Some Humans and a Volcano: the Different Eruptions of Mount Pelee

tanlistwa, montagne pelée, pelean montain, Saint-pierre,

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Almost everyone knows, if not the date, at least the event of the eruption of Mount Pelee on May 8, 1902, because it took more than 28,000 people lives with it, destroyed what was once considered the small Paris of the West Indies and led to the development of the foundations of modern vulcanology by Alfred Lacroix. Fewer people know that this was not the last eruption, however, because there was also the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1929. But do you know of any other eruptive events than those of the 20th century? In this month of May, in which the tragic event is commemorated, I wondered whether a chronology of eruptions existed. I limited myself to the eruptions that occurred during the period of human settlement on the island, which has been going on for about 4500 years. Today, I’m listing eruptions from Mount Pelee and there are probably more than you can imagine!

Eruptions before European colonization

When my free time allows me, I like to take part in archaeological excavations on a voluntary basis. Recently, I participated in one of them in Macouba on a former Amerindian occupation site. The layers of pumice stones in the stratigraphy of the surveys materialized the trace of two volcanic eruptions; this is how I discovered that eruptions were known well before European colonization. Indeed, the Amerindians of the Lesser Antilles form a protohistoric civilization; that is, they did not use the written word. The writings about them do not come directly from them, but from other peoples who have observed them, in this case the Europeans present since the 15th century. Before this period, there is therefore no written record that could evoke the volcanic eruptions they experienced. Nevertheless, thanks to soil surveys, it is known that there were at least four major eruptions during the period of Amerindian occupation.

  • one eruption between 768 and 403 BC
  • one eruption between 388 BC and 255 AD
  • one eruption between 252 and 431 AD
  • one eruption between 1284 and 1390 AD

As you can see, you can’t get a very precise date; the sequences are sometimes very large. The other thing to keep in mind is that not all eruptions necessarily leave traces of pumice in the soil; the Pelée has also experienced, for example, groundwater-type eruptions. So we have a minimum list here. Nevertheless, it gives an idea of what the Amerindians had to deal with and provides a better understanding of their successive installation on different sites.

Volcanic eruptions since European colonization

tanlistwa, montagne pelée, pelean montain, Saint-pierre,
Saint-Pierre et la montagne Pelée en 1933

With the arrival of the Europeans, the eruptions were now documented by writing. We therefore have descriptions and observations transcribed from historical sources. Since the time of the European conquests, 5 major eruptions have taken place.

  • Shortly before or in 1635 (magmatic type)
    In 1792 (groundwater type)
  • Between August 1851 and February 1852
    with a peak of activity on August 5, 1851 (groundwater type)
  • Between April 1902 and October 1905
    with the major eruption of May 8, 1902 (of the Peleen type)
  • Between September 1929 and December 1932
    with a peak of activity on October 18, 1929 (magmatic type).

And you, did you know about these different eruptions? Do you know of any archives that talk about it? On occasion I will write notes to evoke in particular the history of the oldest eruptions of the historical period. Until then, you can already read the post An Unrecognized Eruption: The Eruption of Mount Pelee in 1929 which I dedicate to the last phase of activity of our volcano.


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