Prelude To Doomsday

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Everybody in a costume of more than Oriental picturesqueness … Astonishments of half-breed beauty … Men wearing only white canvas trousers, and immense hats of bamboo grass,—men naked to the waist and muscled like sculptures. Some are very black: others are of strange and beautiful colors: there are skins of gold, of brown bronze, and of ruddy bronze. The stones whisper under the naked feet. Women pass in robes of brilliant hues,—women of the color of fruit, orange-color, banana-color,—women wearing turbans with just such burning yellow as bars the belly of a wasp … The warm air is thick with the scents of sugar and cinnamon,—with odors of mangoes and custard-apples, of guava jelly and of fresh coconut milk,—a grand tepid wind enveloping the city in one perpetual perfumed caress.

These people of St. Pierre (Pierrotins) felt and were different from the other Martiniquais, the white creoles especially being a type apart. The city’s permanent population was about 28,000, including 6,000 to 8,000 whites, allied, for the most part, to colonial families that had been established on the island for generations. This alone would have made the city unique, for the people of all the West Indies, then as now, were overwhelmingly Negro or mixed-blood. Their city’s superiority the Pierrotins cheerfully expressed by their graciously ordered society, tightly knit by bonds of blood relationship, intermarriage, and shared inheritance. In spirit, tradition, and customs, the town was unalterably French, a fragment of seventeenth-century provincial France.

Because St. Pierre was the social and commercial capital, the wealth and activity of the island were concentrated there. By comparison, the political capital, Fort-de-France, situated on its own splendid bay eleven miles to the south, was dull and commonplace. Aristocratic dowagers smiled possessively that St. Pierre was the city of “nous autres,” of the landed white creoles; it had the reputation of being the least inhibited town in the Antilles.

Like all Martiniquais, the people of St. Pierre were intensely religious; the city was the seat of an imposing cathedral and several parish churches. For secular diversion there was a theater where acting troupes from France performed every winter, and also clubs, cafés, dancing societies, balls, picnics, swimming. The city boasted two banks, convents, seminaries, orphanages, a lycée that enjoyed highest accreditation, a college, factories, rum distilleries, and warehouses. St. Pierre was reasonably prosperous, exempt from the blight of decline that was pauperizing neighboring British islands; and its citizens were noted for courtesy, social ease, charm, and contentment.

Their volcano—La Montagne, familiarly—the Pierrotins treated with proprietary pride, as a sort of pet, a tamed lion. Some feeble volcanic activity had occurred in the eighteenth century, to be sure, but that was all but forgotten. Oldsters still recalled the harmless eruption of 1851, when a wide sweep of countryside was showered with powdered ashes; but the mountain’s primeval fires were assumed to be banked. Its flattened, cloud-beset crest was a spot for picnics; it was fun to swim in the clear lake on the peak, known as the Lac des Palmistes. A second basin, situated lower down on the side facing the city, had been dry for years and was called the Étang Sec.

Closer to the lake basins (geologists were not sure whether they were old craters) was the pretty resort of Morne Rouge, athwart a ridge at an elevation of 1,400 feet, from just east of which one could view both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; this garden spot was frequented by St. Pierre families during the hot months and was always cool. The fragrance of Morne Rouge’s roses greeted the approaching traveler half a mile off.

Coursing through deep, jagged gorges that furrowed the broad slopes of Mount Pelée were twenty-five streams, torrents, most of them, fed by vapors and rains on the summit. Down the southern face of the mountain (toward St. Pierre) ran the Rivière Blanche, so named for its milky iridescence, veering off in a westward direction just north of the city; the Rivière Seche; the Rivière des Pères, which bounded the city on the north: and the turbulent, shallow Roxelane, which cut noisily through the district called the Centre. The high banks of this stream were crowned with handsome villas and gardens. At the southern end of the city, known as the Mouillage, or mooring place, were long, cobbled quays, running almost to the Carbet River, beyond which lay the village of Carbet. Screening St. Pierre from the environs of Fort-de-France were the arresting triple peaks called the Pitons of Carbet, which attained almost the height of Pelée. These landmarks and rivers all were to acquire sinister notoriety in 1902, as were two rivers which rushed down the eastern slope of the volcano, the Falaise and the Capote, and the Rivière Prêcheur, which flowed off the northwestern descent to the Caribbean.

Such was the brilliantly lighted stage on which was to be enacted an unparalleled tragedy.