of the clouds that hovered over it even when the sky in all other parts was apparently cloudless. But on May 4th, the day when the ashes fell, smoke hid Pelee's crater from sight. At night the flames came again, and on the 5th the eruption became still more threatening,

Then a stream of lava, a mile wide, ran to the sea, a distance of four miles, in three minutes; and on its way slew hun­dreds of people. The great Guerin fac­tories were wiped out. The employees were slain; their homes were licked up in a twinkling.

It would seem as if this should have stirred the entire city of St. Pierre to a panic of fear. Many persons, since my return to New York, have asked me why. the people were so dormant, so indifferent to their impending fate. To understand this, one must know the dreamy character of the people of St. Pierre. Pelee was no stranger to them. Remember, too, that they regarded it as their patron saint.

Besides, it would have been difficult for the entire population of this gay little city to escape, even if the people had so willed. Whither would they have fled? There were not ships enough to take them all away. Travel by land would have been haz­ardous over the mountain lands to the southward. It is possible that they could have accomplished it. Americans or Eng­lishmen, in a like case, would perhaps have tried it. But a native of Martinique attempt such feats? Hardly.

Some of the people did flee. The report that all remained in the city up to the last is not true. Sailboats and small yachts took some away. Others went on ships in the harbor. Most of the latter, doubtless, perished when the final outburst came.

The financial institutions of St. Pierre were the first to take the alarm. The en­tire contents of the vaults of the Colonial Bank and other banking houses were trans­ferred to the French cruiser "Suchet." But the bank officials, many of them, remained in St. Pierre, as did the rank and file of the people. They cowered in their homes, so a survivor told me in Fort de France, when I, as one of the mere handful saved, reached there on the French cruiser.

Perhaps one reason, a strong one, why the peo­ple remained so inactive might be found in the fact that Pelee gave evi­dence of subsiding on May 7th. The rumblings grew less and the fall of ashes was not so great, though the smoke was still pouring from the crater in great volume.

Now I come to that last scene in the destruc­tion of St. Pierre, the morning of May 8th. The "Roraima" steamed into the harbor of St. Pierre soon after six o'clock that morning. The air was clear, the sky a deep blue. There were no clouds. We had been struck by a light shower of ashes that morning before reaching port, but no ashes were falling in the harbor. Our vessel dropped anchor about seven hundred yards offshore. We were opposite the lighthouse. This was at the northern end of the bay, and nearer to Pelee than we should have been at the southern extrem­ity.

The volcano, of course, en­gaged the attention of all on board. Smoke was pouring upward from the crater, and it was impossible to see the summit, for the wreathing smoke concealed it. We felt some uneasiness, and said so when the agents came on board.

But they laughed at us. They said we should have been in St. Pierre three days before, and they regaled us with a description of the eruption that plowed to the sea over the Guerin factories. They asked, however, if we could not go on to St. Lucia and discharge cargo there, as sixty first ­class passengers wanted to leave St. Pierre.

They were among the prudent ones who desired to leave the city behind until all danger was past.

Captain Muggah was willing to do this, if possible - not so much because he feared Pelee, as because it was Ascension Day, and a feast day in St. Pierre. It would be impossible, therefore, to discharge any of our cargo until the next day. The Captain asked me to look over the cargo and see if that intended for St. Lucia could be re­moved without disturbing much of the con­signment for St. Pierre. You see how small a matter sometimes decides one's fate. I found that to get at the St. Lucia consignment, it would be necessary to move a lot intended for St. Pierre, as it rested on top of St. Lucia goods. Captain Mug­gah, in some disgust, decided to remain in St. Pierre until the next day, although it meant a day of idleness.

It took me until nearly eight o'clock to overhaul the cargo. We breakfasted at eight, and I lounged over to the rail to take another look at the city before going to breakfast. Some of the passengers were on deck. We had perhaps sixteen on the ship. Most of them, however, were below preparing for breakfast.

Through the glass I could see people hurrying along the narrow streets to the various churches. Ashes could still be seen on the roofs, but much of the downfall had been swept from the streets, so far as I could observe. The people were in their finest attire. And they dressed in gay colors in St. Pierre. It was always interesting to me to see these people in their holiday dress. The head dresses of the women were especially brilliant.

In idle interest, I turned my glass toward Mont Pelee. It was at that very moment that the whole top of the mountain seemed blown into the air. The sound that fol­lowed was deafening. A great mass of flames, seemingly a mile in diameter, with twisting giant wreaths of smoke, rolled thousands of feet into the air, and then overbalanced and came rolling down the seamed and cracked sides of the mountain.  Foot hills were overflowed by the onrush­ing mass. It was not mere flame and smoke. It was molten lava, giant blocks of stone and a hail of smaller stones, with a mass of scalding mud intermingled.

For one brief moment I saw the city of St. Pierre before me. Then it was blotted out by the overwhelming flood. There was no time for the people to flee. They had not even time to pray. I heard Cap­tain Muggah say: "Heave up the anchor. All hands get ready." Then I turned, to see a great wave rushing toward us from the sea. It reached us before a move could be made to heave anchor. The "Roddam's" anchor-chain could be unshackled. Ours could not. With us it was a question of raising the anchor. There was no time to do that.

I had called to Carpenter Benson to start the windlass, but before he could move, the "Roraima" rolled almost on her port beam-ends, and then as suddenly went to starboard. The funnel, masts and boats went by the board in an instant. The decks were swept clean. The hatches were staved in. The next instant a hail of fire and red-hot stones was upon the ship. Then came the scalding mud. The saloon was ablaze. The ship seemed doomed. Men were struck down all around me by flaming masses of lava. From bright sun­light the air became "dense as midnight. The smoke that rolled down from the cra­ter's mouth had blotted the sun from our vision.

To find Captain Muggah was my first effort. I stumbled through the ship look­ing for him. Finally I found him on the lower bridge-deck in shirt and trousers, his hair singed from his scalp, his whiskers and mustache burned off, a pitiable sight. He was suffering great agony. And yet in that supreme moment he did not forget his duty.

"Save the women and children!" he said. "Oh, Scott, the poor women and children!" We tried to cut away a life boat, but it had wedged in the chocks and could not be moved.  Third mate Thomas Thompson tried to help us.

I cannot go over in detail all that oc­curred during the six fearful hours spent on the "Roraima" after the eruption of Pelee. Captain Muggah was swept away, or in agony jumped overboard, I know not which. He disappeared. I could find my son nowhere on the ship. It was difficult to get about, for the decks were slippery with the hot mud that plastered them and the ship was ablaze in three places. We fought the fire desperately. Assistant purser Thompson, Carpenter Ben­son, Second engineer Evans and Fourth­ engineer Morris helped. The passengers who were still alive were huddled forward. We tried to build a raft. Two laborers from St. Kitts, who were on board, helped in this. It is doubtful if we should have sur­vived if we had committed ourselves to it, for the flames were dancing over the waters, fed by thousands of gallons of rum from the distilleries alongshore. The casks had burst and the blazing fluid floated on the surface. Pelee was still pouring its deluge of lava, rocks and ashes over the city. We could not see St. Pierre. At times we could not see one hundred feet away from the ship. At other times the pall lifted so that we could see the whole city ablaze.

We saw the "Haddam" go plunging by us at the start. We hoped for succor from her. It was vain. The pall of smoke lifted after three o'clock in the afternoon. Then we saw the French cruiser "Suchet" making for the harbor. They sent a boat that took some of the women and children.

Another boat and a launch took the others. I was the last to leave. On board the "Suchet" we received all kindness. We were rapidly taken from the harbor. The "Roraima" was ablaze fore and aft. The volcano was still belching. It seemed like the end of the world.

The word that Fort de France is threat­ened has so often been cabled to New York lately, that I have been asked if Pelee could also overwhelm that city. I can an­swer that only by saying that Fort de France is twelve miles south of Pelee, and be­tween them there are many mountain­ peaks, with deep canons running east and west. These canons are enormous, and to reach Fort de France the lava from Pelee would have to fill and overflow the canons.

Such an event would mean an eruption of a magnitude that the mind refuses to grasp. In my opinion, however, the entire island of Martinique is in danger. I believe that the whole island is under-laid with vol­canoes and other craters are likely to form and belch forth in any part of it at any time.

I believe it to be impossible to say what caused the eruption. Theories are always advanced at times like this, but the fact remains that the world knows very little of its volcanoes, until after they have erupted. Even then the information we get - acquired at so high a price - is of what they have done, not of the machinery that did it.

It was a new crater, mid way between the sea and Mont Pelee, that destroyed St. Pierre, although both the old and the new crater were in action. Around the new crater are hundreds of fissures and vents­ miniature volcanoes - all active.

It is difficult to realize that a city like St. Pierre can be swept from the earth so suddenly. Unless one returns to the subject again and again, the mind hardly takes in the full significance of the results of such a disaster. It is hard to picture in the mind's eye a city deserted by every living thing except, perhaps, rats, its streets and houses crushed out of shape, with dead bodies strewn everywhere. Aside from the loss of life, the property loss is enor­mous. One wonders at the appalling task before the government of the island, and the life and property insurance companies. One thing may be said to the credit of the United States: the government and the people of this country, in the relief move­ment immediately started for the Martinique sufferers, were the first of all to see their duty and to do it.

Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine.  July 1902.


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