From the Ashes
”a volcano that in 1902 wiped out the entire population of St Pierre, the “Paris of the Caribbean” in less than three minutes.”
Our anchorage for most of this week was in the shadow of Mount Pelée, a volcano that in 1902 wiped out the entire population of St Pierre, the “Paris of the Caribbean” in less than three minutes. Reportedly only a couple of people survived, one of which was a prisoner named Louis Cyparis. Locked in a thick walled dungeon, he somehow escaped the burning gas that had killed everyone else and sunk every ship in the harbour. Because of this legendary status, he was invited to join the American Barnum’s Circus, which he accepted. St Pierre is a pleasure to explore and the ruins of many prominent buildings which were wiped out by the volcano remain. Ruins are one of my favourite things, I love the reminder that they pose that humankind is here for such a short time; nature reclaims what was once pristine and majestic. Here, unlike in Ramesses II’s Egypt where the ‘lone and level sands stretch far away’ to erase his once mighty statue and constructions*, it is the tropical vegetation smothering and strangling what was manmade.
We hiked up to the statue of the Virgin Mary which overlooks our anchorage. It was a steep hike but we were overawed by the monumental vegetation. Finally we reached the statue. Mary looked down over our heads in her white dress and blue cape, hands outstretched up on her white pedestal. She’s 2000 years old (the idea of Mary, not the statue). Ramesses II was 3,000 years old when Shelley and his friend Horace Smith both wrote their poems about his decaying statue. Will humans still survive another thousand years on this heating planet? We had a view over the whole bay with all the yachts anchored closely to the shore. 386 French vessels were lost in the 1902 eruption - only one ship managed to escape to St Lucia in time. Most remain wrecked in the harbour and are visited by divers. We made our way down a dirt path, briefly sheltering under a tree during a shower. Then, flip flops muddied we finally arrived at a fort reclaimed by nature. A large cannon, partially submerged by green tendrils faced the bay. Collapsing stone walls merged with slender and chunky roots of a tree, now mature, sprouting from the earth around the walls and slowly engulfing them entirely. We made our way back down the hill and back to the boat. Another downpour and then out came the sun and two bright sparkling rainbows appeared, one on top of the other. We took our paddleboards and paddled over to the coast, peering into the cracks in the red stone caves, gazing at sculptures on shore and looking at the black volcanic sand of the beaches.
The next day we saw more glorious ruins. First the grand theatre with its double stairwell, once the pride of the ‘pearl of the Caribbean’. Actually the theatre went bankrupt the year before the eruption in 1901; but still, the damage to the structure was caused by the volcano. Only the stone foundations remain. Almost hidden in a corner is a striking statue of a woman. Looking like a bestricken bedraggled mermaid but with legs, she was sculpted in 1917 and represents the pain caused to St Pierre by the eruption. Next door were the ruins of the prison which housed the supposedly lone survivor of the eruption, Louis Cyparis and his dungeon, the only part with its roof still intact. On we walked uphill through the town and away from the water’s edge. Up a narrow lane, itself encroached upon by vegetation we saw the incredible sight of four broken ornate columns somehow supporting the weight of a huge lump of mortared stones. Up the steps we came to the rest of this ruined military church, again with only the walls and foundations remaining. Plants growing and lizards leaping on the exposed sunny half-walls.
Another hot twenty minutes walk and we were at the volcano monitoring station, which also has an excellent museum. Here we learned much more about the eruption. That in the days and even weeks beforehand there were signs that the volcano might erupt, but the mayor refused to evacuate the city because of the upcoming elections. This decision resulted in the deaths of the 30,000 strong population and total destruction of the city. In the 1920s a local school teacher monitored the volcano but declared it dormant and stood down the monitoring station in 1924. In 1929 it erupted again, destroying the 349m high needle peak of the volcano that had been formed in the 1902 eruption. We also learned more about the volcanic history of the whole chain of the Lesser Antilles. Only Barbados is not of volcanic origin. The other Windward and the Leeward islands are volcanic, sitting on the boundary between two tectonic plates, one subducted under the other. This movement of the plates over time also accounts for the ages of the islands; the eastern islands and parts of islands are older than the western islands or parts of islands in an arc shape. Thus Martinique has been formed over more than one volcanic eruption. After the museum we continued our hot walk up the hill to the Depaz Distillerie, a rum distillery. Set in beautiful grounds, a mixture of manicured lush gardens and endless sugarcane fields, it offers a free tour of the rum distillery process. We watched the trucks passing by with the sawdust-like dry byproduct of the cane and the egrets sitting on top of the piles of chopped sugarcane. We heard the distillery boiling away and happily lugged some heavy bottles on our backs back to the boat.
The following day we took the bus and visited the incredible Gorges de la Falaise. We descended into the gorge amidst giant vegetation. Like Blackgang Chine on hyper steroids. At the bottom, we waded through a stream and met our guide on the other side. With the guide we waded up the gorge, at times climbing up ladders, swimming through chest deep water while around us rose the high steep mossy stone walls of the gorge, towering above us with chinks of light filtering through the leaves of the mega plants growing high above. At last we reached a powerful waterfall. Nervous at first by the strength of the water, we braved it and walked under the waterfall, feeling the power of the water hammering down on our necks. It was an exhilarating and brilliant experience.
Before we left St Pierre the cats visited the vet for their annual vaccinations and the following morning, bright and early we departed south again for the capital Fort de France. This time we were heading into the wind, something we haven’t experienced since we left Europe. It was very windy, with gusts of up to 30 knots and spray lashing us. We reefed well to compensate to make it more comfortable. We forgot how much slower it is to travel upwind, sailing at 45 degrees to the wind and then tacking to get back on course. Eventually we made it to Fort de France around lunchtime. Hoping to make water; surprise surprise the watermaker was not working again. Luciano spent the afternoon replumbing the entire system to no avail. Still, we were soon cheered when we bumped into a German couple we had met back in Lanzarote and had a great evening with them catching up on the delights that await us as we travel south to the Grenadines and Grenada. We have a few things to sort out in Fort de France, but next week you should be catching us in St Lucia.
*Ozymandias (1818) Percy Byshe Shelley
This week's Vlog.