The people of Martinique, in the West Indies, knew that trouble was brewing in early May 1902. A pall of dust hung over the island, and birds, their plumage weighted with grey ash, were lying dead on the roads. A redness began to appear in the cloud, and then the great convulsion came on 8 May: the island’s volcano, Mount Pelée, was erupting.

For the inhabitants of the city of Saint-Pierre the blast would strike with deadly violence. A black, incandescent cloud tore down from the crater and destroyed the entire place, killing some 30,000 people. The conflagration which followed left the remains of the city a burning pile. There were just two survivors in the blast’s direct path; one, a prisoner, was horribly burned in the pyroclastic flow, but was spared death by the windowless cell in which he was being held.

 

Photograph of the ruins of Saint-Pierre by Angelo Heilprin, 1902 (public domain image)

 

Just hours before the blast wrought its devastation, La Soufrière, another volcano on the nearby island of St Vincent, had also burst into life. Water boiled and hissed in the heat, and mushroom clouds that rose some 30,000 feet began to cast the West Indies into a darkness and silence that was only broken by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. A roar was heard, and a black cloud, like the one that would soon issue from Mount Pelée, rolled down La Soufrière and killed up to 2,000 people.

When word of the devastating volcanic activity on the islands reached Britain and the concerned Fellows at the Royal Society, they sprang into action and set about forming a committee to journey out and investigate. The committee’s leadership was given to the young geologist John Smith Flett, who would become a Fellow of the Royal Society himself in 1913, and the aptly named Tempest Anderson, intrepid Yorkshireman and veteran volcano chaser.

Flett and Anderson’s first Proceedings paper, Preliminary Report on The Recent Eruption of The Soufrière in St. Vincent, and of a Visit to Mont Pelée in Martinique, is remarkable for the eyewitness account of their brush with the still active, still deadly Mount Pelée. On 9 July, as part of their survey of the island of Martinique, the commission boarded a sloop. A photograph (Plate 11) shows the mountain standing clear. But soon a large cloud, ominous with its red glare, began to rise (Plate 12) – a cloud which, they wrote, ‘might be compared to a bunch of grapes, large and small, or to a gigantic cauliflower’. Cries of ‘the mountain bursts!’ came from the sailors, and an avalanche was launched from the crater in ‘a loud angry growl’ (Plate 13).

Flett and Anderson wrote, ‘The velocity was terrific. Had any buildings stood in its path, they would have been utterly wiped out, and no living creature could have survived that blast. Hardly had its red light faded when a rounded black cloud began to shape itself against the star-lit sky, exactly where the avalanche had been. The pale moonlight shining on it showed us that it was globular, with a bulging surface, covered with rounded protuberant masses, which swelled and multiplied with a terrible energy. It rushed forward over the waters, directly towards us, boiling, and changing its form every instant. In its face there sparkled innumerable lightnings, short, and many of them horizontal. Especially at its base there was a continuous scintillation. The cloud itself was black as night, dense and solid, and the nickering lightnings gave it an indescribably venomous appearance.’

 

Photograph by Angelo Heilprin of Mount Pelee, still active on 26 May 1902 (public domain image)

 

The disaster which annihilated Saint-Pierre was the worst volcanic eruption of the twentieth century, and Anderson and Flett got a taste of the mountain’s awesome power on their visit. A second and third article followed their preliminary assessment and, far from being dry geological documents, they are gripping, and infused with an awe of the natural world, and horror at the human tragedy of the disasters.

If this introduction has got you interested, do explore further and read the reports online. You’re also welcome to visit our current temporary exhibition in a display case just outside the reading room of the Royal Society, which gives a taste of some of the other volcanology collections housed in our archives.

 

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