Mount Pelée Erupts

The eruption of Mount Pelée, the deadliest volcanic eruption in the twentieth century, resulted in the deaths of approximately thirty thousand people. The event also generated an increased interest in volcanology, the study of volcanoes.

Summary of Event

Prior to the eruptions in 1902, Mount Pelée had shown signs of increased activity as early as 1889. Earlier eruptions in 1792 and 1851-1852 caused no major damage. Residents of Saint-Pierre, which at the time was the largest city on Martinique and was located approximately eight miles south of the volcano, were lulled into a false sense of security; residents believed that the volcano was extinct. Mount Pelée, eruption
Volcanoes;Mount Pelée
Disasters;volcanic eruptions
[kw]Mount Pelée Erupts (May 8, 1902)
[kw]Pelée Erupts, Mount (May 8, 1902)
[kw]Erupts, Mount Pelée (May 8, 1902)
Mount Pelée, eruption
Volcanoes;Mount Pelée
Disasters;volcanic eruptions
[g]Caribbean;May 8, 1902: Mount Pelée Erupts[00470]
[g]Martinique;May 8, 1902: Mount Pelée Erupts[00470]
[c]Disasters;May 8, 1902: Mount Pelée Erupts[00470]
[c]Science and technology;May 8, 1902: Mount Pelée Erupts[00470]
[c]Earth science;May 8, 1902: Mount Pelée Erupts[00470]
[c]Geology;May 8, 1902: Mount Pelée Erupts[00470]
Landes, Gaston
Le Bris, Pierre Ange Marie
Mouttet, Louis

Since late 1901, Gaston Landes, a teacher in Saint-Pierre, had watched for wisps of vapor from Mount Pelée. By early 1902, residents in Le Prêcheur, almost five miles north of Saint-Pierre and three miles west of Mount Pelée, reported sulfurous fumes. By early April, the fumes had become even thicker and more nauseating. Although Landes had more scientific training than anyone on the island, he knew very little about volcanoes. All of the books available indicated that the main concern was lava flows, which would not threaten Saint-Pierre or most of the towns and villages because of the deep gorges and ravines surrounding Mount Pelée.

At the end of April, Mount Pelée began emitting columns of dust, ash, and steam. A large explosion on April 25 spewed hundred of tons of smoke and debris, including ash, steam, and boiling water mixed with rocks and tree trunks. On May 2, explosions, rumblings, lightning flashes, and darkening clouds of dust, ash, gas, and steam convinced many people to evacuate to Saint-Pierre. Some residents of Saint-Pierre began moving into the nearby hills or going to Fort-de-France, the capital city. The small number leaving, however, was offset by the thousands of refugees from other villages who entered the city.

On May 3, as the ash continued to fall, Governor Louis Mouttet visited Saint-Pierre and charged a group of scientists, included Landes, with studying the volcano and recommending a course of action in an attempt to reassure the citizens of Martinique that the situation was being taken seriously. Mouttet then traveled to Le Prêcheur to assess the damage and calm the villagers.

The first deaths from the volcano occurred on May 5, when a series of mudflows, also known as a lahars, swept down the Rivière Blanche and destroyed a complex of sugar and rum factories located between Saint-Pierre and Le Prêcheur. The mudflows—a scalding mixture of water, loose debris, mud, and boulders—flattened and buried the complex, killing twenty-five people who were unable to escape the flood, which reached a speed of nearly sixty miles per hour.

Commander Pierre Ange Marie Le Bris docked the naval cruiser Suchet at Fort-de-France on May 5 and received word from Governor Mouttet that he needed transportation to Le Prêcheur that afternoon, possibly to evacuate the village. Mouttet encouraged the villagers to stay, however, again promising to evacuate if necessary and to send more food. The governor concluded that the mudflows indicated that the volcano was dying. He decided that he and his wife would move temporarily to Saint-Pierre to reassure the citizens that the worst had passed.

In the evening of May 6, Landes noticed that Mount Pelée was expelling large boulders of molten rock into the air. On May 7, the volcano La Soufrière erupted on the British island of Saint Vincent, ninety miles south of Martinique, killing more than fifteen hundred people and injuring another forty-two hundred. The people on Martinique were reassured by the news, because they believed that the other eruption had provided a release for some of the pressure that had been building in Mount Pelée. During that day, Mount Pelée produced loud explosions, lightning, and earthquakes, as well as the first of the nuées ardentes (glowing clouds). Nuées ardentes These great clouds of scorching hot gas and volcanic fragments, also called pyroclastic surges or flows, can travel along the ground at speeds over three hundred miles an hour. Their temperatures can be higher than 932 degrees Fahrenheit; their heat actually removes oxygen from the atmosphere. These first nuées ardentes were small and weak and did not reach any populated areas.

Thursday, May 8, was Ascension Day, and most people attended early mass. At 8:02 a.m., the telegraph wire between Fort-de-France and Saint-Pierre fell silent. After hundreds of small earthquakes before 8:00 a.m., Mount Pelée exploded with a nuée ardente that swept toward Saint-Pierre, reaching the city in less than two minutes. Almost everything and everyone in the direct path were obliterated. The nuée ardente reached temperatures between 392 and 842 degrees Fahrenheit, and it moved at an approximate speed of 311 miles per hour through the city. The cloud lasted only two or three minutes, but its destruction was phenomenal.

Many of the people in Saint-Pierre had their throats and lungs burned out by the superheated atmosphere, although their bodies remained intact. Some were steamed to death or charred black. Those who were lucky died instantly; many survivors suffered horribly until they died moments or hours after breathing in the superheated gas and dust. Some people were buried or crushed as the buildings collapsed, while others were burned by fires that began as the temperatures sparked fires in buildings and exploded kegs of rum. The fires swept across Saint-Pierre at temperatures around 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit and burned for three days. More than twenty thousand bodies—including Mouttet’s—were never found or identified. Fewer than forty-five hundred bodies, including Landes’s, were recovered, and most could not be identified. The total number killed, including estimates for refugees and people killed on the seventeen or eighteen ships destroyed in the bay, is generally placed between twenty-eight thousand and thirty thousand.

Commander Le Bris was part of an immediate rescue attempt that saved about thirty people from the bay at Saint-Pierre and another four hundred from a nearby village. Initially, the rescuers believed that no one survived in Saint-Pierre. However, a cobbler named Léon Compère-Léandre survived at the southern limits of the city, which was at the far edge of the destruction, and a prisoner named Louis-Auguste Sylbaris was found alive in his cell, located in the direct path of the destruction, on May 11.

In Le Prêcheur, the May 8 eruption claimed another eight hundred lives but spared the village. The remaining four thousand people were evacuated on May 10 and 11. All of the evacuees went to Fort-de-France, which was unprepared to meet the refugees’ needs. Aid poured in from all over the world, and this helped to ease the burden on Martinique’s government. This assistance was crucial, because Mount Pelée’s activity had not stopped. Its May 20 eruption sent another nuée ardente into Saint-Pierre and destroyed the few remaining structures there, and an eruption on August 30 sent gas clouds to the eastern and southern sides of the slopes, killing two thousand people and destroying four villages with a dust cloud bigger than the one that struck Saint-Pierre.


Survivor accounts and the condition of the bodies from Mount Pelée’s eruption befuddled volcanologists. Previously, volcanic eruptions had been confined to explosions of molten lava and formations of huge dust clouds. No one knew of a volcano that burned people alive and suffocated most of its victims. Mount Pelée’s subsequent eruptions, however, allowed scientists to study the new kind of activity. Based on the work of French geologist Alfred Lacroix, Lacroix, Alfred American geologist Angelo Heilprin, Heilprin, Angelo American photographer and writer George Kennan, Kennan, George British photographer and geologist Tempest Anderson, Anderson, Tempest and British petrologist Sir John Smith Flett, Flett, John Smith the science of volcanology gained greater prominence. In 1903, Anderson and Flett published a report for the Royal Society titled On the Eruptions of the Soufrière and on a Visit to Montagne Pelée in which they proposed a new category of eruptive action and outlined four distinct stages of the eruptions. In 1904, Lacroix published the massive La Montagne Pelée et ses éruptions, which became a classic in the science of volcanology. Lacroix also revived the term nuée ardente to describe the gas clouds.

A view from Orange Hill over the ruins of Saint-Pierre to steaming Mount Pelée.

(Library of Congress)

Because the kind of volcanic activity on Mount Pelée had never been seen before, such outbursts became known as Peléan eruptions. These violent eruptions, which tend to send material sideways, are often more lethal than vertical eruptions because of their nuées ardentes. Increased study of these types of events led volcanologists to believe that nuées ardentes were a major part of the eruptions of Vesuvius, Pompeii, Herculaneum (in Italy), and Krakatau (in Indonesia). Mount Pelée, eruption
Volcanoes;Mount Pelée
Disasters;volcanic eruptions

Further Reading

  • Ferguson, James. “The Tragedy of St. Pierre.” Geographical 74 (May, 2002): 14-19. Briefly discusses the destruction of Saint-Pierre, including photographs and a sidebar with facts on the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.
  • Morgan, Peter. Fire Mountain: How One Man Survived the World’s Worst Volcanic Disaster. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. Although it does include a few brief chapters about Sylbaris, the book focuses more on the disaster and on political and social situations in Martinique.
  • Scarth, Alwyn. La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelée, the Worst Volcanic Eruption of the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. An excellent, well-balanced book covering the events preceding and immediately following the eruption. Includes side articles with additional information.
  • Soter, Steven. “Sifting Truth from Pelée’s Ashes.” Natural History 111 (October, 2002): 76, 78. Discusses some of the rumors and fabrications that are widely believed about the disaster.
  • Zebrowski, Ernest, Jr. The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Balanced account of the events before, during, and after the eruption. Includes a chapter about the eruption of La Soufrière on Saint Vincent Island.

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