02 July 2012 | St. Pierre, Martinique
Amazing story! - Leaving Dominica was a hard decision because there were other places that seemed interesting to visit like the Emerald Pool and the Boiling Lake on the eastern coast. Also we thought about stopping in Roseau but with the tour we had already seen the city and the surrounding area. So, all things considered it was time to leave Dominica and our Boat Boy friends and head to Martinique.
It is about 70 miles to Fort de France which is the main city in Martinique and really too far for us to go comfortably in one day. And there is the area of St. Pierre which is an interesting story and history that we wanted to see. So, we decided to make a 53 mile run south past Roseau and Scott's Head all the way to St. Pierre.
It is a three legged run. First about 20 miles south to Scott's Head, about 20 miles across open water, and then about 13 miles down the northwestern coast of Martinique to St. Pierre. We departed as soon as Barbara left for the hospital. Everything was under control as far as Scott and Rula Bula were concerned so we felt comfortable saying goodbye and headed south.
The first leg was in the lee of Dominica and we motor sailed south in light airs while we ran the refrigerator and kept up our speed. We went down the coast close in to see the villages we had passed through on the drive down. We made good time and arrived at Scott's Head in about 4 hours. Then we cleared the headland and into open water. The winds were 25-ish knots so we put two reefs in the genoa and one in the mainsail. WD took off and sailed great on a close reach in 5-6 foot seas. She was making over 7 knots most of the time and we stayed mostly dry on that point of sail, which is her favorite.
We entered Martinique waters after about 3 hours near Le Precheur and the little island of Le Perle with only about 5 miles left to reach St. Pierre. We pulled in to the anchorage and dropped the anchor near the main city dock very close in to shore as the water shoals quickly. It turned out to be a great anchorage with no swell and very little shore noise.
The history of St. Pierre is what brought us here. Briefly, from the late 1600's to the early 1900's, this town was the center of almost everything for this area of the West Indies. Shipping, trade, culture, and commerce were all centered here. In the early 1900's, about 25,000 people lived around St. Pierre. It was called the Paris of the Caribbean. But ominously, the Mount Peleé volcano was also very near. For over 15 years, Mt. Peleé showed signs of erupting but the business and political leaders worked hard to convince the population that it was safe.
Then on May 8, 1902, on the Sunday morning of Ascension Day, as the local people came to town for church, Mt. Peleé erupted. It was a natural catastrophe akin to Mt. Vesuvius and the city of Pompeii, but with a major difference. There was no lava flow, only hot gasses and a fire ball. About 30,000 people were suffocated by the gasses and then burned by the heat. The city was destroyed along with ships in the harbor, but the city was not covered with ash or lava.
For over 20 years the city lay dormant until it was deemed safe to start reestablishing the area. Many buildings were built on the foundations and using the walls of the town before the eruption and you see this construction as you walk around the city. Some buildings were rebuilt as close to the original as possible like the cathedral for example. The theater, which was the center of cultural society, was not rebuilt along with the prison which was next door. These ruins are still as they were after 1902. We visited a museum set up to explain the events of 1902 and found it to be very interesting, albeit very sad.
One man did survive the eruption and he became relatively famous. He was a prisoner and locked in his cell which faced away from the eruption and was of course inside the prison proper. He was badly burned but was found four days later and he healed. He became famous by joining the Barnum and Bailey Circus as the lone survivor and showed his burn scars.
We walked the city amazed at the rejuvenation and unique construction. Walls of the old fort are still visible as are many buildings that are the same as 1902. And as we walked you could always see Mt. Peleé looming in the distance. You can't help but wonder what it must have been like and if it could happen again.
The city of St. Pierre never regained its prominence and now has only a population of about 4500.
We were glad that we stopped and learned so much about the city. It seems that in our travel through the islands that you only see ruins of life many centuries ago. St. Pierre was so different with its story being in the 20th Century and in a way very recent.
We left after only one day but the experience will stay with us a long time. It really is an amazing story.