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   The ERUPTION of MOUNT PELEE
( or...How an election killed the entire electorate)

Politicians will do almost anything to win an election, even if it means killing off your entire electorate. Such a case occurred in 1902 in the beautiful town of St. Pierre, Martinique. Martinique is located in the Caribbean Sea, about 400 miles northeast of Venezuela.

 An election to choose a representative to France from each of the island's two arrondissements (districts) was slated for May 10, 1902 that stood great chance of changing the balance of power on the island.  In one corner, we have the ruling Progressive Party that stood for total white supremacy and had ruled the island for centuries.  In the opposing corner, we find the newly formed Radical Party, which represented Martinique's black and mulatto majority.  Just three years earlier, in the 1899 elections, a black man named Amédee Knight had been elected as the island's senator.  The Progressive Party was determined to make sure that no other black man would hold political office.  It was a heated battle of the rich against the poor, black against white.

But even more heat was coming from the giant on which the island was built - Mount Pelée.

In early April, Mt. Pelée started to rumble. It began to spew out clouds of ash and noxious fumes from its crater. The narrow streets of St. Pierre started to become buried in layers of the fine ash. The people were worried, but no one was more worried than Governor Mouttet was. He had just been appointed to the position seven months earlier by the French government, and it would be a great embarrassment if he let the Radical party assume the elected representation to France. The election was a close call and the Governor did all that he could to manipulate it.  The last thing he needed was for the people to panic and leave the island.  He knew very well that the only people with enough money to leave the island were the white minority. If they left, the Progressive Party would lose the election to the Radicals. He had to do something to keep them from leaving. Mouttet persuaded the island's major newspaper, Les Colonies, to downplay the dangers of the volcano and to blame the ever-growing panic and fear of Pelée on the Radical Party.  For years, the paper had supported the ruling Governor on every issue, and this was no exception.

On May 3, a fissure blew on the volcano and the ash and mud destroyed a mountain village and flowed down the river that passed through St. Pierre.

The American consul dispatched a telegram to Washington. Mouttet intercepted the telegram and sent his own message that stated that the eruption was subsiding and the danger was gone. Unfortunately, this was not true. Ash continued to rain down and roofs collapsed all around the city.   Hundreds of people that lived in the country closer to the volcano had been killed during various eruptive episodes.  Those that survived crowded into St. Pierre and its population swelled to about 30,000 people. The city residents wanted to leave, but Mouttet just could not afford to let this happen.   It had been rumored at the time that the Governor had given orders to keep the entire population of St. Pierre from leaving. Coincidentally, on May 7, the volcano Soufriére on the nearby  island of St. Vincent erupted. Nearly 2,000 people died from its deadly force.  The eruption of Soufriére actually offered some comforting relief to the residents of St. Pierre - they reasoned that the eruption caused the pressure on their volcano to subside.

That same evening, the Governor and his wife visited St. Pierre and stayed at the Hotel de l?Independence.   He was there to help restore the confidence of his people.  When he arrived, he realized just how bad things really were and decided that it was time to evacuate the city.  He would make his announcement after the High Mass celebration scheduled at the Cathedral the very next day.

Mouttet would never get to give the evacuation orders.  At 7:59 the next morning, several cracking explosions were heard from Mt. Pelée.  It was the beginning of the end.

A large black cloud blew out of the volcano. Lightning bolts shot out of the billowing smoke. Even worse, a searing avalanche of volcanic gasses and debris raced down the mountain. This glowing cloud, known technically as a nuée ardente [cloud of fire ], moved down the slopes toward St. Pierre.With temperatures in excess of 1300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 Celsius), the avalanche moved at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. The last word the outside world would ever hear from the city was at 8:02 AM when the St. Pierre telegraph operator sent the message of  "Allez" (go) to the Fort-de-France operator.   Just one minute later, a wireless operator aboard the ship Pouyer-Quertier sent the message "St. Pierre destroyed by Pelée eruption.  Send all assistance."  In seconds, St. Pierre was in flames.  Scores of blazing people could be seen fleeing the fireball. Their scorched flesh sizzled as it entered the water.  A wall of flaming rum that had spread across the water ultimately killed those that made it this far.

Rescue teams were slow to arrive.  The distant ships that did see the eruption thought that it was Soufriére and totally bypassed Martinique.  The great maritime powers of Great Britain, Japan, Germany and the United States had all sent help to St. Vincent. They had no idea how much worse things were in St. Pierre.

Of course, rescue teams would have been of little help.  The eruption would eventually prove to be the deadliest of the 20th century and the third deadliest in the past two thousand years. All 30,000 residents, including Governor Mouttet and his wife, were boiled alive. Most of the deceased were found stark naked.   Their clothes vaporized right off their bodies. The city was totally demolished.

But, the ultimate twist in this story had to do with a nineteen year old man named Auguste Ciparis, who was found in an underground jail cell. He was badly burned, his cell was filled with rubble, and he had to wait three days before rescue arrived. Why was he here? It seems that Ciparis was a black man that had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white Frenchman with a cutlass.  He was scheduled to hang on Thursday, May 8th - the same day as the eruption! Of course, his captors never came to take him away.

In a great twist of fate, the 30,000 people that sentenced him to death ended up being the ones killed. The man that was sentenced to die was the only one in the city that survived. This is tragic irony at its best. Auguste was lucky enough to have his sentence commuted.  It was later learned that the Governor had planned on granting him a pardon in a last ditch effort to throw the election his way.  Ciparis
later went on to earn a living as a sideshow in the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  His act?  He spent his days living in a replica of his cell.  Ciparis eventually died in 1929.  The photo to the right shows the destroyed city of Martinique following the eruption of Mt. Pelee in 1902. (Heilprin, 1902)