Mount Pelee

24th October 2003 at 01:00
In 1635 the French turned up on the Caribbean island of Martinique. They killed most of the people and set about getting rich quick. Their wealth was built on slaves, sugar cane and rum. Their town, St Pierre, was built on the slopes of a volcano.

Mount Pelee was named after a Hawaiian goddess, an angry deity with a body of steam and lava, who could cause earthquakes by stamping her feet. The French scoffed, and renamed her mountain chauve, meaning bald. But in April 1902 her presence was sensed in St Pierre. Pelee began to rumble and fume.

Ash was falling on the town and its people choked on sulphurous gases. Time to leave, surely? Unfortunately, the forces of ignorance and politics said no. Elections to the French senate were due on May 10. Three years previously Martinique's black majority had begun to rattle its chains, electing one of their own as a senator. The ruling whites, represented by the so-called Progressive party, were determined this should not happen again.

Louis Mouttet, the island's new governor, understood the need to get a white man elected. But he did not understand volcanoes. He urged the island's newspaper to play down the danger and telegrammed Washington to say the eruption was subsiding. He did not want his wealthy white friends to scarper with their votes. Meanwhile, the population of St Pierre was swelling as people fled from villages nearer the mountain. And the ash was still falling. Mouttet was brave enough to come to the town to reassure the people. When he arrived on May 7 he realised Pelee was not to be trifled with and decided to announce the town's evacuation the next day after High Mass in the cathedral.

He never did. At 7.59 that morning Pelee erupted. In the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, a superheated cloud of gas, dust and rock raced towards St Pierre with the speed of a hurricane. In seconds more than 27,000 people died, burnt and choked by the nuee ardente, or glowing cloud.

Three months later Pelee exploded again. The new governor had refused to evacuate nearby villages and another glowing cloud claimed a further 1,085 lives.

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