Today marks the commemoration of the deadly eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique. Exactly 118 years ago, the 8th of May 1902, the town of Saint-Pierre was completely wiped out by a pyroclastic cloud – leaving behind an estimated 28 000 victims and a collection of smoldering ruins. It was the cultural and economical capital of the island and a beautiful town, nicknamed “The Pearl of West-Indies” and “Little Paris”.
Every year the town organizes a cultural event called the “May of Saint-Pierre” to commemorate the catastrophe, but due to the corona virus lock-down this year’s event has been cancelled and partly moved to the internet. I’ll for sure miss eating ital and listening to good reggae while shopping for handicrafts on the rasta market, normally taking place end of May in the town. You might be interested in checking out some old postcards that the Fondation Clément is publishing of Saint-Pierre on its Facebook page or to discover the highlights of last year’s program here.
We’re commemorating this day by sharing with you our selection of the top historic sites to see in this “Pompeii of the Caribbean”, that we hope to be able to take you to discover in the months to come! We’ve listed some must-sees that are very popular among visitors but also less known places that will allow you to explore on a deeper level and off the beaten path.
Mémorial 1902 museum
Number one on our list is the unmissable Memorial 1902 museum, established in 1933 by the American volcanologist Frank Perret who came to the island to study the volcano in 1929. This small museum was bought by the Fondation Clément and completely renovated in 2019 and the exhibition was also totally rethought and reorganized. The visitor will discover the town’s history before and after the catastrophe and of course a big part of the museum is dedicated to the eruption itself. Old photographs, melted and distorted objects found from the ruins as well as the names of thousands of victims in the center of the museum makes the visit a touching experience. The multilingual audioguide enhances the visit furthermore. Don’t miss the beautiful view next to the old canons, under the museum you’ll see the ruins of the old warehouses used for stocking merchandise. Open daily 9 am – 6 pm, 169 Rue Victor Hugo, Saint-Pierre.
Theater of Saint-Pierre
Only about 50 meters from the museum is found the famous theatre of Saint-Pierre, originally built in 1786 and renovated many times, due to being damaged in hurricanes. It was the cultural heart of the town and the pride of the inhabitants. Seating 800 persons, the building is said to be inspired by the theatre of Bordeaux. Famous groups came to play here all the way from Paris and the scene also hosted operas, ballets and political debates. A huge restauration was done in 1900, after the theatre had been badly damaged in the hurricane of 1891. The costly renovation and some internal turmoil caused the theatre’s director to go bankrupt and the building is closed, never to open before being destroyed in the eruption the year after. An interesting detail is the electrical transformers still intact on the site. By looking down to the prison on the left of the building one can see the small isolation cell where the legendary survivor, Ludger Sylbaris, claimed to have been during the eruption.
The theater was the first building to be extracted from the debris in 1935 and nowadays classified as a historical monument. Free entrance and access.
Next to the theatre was found the prison of Saint-Pierre. An old prison existed on the spot dating from the 17th century, and the ruins of the current prison are from 1851. The prison was destined to petty criminals serving maximum 1 month sentences, the bigger criminals being sent to Fort-de-France. In 1902 a young man named Ludger Sylbaris was detained here after having wounded a friend with a machete knife during a fight. A few days before the eruption while being sent to do some labour in town he hears of a festival happening in the evening in his home town, le Prêcheur and manages to flee to go there. He goes and has his fun, and then returns to the prison in the morning to finish his sentence, getting 8 days in solitary confinement as an extra punishment. The cell where he’s locked is a tiny building in the courtyard of the prison with very thick walls and an arched roof.
It’s in this cell that he allegedly survives the eruption and from where he’s extracted three days later by a group of men, and then taken to the town of Morne-Rouge to heal. He was in fact badly burned by the toxic gases from the eruption, resulting to 3rd degree burns in his back and face. In Morne-Rouge the father Mary takes care of him and an American reporter, Georges Kennan comes to interview him, publishing his incredible survival story in the US. The Barnum and Bailey’s circus hears about him and comes to hire him to their circus. He tours with the circus, recounting the horrors of the eruption and showing his scars, advertised as the ‘Man who lived through Doomsday”. His glory was short-lived unfortunately, and not much is known from his later life. He worked for the Barnum and Baileys for just one year, later serving in prison and died in Panama in 1929 from malaria.
Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral Church
A modest church was built on this site in 1654, and the tower and bell of the chapel were destroyed by the British in a bombardment in 1667. Reconstructed in 1675 the church goes through several restorations and is made bigger during the following centuries. In the 19th century the church is modified again as it’s now the seat of the diocese and thus the cathedral. The town wishes the church to reflect this new status and in the 1850’s it is renovated and built in neoclassical and neobaroque style, also adding two bell towers. Tragically on the day of the eruption the church was full of people celebrating the Mass of Ascension, turning the church into a crematorium and melting the bells. Only a small part of the façade survived the eruptions (as there was a second one on the 20th of May) as well as the high altar in marble. Restauration of the church started only in 1923 and is still continuing. The new church is mostly made in reinforced concrete and hosts stained-glass windows by the local artist Victor Anicet, installed in 2006. Free visit, open in the mornings, rue Victor Hugo.
This haunting cemetery hosts old graves from the centuries gone by as well as the ossuary where the bones of the victims of the eruption were gathered in 1922. On the walls of this memorial are found several plaques with the names of some notable victims, mostly clergy and the wealthiest families of the town. It’s worth a visit for its ominous atmosphere and old graves. Rue Alfred Lacroix.
Vierge des Marins
On top of the Morne D’Orange hill is found a beautiful statue of Virgin Mary overlooking the bay of Saint-Pierre. Erected in 1870 to protect the local fishermen the statue was projected from its socle during the eruption but did not break. It was put back to its original place in 1921 and enjoys a miraculous reputation for the locals due to surviving the catastrophe. The view from up there is also breathtaking! To get to the statue, drive up the steep and narrow (not kidding, this is not for the faint of heart!) road leaving next to the Mouillage cemetery towards Saint-Denis, but turn right instead of going towards Saint-Denis. There’s a small sign after the cemetery, marked “Vierge des Marins”. On the top of the hill, either park next to the road close to a viewpoint, or turn right, taking the downward road and park down by the statue. There’s not a lot of parking space but it is doable.
The center of the town of the old days, Bertin square remains central to the town and is bordered by the marché couvert (1924) (covered market) and the maison de la bourse (chamber of commerce). The square faces the anchorage and the pier and used to be where all the different merchandise like rum barrels, sugar and codfish used to stocked before and after their voyage. Ninety percent of the island’s commerce used transit through this square before the eruption of 1902. The maison de la bourse is a replica of the original, rebuilt in 1992. Take a walk on the pier and note the map showing the whereabouts of the shipwrecks in the bay that sunk in the eruption. From the end of the pier there’s also a nice view of the town.
La maison coloniale de santé
One of the lesser known ruins of the town, the “colonial house of health” at Rue Levassor was the first psychiatric hospital of the West-Indies inaugured in 1839. Reputed as a very modern establishment, it is run by nuns and overseen by doctors and nurses. The hospital becomes quite popular and is quickly made bigger. In 1900 it can host 200 patients and proposes “cutting-edge” hydrotherapies to heal the patients. The patients are plunged in cold water from the sources of the volcano, then jet showered before locking them to their rooms. Several sinister metal chairs, used to calm the most violent patients can still be seen in the ruins of the hospital.
There are several other ruins and places in Saint-Pierre bearing witness to the tragic eruption, also worth a visit that didn’t make this list – for example the ruins of the Fort church and the Mont au ciel -road. If you are a good diver, it’s even possible to dive to see the shipwrecks in the bay – just contact the local diving schools. After the eruption the town was abandoned and only in the 1920’s it was slowly repopulated again, people building their houses using the ruins as the foundations and as building materials. Nowadays it’s a small, sleepy, rural town with only about four thousand inhabitants – a shadow of its former glory days.