On the occasion of the Heritage Days, I visited the house of volcanoes in Morne-Rouge, which screened a very good documentary film on volcanism in the Caribbean and proposed several exhibition spaces, some of which were obviously on Mount Pelee. When we talk about the eruptions of our mountain, it is often with in mind the tragic eruption of May 8, 1902, which in a matter of seconds resulted in the death of at least 28,000 people, destroyed within a few hours a city from the map and led to Alfred Lacroix’s elaboration of the foundations of modern vulcanology.
This is also what had in mind the Martiniquais who were fleeing their land in the night of September 16, 1929, when the beautiful asleep woke up. Today, I am not talking about the eruption of 1902, but about an unknown eruption: the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1929. This is the title and subject of the French museum services book of the Martinique local authority, taken from a 2008 exhibition, which, beyond the eruption, also offers a panorama of the political, economic and social life of the period. I found interesting to dive into the story of the last eruption of our volcano that our collective memory remembers little.
On the eve of the 1929 eruptions, political discussions to restore economic activity in the North following the 1902 disaster were well underway. Did you know that the (more numerous) supporters of the revitalization of Saint-Pierre were opposed to those who supported the construction of a port in La Trinité? The post-war debates defended the modernization of the Creole city and the opening up to nascent tourism, because already « The city of Saint-Pierre and the mountain Pelee have become a center of curiosity and attraction for American tourists who come not thousands« (1), an interest that still continues to this day. But nobody seemed to worry about a possible new eruption, the threat seemed to be over, the volcano was asleep for several years. It was therefore not without surprise that the Martiniquais witnessed a new eruptive phase on 16 September 1929.
After a resurgence of fumaroles in August, a rock eruption occured on September the 16th, with no casualties and much less material destruction than in 1902. On the other hand, it generated spontaneous leakage of surrounding populations. And in the early morning of 14 October, the mountain woke up again, leading to evacuations for several months of 10,000 refugees. From 20 November to February 1930, the volcano produced new burning clouds and magma.
The population movements that took place in September and October had a cost and generated social and economic disorganization of the island. Apart from the actual management of the refugees over several months, the desertion of the surrounding area of Pelee did not pose problems.
For example, we can discover declarations of losses such as those of Dame Etile Demosthène dressmaker, the bride and mother of three children: « Because of the volcanic eruptions in October, I had to abandon my property and all its contents, to take refuge in Fort-de-France. Since the aid in kind that was granted to us was insufficient, I went back to harvest the ripe vegetables that I had abandoned hastily, and was surprised to see the immense damage done both by the raving animals and by the dishonest people who took advantage of the evacuation to steal the abandoned fields.
The infrastructure and major public works projected in and around Saint-Pierre were also shut down. Did you know, for example, that a dam could have been built at Saut Babin (in the municipality of Ajoupa Bouillon) to power a hydroelectric plant? The project was abandoned following the eruption in favour of a thermal power plant in Fort-de-France. As a result of the volcanic activity, several works projects were mainly planned outside the « Pelee » zone, such as electrification of the island or… the construction of a university city. Yes, you read it well, the university that was created in 1982 still has a long history behind it, but I didn’t think it was so long ago!
The sudden activity of the volcano has also prompted institutional thinking about what to do: abandoning certain territories such as Le Prêcheur, building roads to facilitate evacuations – such as the one linking Deux-Choux and Morne-Rouge to reach Fort-de-France -, building equipment or shelters for the safety of people, conducting continuous monitoring of volcanic activity with scientific tools, setting up observatories were all elements to think about.
One learns in passing many elements on the role of the observatory of the Morne des Cadets (whom I will speak to you again one day for his beautiful seismograph Quervain Picard of 20 tons) in the monitoring of volcanic, seismic, and even cyclonic activity thanks to the documents left by its director of the time, Auguste Boutin. As I read it, I was able to realize how far scientific tools available at the time to study the activity of a volcano – especially at rest – were from the monitoring we have today.
Although not very vivid in our memories, the volcanic eruptions of 1929 thus had important consequences in political, economic and social choices. The construction of roads, the location of infrastructures, buildings for monitoring volcanic activity… are all traces of this volcanic episode still visible in the island’s landscape.
And you, apart from 1902 and 1929, do you know of any other eruptions of the Pelee?
(1) Césaire Philémon, Galeries martiniquaises. Expositions coloniales internationales, Paris, 1931, p 11.
Iconography from Manioc.org
Nouvelle éruption de la montagne Pelée ( 24 novembre 1929 ), 1931
Evacuation de Saint-Pierre dans l’après-midi du Lundi 14 Octobre 1929,after the second eruption of Mount Pelee
Thanks to Maurice Henry, one of the major contributors to the texts of this book and also to the texts of the exhibitions of the house of volcanoes, for sharing his knowledge with me.
I only found the book for sale at the Musée d’ histoire et d’ ethnographie (Boulevard du Général de Gaulle, Fort-de-France) for the moment, but it should eventually be distributed in other territorial museums and hopefully also in bookstores.