Saturday, June 3, 2017
The eruption of Pelee, the wrath of God
Thanks to Clive Cussler's book Piranha, a long forgotten chapter of human history has been found again. The story starts off in 1902 in Martinique in the town of St Pierre where the deadliest eruption in history took place.
The eruption of Mt Pelee was the worst volcanic eruption in history that resulted in tremendous casualties. The eruption killed far more people than did Vesuvius in the first century AD when it erupted burying the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
St Pierre in Martinique was a town of 30,000, considered the Paris of the Caribbean. It was also a town of hedonism and sin. A town that allowed every unimaginable evil. A town that was blasphemous as well as decadent.
After the eruption of May 8th 1902 of the 30,000 people who lived in St Pierre, only 2 survived.
Historian Kyle Weissman tells the story of events leading to the eruption, how the government covered up what it knew about Pelee, the events that kindled God's wrath and the 2 people who "survived Doomsday."
The town of St Pierre on the French Caribbean island of Martinique is a shadow of its former glory. Only 5000 people live there as opposed to 30,000 during its heyday when it was known as the Paris of the Caribbean. It was much like New Orleans
The town was also known as the Sodom of the Caribbean, a town rife with prostitution, decadence, blasphemy, homosexuality and unbelief. It was a town that is very much like our own Las Vegas and San Francisco. Very much like New Orleans as well. It would wind up the same way as Sodom.
The town was in the shadow of Martinique's volcano, Mt Pelee. The volcano was known as the easy going volcano. It was not violent, it erupted about once or twice every century and the eruptions were quiet eruptions. The worst known at the time was in the middle of 1851. The volcano belched lava which wound through cliffs and canyons into the ocean and fumed smoke and ash as well as a sulphuric smell.
It was not a bother to St Pierre. It was in fact a landmark and a magnificent tourist attraction. In addition to a harmless volcano which seemed to add to the charm, there was fine weather, charming architecture, freedom, good hotels, a theater, there was a park near the crater of Pelee. It was considered fun to have a picnic on the top of a safe and harmless volcano.
But people in those days knew little or nothing of volcanoes. Volcanology was in its infancy, everyone had agreed that Volcanoes were merely gateways to hell rather than natural structures with a chamber of magma and vents to travel to the top, no one knew the warning signs that it was not safe.
No one knew in 1901 or 1902 that there was danger below. A new magma chamber was forming far beneath the mountain, it was slowly gradually rising from the earth. Oh, there were a few minor earthquakes but it was nothing to fear at the time. Mt Pelee, hidden in mist rising over St Pierre, the amicable volcano, the easy going volcano, harmless. Kept safe from distance and terrain.
But it was waking and becoming active. Distance and Terrain, no longer a shield...
And people in those days knew nothing of the dangers that formed, 30,000 people stayed in their homes to die.
Why? Were there warning signs? What did Paris and the capitol of Martinique Fort-de-France do if anything? Did they know of the dangers?
And Could it be that God and his wrath was connected to what happened? God's wrath on the sins of St Pierre and what happened in St Pierre that kindled that red hot anger?
Jeremiah 23: 29: "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?
The town of St Pierre was the Paris of the West Indies. It was also the Sodom of the west indies. The town was known for its mockery of God and its godless radicalism. Many left wing radicals with French revolutionary notions, even those discarded as abominable and dangerous resided there. The people mocked God. The town was also known for high crime, decadence, prostitution and homosexuality.
In January of 1902, shortly before Pelee began to show signs of waking, a group of radical atheists walked up to the top of Pelee where a crucifix was placed atop. It had been there for over a century. The radicals, drunk and angry took the crucifix and threw it into the crater yelling, "Go back to the hell that you created!"
A local priest went down to the crater to fetch it and put it back up. It was then thrown again, and again, and again. Nothing was done to prevent it.
It was at that time that Pelee began to wake up and show warning signs that we would today recognize as signs of imminent danger and eruption....
February 1902 3 months before the eruption
Witnesses report smoke and fummuroles coming from the top of Mount Pelee. The smell of sulphur is in the air and the ground at the top is very very hot. Although the volcano is usually clouded in mist, in mid day it is seen smoking.
March 1902, 2 months before the eruption
Geysers of hot water are seen nearby shooting into the air, ponds and lakes nearby begin to boil and tiny balls of sulphur ring the lakes. People begin to show signs of worry and concern but the local governor assures the populace that all is well and that the volcano is just a bit moody. Its mood really is changing...
Elections were being held on the island of Martinique, the Island had two seats in French parliament. There were also elections for mayor and a new popular governor had arrived.
It was also the beginning of the season of Lent and with it the holiday of Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras or Carnival, a holiday that dates back to medieval times held before the Lenten Season. It is a time of decadence, pleasure and feasting before the season of fasting, abstinence and piety.
The church barely condones or tolerates it, often times priests and clergy have condemned it and rightly so, Carnival celebration then as now have been known to spiral out of control into decadence, drunkeness, even outright blasphemy. In the Caribbean in the French colonies and former French territories Carnival and Fat Tuesday were particularly known for this.
The salvation army had a band from the United States visiting St Pierre during Mardi gras. The soldiers were playing hymnals, preaching the gospel and warning sinners of all kind of the wrath of God and their need to repent. The band was routinely attacked and mocked.
To top it all off, Mardi Gras was concluded with two reported acts of sacrilege, one instance, a group of radicals, possibly the same gang that knocked the crucifix into the volcano had held a mock crucifixion in front of the church and attacked the Salvation army band. They will repeat this act again on Easter Sunday. They had taken a pig, crucified it, placed a crown of thorns and held it up and began shouting blasphemous slogans.
The second was equally terrible. A statue of the virgin Mary had been parading around and people had been looking up Mary's skirts in derision.
The local government responded to these and other acts of excess that took place by ordering the Salvation army to leave the city. This they did, brushing the dust from their feet and returning home to America from St Pierre, a city that had mocked God, a city beneath a deadly mountain that was no longer amicable and easy going, a city that was doomed.
APRIL 1902 ONE MONTH BEFORE THE ERUPTION
Elections, both local and in Paris were inconclusive.there will be another election held May 24th. It will never arrive...
Mt Pelee shows more signs of brooding and anger, the wife of the American Consulate writes home of large explosions like a cannon fire coming from the volcano. Onlookers step out and see lightning on the mountain's summit. At night there is glowing on the mountain top.
According to modern Volcanologists, the booming is the sound of solid rock breaking from being pushed upward from hot magma below the mountain, the rock splitting and letting out fumes of sulphuric gas. This fuming will build up before the mountain can no longer hold it in resulting in an eruption.
There are also mudslides reported on the mountain side.
The people begin to stir and panic. The government fearing a loss at the may election tries to calm the population by ordering them to stay. St Pierre makes requests to Fort-de-France to send troops to stop mass evacuations. they oblige.
To further quell fears a team of geologists and volcanologists was summoned to go up to Mt Pelee and examine for signs of an imminent eruption. Meanwhile in Fort-de-France, the governor of Martinique telegram's Paris about the situation and requests assistance for a possible evacuation of St Pierre and surrounding villages.
Keep in mind that volcanology studies were not as well known as now. When the scientists arrived, they witnessed hot steam coming from the old crater and a large cinder cone sticking out of the nearby dry lake bed. Ash also begins to rain on the city.
Nothing like this had ever before been witnessed by the scientists. But they were inconclusive. They did not know what to make of it. They decided that nothing was wrong however and that there was no danger of a large scale eruption threatening the city of St Pierre. At worst, any eruption from Pelee would be diverted to the valleys adjacent to the city and into the ocean.
In light of this revelation, Paris sends word to Martinique that evacuation request was denied. They are ordered to do all they can to prevent people from leaving the city until elections are completed on May 24th. 16 days after Pelee will erupt.
MAY 1902, ONE WEEK BEFORE THE ERUPTION
The Lenten season has little effect on the population. Father Marie' Francois, a priest from out of town visited St Pierre to witness the volcano's activity but by then it had quieted down again. Rain from a storm had also washed away the ash and spirits were high in the town.
Father Marie' wrote a letter to a friend of his noting the behavior of the people of the town, that Lent was not observed and that he had witnessed people drinking in public and feasting when they should be fasting. Meat was also eaten on Friday in violation.
MAY 7th 1902 ONE DAY BEFORE THE ERUPTION
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
An article from a local paper, an editor quoting from an interview with Professor M. Landes volcanologist which read, "Mont Pelee presents no more danger to the inhabitants of St. Pierre than does Vesuvius to those of Naples." The Newspaper added, ‘We confess we cannot understand this panic. Where could one be better off than in St. Pierre?”
MAY 8th ASCENSION DAY THE DAY OF THE ERUPTION
Today brings another holiday to St Pierre, Ascension day. A day of celebrating and carousing than that of holy observance. The cathedral in St Pierre is sparse. Few show up for mass that day.
Meanwhile, things have been quiet from Mt Pelee. To the people of St Pierre, the worst is over, Pelee has calmed from its bad mood. In reality, pressure has built up within the mountain. The volcano has no place to vent it as the vents have closed up from hot magma. It is on the verge of erupting...
On 7:45 Am, three loud booms are heard on Martinique coming from Mt Pelee. In St Pierre and other communities, onlookers turn to witness an eruption of black smoke pouring from the top of Pelee, the smoke cloud is grey, glowing and grows AS IT MOVES RAPIDLY TOWARDS ST PIERRE!!
It is what we now know as a pyroclastic flow. It had never been witnessed or photographed in history until now.
This photo was taken by a British Photographer on a ship of the coast of St Pierre who himself nearly died as the flow headed to St Pierre. Sailors witnessed the people running in different directions scattering in panic, then falling when the smoke hits.
It takes only three minutes for the pyroclastic flow to hit the town and engulf it. Temperatures inside are hot enough to melt gold coins and glass. Buildings explode, people are incinerated, some of those indoors suffocate from the hot air.
St Pierre, The Paris of the Caribbean and all 30,000 of its inhabitants save 2, are dead.
Before and after photos of St Pierre once the Jewel of the Caribbean
Only two survived out of a town of 30,000. One was Louis Auguste Cyparis, who was in jail for a drunken brawl during mardi Gras. He was the most known and famous of the survivors. He was found near death in his solitary confinement cell which protected him from the eruption. He toured with PT Barnum's circus as a star.
The other survivor was a shoe cobbler named Léon Compère-Léandre who lived on the edge of town. The Pyroclastic cloud stopped 11 feet from his house.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The destructive eruption of Mt pelee took place on May 8th 1902 at approximately 7:45 AM local time. It still ranks the most devastating eruption in terms of casualties in history. Even more greater than the eruption of Mt Vesuvius which destroyed Herculanium and Pompeii nearly two thousand years earlier in 79 AD.
Some say it was the wrath of God that destroyed St Pierre. The city which had blasphemed and sinned away its grace, that mocked God who would not be mocked many say was destroyed by God.
One thing is certain from what we know now, the eruption that killed St Pierre and its inhabitants was one that was rare, unlikely yet seemed written in the very ground on and beneath Vesuvious.
In researching this topic, what came to my mind was Romans chapter 9 verses 21-23, God prepares vessels that is people who are destined for wrath and destruction and those for mercy. He does this to make his richness and glory known. Could this have been his intention with St Pierre?
St Pierre was built in 1635 in a part of Martinique where it would best withstand volcanic activity. When the city was built almost 3 centuries earlier, its founders knew little of volcanic eruptions. There were few such active volcanoes in Europe mostly around the Italian Peninsula. They assumed that all eruptions were lava flows. The terrain they imagined would deflect such a disaster and move the flows of molten rock away into the valley and the sea.
But they knew nothing of Pyroclastic eruptions. The terrain beneath Pelee facing Vesuvius was just right to guide such an eruption like that in 1902 like a bullet at the doomed city.
The particular eruption that took place was a rare kind of Pyroclastic eruption, it was as sideways eruption.
When pressure inside the volcano builds up it needs a place to go. The mountain expands but then cracks leaving fissures for steam and lava to pour out of it. The eruptions don't always come from the top of the crater. The eruption of Pelee was a sideways eruption, that is, a sideways blast that shot at high speeds hot pumice and fierry smoke and heat directly at the city. The topography, the contours guided the hot mass to St Pierre.
When Volcanologists climbed to the top of Pelee, they found that the old crater was undisturbed, but at the dry lake bed, a massive fissure had opened up. It was from this fissure that the eruption came forth killing the populace. A large glowing cinder Cone also formed there and remained until it collapsed a year later.
The eruption from the fissure was like a gun shot at pointblank range at the town.
St Pierre was a vessel destined for wrath and destruction. St Pierre, decadent, wicked, inviting God's wrath upon her.
Today, St Pierre is a shadow of its former glory. Many of the ruins of old St Pierre still remain. Few desire to reside and work there. It is a town believed to be cursed.
And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name."