- Historic Sites
Prelude To Doomsday
While the volcano rumbled, lovely little St. Pierre slumbered on. It awoke only to die—in a terrible preview of nuclear holocaust
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
“Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.”
Devastation by atomic bomb has been known only to our own generation, but on occasions past, nature unassisted has produced effects startlingly like it. Strangely enough, we have had—in this hemisphere and this century—a very real preview of the fate which man’s ingenuity may hold in store for him. The time was 1902; the place was the Caribbean island of Martinique. St. Pierre, a handsome city of nearly 30,000 souls, was instantaneously obliterated in a manner so similar to a nuclear explosion that it provides a chilling foretaste of what might, in a nuclear age, happen to other cities. And its destruction is perhaps the only historic example—certainly the only instance on a large scale—of the utter extinction, within the space of a few heartbeats, of a unique civilization, a way of life that was both singular and irreplaceable. The story of this lightning-quick extinction is not fantasy, not a thriller of science fiction, not an imaginary projection of scientific possibilities. This happened.
Martinique, a tropical island with a romantic history embracing piracy, luxury, feats of war, and elegantly mannered living—birthplace of Josephine, Napoleon’s empress—was little known to Americans in 1902. A prized possession of France since the seventeenth century, it lay at the mid-point of a crescent of picturesque islands, the Lesser Antilles, strewn like steppingstones from the Virgins, on the north, almost to the South American mainland and dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea. Martinique, roughly forty-five miles long and twenty miles wide at its broadest point, is extremely mountainous, its coasts are indented deeply with bays and many river mouths, above which rises a jumble of interlacing peaks and rounded hills, or mornes; profound, jagged ravines separate these heights. Every inch of the island, from the shoreline up to the loftiest pitons, in 1902, was mantled with verdure, primitive forests alternating with plantations of sugar cane, tobacco, coffee, cacao. The junglelike forests extended even to the tip of the highest peak, Mount Pelée, 4,428 feet above the sea; its massively buttressed base occupied the entire northern end of the island.
Lafcadio Hearn in 1887 called St. Pierre, the island’s most populous town, “the sweetest, queerest, darlingest little city in the Antilles,” and fifteen years later it had not altered much. It nestled at Pelée’s southern foot, on the western (Caribbean) shore, in the lee of mountains which sheltered it from boisterous trade winds blowing steadily off the Atlantic. Viewed from the sea or from the heights that swept up steeply at its back, the little metropolis was enticingly picturesque. The houses, of stone and stucco, formed a narrow ribbon of color stretching two miles along the rim of a usually placid roadstead, where the land shelved away so rapidly that huge ships anchored within a few yards of the shingly beach. The houses, two and three stories high, with red-tiled roofs, were painted lemon yellow or gay orange, against which the bright green or blue slatted shutters, the only covering for the glassless windows, stood out vividly. The streets were narrow, to shut out the blazing sun; two main thoroughfares extended north and south, crossed by short up-and-downhill side streets, many of which bore poetic, fanciful names, such as the Street of Precipices, the Street of Friendships, and Climb to-Heaven Street (Rue Montau-Ciel). These transverse streets dropped away to the harbor on one hand, and on the other struggled up wooded bluffs that formed a luxuriant backdrop for the town. Some of the streets were so inclined that they were laid in steps, the stones of the pavements mossy and black with age.
Along the principal north-south artery ambled a primitive tramway, and there were electric lights at the corners. But a more striking feature was the continual tinkle and rustle of cool, clear mountain water rippling through runnels beside the narrow sidewalks, sweetening the air and refreshing doorstep-sitters. This was the very voice of the city, the music of running water, and it was seldom stilled.
Hearn passed two years in St. Pierre and recorded his fascinated impressions:
A quaint, whimsical, wonderfully colored little town … Palm trees rise from courts and gardens into a warm blue sky,—indescribably blue,—that appears to touch their feathery heads. And all things, within and without the yellow vista, are steeped in a sunshine electrically white,—in a radiance so powerful that it lends even to the pavements of basalt the glitter of silver ore.
The population held him spellbound: it differed from that of any other place or time: