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Le cachot de Cyparis


Cyparis St PierreTed Nield visits Martinique in search of the most famous survivor of all time...

Geoscientist 20.10 October 2010

Every geology student learns, knows and loves the story; of the destruction on 8 May 1902 of the Martinique town of St Pierre by the first documented pyroclastic flow in modern times; of the subsequent coining of the term nuée ardente by French -volcanologist (and 1918 Wollaston medallist) François Antoine Alfred Lacroix; of the 28,000 people who died in an instant; but most of all, of the one who was saved by having been drunk and disorderly the previous night and thus got himself banged up in solitary confinement. That man was Louis-Auguste Cyparis.

Cyparis’s cell, originally a magazine, used for solitary confinement. Interior view shows the rear aperture, facing the retaining wall.As with all disasters, there are many tales of people who cheated death; but it is Cyparis’s tale that everyone remembers – chiefly for the way its many ironies seem to mock Providence. While St Pierre’s more fortunate citizens, who had the freedom to flee but largely chose to stay and die, he – a feckless, and evidently violent drunkard (some say murderer, though this is probably a myth) - denied the opportunity to go anywhere, was locked in the most sheltered place in town, was thus spared and, after receiving a pardon, even became a celebrity. May 8 was also Ascension Day, and St Pierre’s population had been swelled by flocks of the faithful, praying for deliverance from the volcano.

Louis-Auguste Cyparis, after the eruption, showing his burns. Le Mont Pelée (2500m) dominates the north western end of Martinique, its extinct predecessors stretching away to the south and east of the island. The port of St Pierre, which lies almost due south of the summit, sits astride two of the many deeply-incised rivers that drain the edifice, and provide radiating conduits for deadly mudflows and pyroclastic flows during periods of eruption.

In 1902, St Pierre was the former colony’s capital - though it has been supplanted since the disaster by its rival, Fort de France, now the capital of the fully fledged French Département. Although people returned, St Pierre never recovered and now boasts a population one sixth of that in 1902. The ruins left behind by that morning in May still lie, overgrown, sometimes built over, and everywhere a vivid reminder of a disaster that, like Titanic, stands as a symbol for vaunting human ambition laid low by the blind whims of that most unsuitable parent, Mother Earth.

In 1902, old folk would have remembered the previous eruption of 1851. But that had been a footling affair. The first signs of unrest were noticed in March; by April, explosive activity made it plain to all. Sulphurous fumes choked people and horses in the streets. In May, ash fell on St Pierre. Three days before the main eruption, the crater lake Étang Sec burst and sent a torrent of boiling water down the nearby Rivière Blanche, just around the coast to the north. The torrent rapidly became a mudflow, entraining 50-ton blocks, destroying a sugar-cane processing plant, killing all 30 workers, and on reaching the sea sending up waves that capsized the yacht Prêcheur, killing everyone.

Alfred Lacroix, who coined the term “nuée ardente” But back in St Pierre, in true disaster-movie style, local elections (scheduled for 10 May) made politicians reluctant to call for an evacuation. A “scientific commission” cobbled together a calming report; the local newspaper toed the line, urging calm. The wife of the US Consul, a Mrs Prentiss, wrote her last letter, telling her correspondent that she and her husband had passed up a chance to leave on an American vessel, confident that all would be well. She died, along with everyone else, at 0752 the next morning. Crews of the steamship Grappler and the sailing vessel Roraima, which had only sailed into the bay that very morning, were also nearly all killed; though the Roraima’s survivors left accounts of bonded warehouses exploding, and torrents of burning rum flowing through the town.

The nuée killed most people instantly, and so quickly that their clothes often survived without suffering any damage. Fully dressed corpses were later found, in rooms set for breakfast; bottles and glasses melted by the momentary intense heat. US geologist Angelo Heilprin, who visited the town some weeks after and wrote a book about it, described iron girders “looped and festooned as if... made of rope”. Such accounts have made St Pierre a place of pilgrimage for geologists ever since.

Musée Volcanologique Franck Perret contains the cathedral bell, melted like chocolate

Finding the Cachot

No matter what Caribbean port you may have sailed from, Fort de France will come as a striking contrast. Suddenly, you are in France - complete with flyovers, motorways, council blocks and embouteillages. You drive north along the coast road to St Pierre; if you are lucky, there may not be clouds to obscure the volcano as you round the headland and gaze into the bay. As the road passes through the modern town it divides in two and begins to climb, the right-hand fork (Rue Victor Hugo) passing the Musée Volcanologique Franck-Perret - a modest private museum to the disaster. In the centre of its single gallery stands a huge bronze bell, bent and torn by the blast as though it had been made of chocolate.

From there it is a short drive along the Rue Victor Hugo to the ruins of the old Théatre, symbol of St Pierre’s colonial gentility, of which nothing now remains but entrance steps and marble floors. Just beyond it is the Rue de la Prison. Walk a hundred metres up this short cul-de-sac and wander freely among the overgrown ruins of the old gaol, which sits, unattended, unmarked, and seemingly little changed since that fateful day.

The Centre de Découverte des Sciences de la Terre, awaiting the next nuée. Many of the accounts ascribe Cyparis’s survival to the fact that his cell was “partly underground”. This is slightly misleading – the prison, a former barracks, is cut back deeply into the volcanic rocks of hillside, and the cell stands in the back corner, nestling beneath the high back wall and that of the neighbouring theatre. Go in, and sit where Cyparis sat. He would have been waiting here for his petit déjeuner when even through the cell’s thick walls he heard ominous and deafening detonations. Seconds later, the light went. Hot air and ash blasted through the cell’s only apertures (for, contrary to most accounts, the cachot had two, then both covered by gratings - one over the door and the other at the back). Cyparis’s back and legs were severely burned. Although his injuries were momentary, they left Cyparis in agony, enduring the sound of the firestorm that then engulfed the town. For four days he eked out a bowl of water - until his cries were heard by two men picking through the rubble and he was rescued, driven half mad with pain and thirst.

Cyparis was to re-tell this story many times; for after being pardoned, he joined Barnum and Bailey’s circus and – adopting the stage name Ludger Sylbaris - relived his ordeal every night. But as the disaster faded from the news, Cyparis disappeared from the billings, dying - of natural causes - in 1929.

Visiting St Pierre and surroundings

  • Ruins of the theatre and prison of old St Pierre – Admission free.
  • Musée Volcanologique Franck-Perret – Rue Victor Hugo 97250 Saint-Pierre . Homely private museum opened in 1933 to the disaster by eponymous local volcanologist Franck-Perret. Contains the largest exhibition of objects and other remains, and interesting photographs in well presented displays. Strong on human interest, less strong on geology. Vitrine displays in French only. Open every day, 0900-1700 Admission: Adults €3.00.
  • Centre de Decouverte des Sciences de la Terre. Le Corbusieresque educational folly, just a little further on and up the mountain from the Prison. Opened 2005. Those who know the preposterous Giscard-inspired Vulcania (Geoscientist 13.10 October 2003) will be disappointed, if such a thing is possible. Designed to cater for study tours and tourists - by whom it is almost entirely uncontaminated. There is a wordy and worthy permanent exhibition on the science of the 1902 eruption (in French only); but all the real objects it would need to make it interesting are in the Musée Volcanogique Franck-Perret. Admission €5.00.
  • Anse Latouche – ruined sugar refinery and rum distillery north of St Pierre, in the valley of the Rivière Latouche, also destroyed on 8 May 1902. Now a botanical garden and industrial museum with a difference. On no account miss the chance to eat at the nearby Restaurant 1643.

Next month – Geologist and marathon runner Nigel Platt takes a turn around Santorini.

All original photos © Ted Nield