On May 8, 1902, on the Caribbean island of Martinique, the volcano Mount Pelee loosed the most terrifying and lethal eruption of the twentieth century. In minutes, it killed 27,000 people and leveled the city of Saint-Pierre. In La Catastrophe, Alwyn Scarth provides a gripping day-by-day and hour-by-hour account of this devastating eruption, based primarily on chilling eyewitness accounts. Scarth recounts how, for many days before the great eruption, a series of smaller eruptions spewed dust and ash. Then came the eruption. A blinding flash lit up the sky. A tremendous cannonade roared out that was heard in Venezuela. Then a scorching blast of superheated gas and ash shot straight down towards Saint-Pierre, racing down at hundreds of miles an hour. This infernal avalanche of dark, billowing, reddish-violet fumes, flashing lightning, ash and rocks, crashed and rolled headlong, destroying everything in its path--public buildings, private homes, the town hall, the Grand Hotel. Temperatures inside the cloud reached 450 degrees Celsius. Virtually everyone in Saint-Pierre died within minutes. Scarth tells of many lucky escapes--the ship Topaze left just hours before the eruption, a prisoner escaped death in solitary confinement. But these were the fortunate few. An official delegation sent later that day by the mayor of Fort-de-France reported total devastation--no quays, no trees, only shattered facades. Saint-Pierre was a smoldering ruin. In the tradition of A Perfect Storm and Isaac's Storm, but on a much larger scale, La Catastrophe takes readers inside the greatest volcanic eruption of the century and one of the most tragic natural disasters of all time.Amazon.com Review
When nature kills on a grand scale, it does so indiscriminately: a murderer may be spared and an orphanage destroyed. So it was with the May 8, 1902, eruption of Mount Pelee on the Caribbean island of Martinique, author Alwyn Scarth shows in La Catastrophe, his study of the event. The explosion, more specifically, its aftermath--a 300 mph burst of superheated gas as well as roiling mudflows and tsunamis--killed more than 28,000 people, sank a dozen seaborne ships, and reduced the city of Saint-Pierre to rubble. Scarth, after briefly delineating the island's geology and history, methodically describes the increasingly fraught days before the event and, with gruesome precision, the event itself. Most welcome are his many sidebars, including firsthand accounts by survivors, newspaper stories, and lists of widespread rumors (and their dispelling). As well, the book is amply and instructively illustrated. The prose is powerful and understated, and the book somberly thrilling and perceptive. Nor does it avoid ghastly ironies. A few months after the eruption, Scarth observes, "the ruins of Saint-Pierre suffered the supreme indignity of becoming an attraction for boatloads of tourists." --H. O'Billovich ... Read more
Customer Reviews (7)
AUTHOR AIMS TO CORRECT MISCONCEPTIONS
Volcanoes kill in many ways, and the the 1902 Martinique eruption is one of the rare volcanic eruptions; Pompeii being the other, to destroy a whole city through its eruptive gas cloud.Volcanologist Alwyn Scarth's book concentrates on the science of the disaster and focuses on the aftermath of the eruption. The islands are shown to have been hit by two eruptive blasts even after the main event on May 8th.While I did not find this the thrilling read that the Witts book was, it was certainly interesting enough.
The author seems most eager to correct a number of misconceptions about the tragedy, and this is one of the most noteworthy aspects of the book. He says St. Pierre was not known as the 'Paris of the West Indies' at the time.There just wasn't enough there for anyone to justify such a term.And the prisoner Sylbarris was not in fact a murderer as commonly believed.He was in underground confinement for escaping a work detail earlier in the week.
Scarth then over reaches a bit.The story of the governor trying to stop the populace from fleeing before the island's election is not only wrong, he says, but one of many 'lies'. Lies?This seems a harsh assessment, for though it may well be wrong, it would hardly be impossible or even implausable for this to have happened. What's more, most all concerned were killed and so cannot act to set the record straight.It is a jump indeed to conclude that everything said about them was deliberately falsified.Scarth also insists that there were more than two survivors, indicating a minimum of sixty-four.This is true, but only if you include the city's outskirts.There were indeed only two survivors in St. Pierre as most accounts state.
Overall this is a fine work and is recommended.It gives us a whole new look at a catastrophe we thought we were familiar with.Most readers will want to read the other two books on the disaster mentioned by the reviewers here, at least to start.
Good info, but do not rely on this book alone.
If you want to know about the 1902 volcano, you need to read three books. This one, The Day the World Ended by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, 1969; and The Last Days of St. Pierre by Ernest Zebrowski, 2002. Any one of these books is likely to lead to a somewhat skewed idea as in each case the authors have strong opinions.
there is a lot to like in Scarth's book. He was careful with his sources and information, and has a much more academic approach to the background. He also gives more dialogue and original source material than the other two books.
He also gave a much better map of salient features in St. Pierre, which pinpointed where the survivor Leandre's house was (I had always wondered).
However, Scarth definitely is opinionated. He vilifies Fernand Clerk.No academic nuance here:
"Fernand Clerk's assertions were the affirmations of a rather despicable politician out for short-term gain. Such an individual would probably not greatly worry that he had done much to destroy the reputation of an honorable man."
This seems to be not only over-the-top, but completely contrary to the very detailed picture painted of Le Clerc in the other books, both of which portray Le Clerc as a man who while, drafted into politics, was not particularly politically ambitious, who was very straight-laced, and who really cared (as much as any planter did) for the working class. Le Clerc was a much more pivotal figure in the other books and I think they are right. He did after all create the museum which till stands in St. Pierre today.
The reason for Scarth's ire is that after the eruption, Le Clerc criticized the by now late Mouttet for not considering evacuation, and for doing his best to persuade people to stay put.
Scarth wrote: "Fernand Clerc's own behavior does not stand scrutiny. He himself took no steps to save lives. He had ample opportunity to publish his misgivings in Les Colonies, the editor of which Marius Hurard, was one of his strongest political allies".
According to both other books, Fernand Clerk did his best to start a movement for evacuation and was thoroughly rebuffed. Also according to both other books, while Hurard did support Clerc for the election, he was not overly fond of him, and they were diametrically opposed on the question of the volcano and safety. There is no reason to suppose that Hurard would have published such an opposing view.
But where Scarth really seems nuts to me is his idea, expressed more than once, that those who saved themselves were weak-kneed, panicky individuals, while it was the rational, clear-thinking courageous people who got eaten by the inferno. Just one example:
"Thus at St. Pierre, the rational people, with common sense and intelligence, saw less danger from the volcano and died, whereas those who followed their gut reactions and panicked survived, because Mount Pelee produced a weapon that defied all expectation and all the logic that they knew."
To me, the contrarians, like Le Clerc, and the captain of Orsolina were the true heroes. It was not that they were irrational or panicky; it was that they took a good look at the erupting volcano and decided, quite rightly as it turned out, that it was unsafe. This was not irrational; it was based on millions of years of evolution that allows any one of us to make judgments about safety; this is true common sense. There may be occasions where it makes sense to override these instincts in the face of scientific knowledge. But this clearly was not one of them. Science knew little about volcanoes in those days, and in any case there was no scientist around to lend his voice, just Landes, the science teacher at the high school.
A comparative review of two (very good) books about the same event
This review is unusual in that it compares two books that were published nearly at the same time and both deal with the same event: the devastating 1902 eruption of Montagne Pelée volcano on the Caribbean island of Martinique.
The first of these books is Alwyn Scarth's "LA Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelée, the Worst Volcanic Disaster of the 20th Century", the second is Ernest Zebrowski's "The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster that Claimed 30,000 Lives", published just four months earlier. Both books mark the 100th anniversary of the eruption that virtually exterminated the town of Saint-Pierre along with nearly all of its inhabitants. Both fulfill an important mission: putting an end to the incredible amount and degree of misinformation veiling that tragic event to the present day.
The 1902 Montagne Pelée (commonly translated into Mount Pelée in the English literature) produced a phenomenon called pyroclastic flows (and/or surges), which had until then not been recognized by geologists - although today we know that they occur quite frequently. Just as I write this review (early February 2006), pyroclastic flows are spilling down the slopes of Mount St. Augustine volcano in Alaska. They were produced by nearly all the famous explosive eruptions in history, including Mount St. Helens (1980), Pinatubo (1991), Krakatau (1883), and Vesuvius (79 A.D.).
However, there was no common conscience of pyroclastic flows among scientists and people living on volcanoes in early 1902, when Montagne Pelée stirred and gradually came back to life. What was known at the time about volcanoes was limited to lava flows, ash falls, and tsunamis (the latter are rarely caused by volcanic eruptions). Often, eruptions were confused with earthquakes (which are a completely different geological process). So people in Saint-Pierre most worried about such things, and they had no means to know that Montagne Pelée held something else in store for them.
Many accounts about the 1902 events on Martinique blamed Governor Mouttet for the death of about 28,000 people in the eruption. Some writers accused him even to have posted troops on the roads exiting the threatened town to prevent the inhabitants from evacuating. Just the fact that Mouttet went to stay in Saint-Pierre the night before the tragic eruption says enough - he did not know, and there was no way of knowing, that the volcano would unleash a deadly pyroclastic flow the next morning.
Both Scarth and Zebrowski spend a lot of words and reasoning to clan the memory of Mouttet from these unjustified accusations. They do a lot of similar work concerning the vast amounts of contorted or false information regarding many other aspects of the 1902 events. There are, however, some significant differences between these two books.
Scarth has looked much more profoundly into the French sources of information, which Zebrowski - he himself admits in the introduction to his book that he is not too familiar with French - has done to a much lesser degree. Scarth's slightly higher degree of scrutiny does lead to a more precise result, which goes from the correct spelling of names (e.g., Mouttet's followup governor, whose correct name - as given by Scarth - was Lhuerre, not L'heurre as in Zebrowski) to the numbers of victims of the 1902 events: there were actually three eruptions in that year in the Caribbean that killed each more than 1000 people.
The first, on 7 May 1902, occurred on the island of St. Vincent, where the Soufrière volcano killed some 1560; only 18 hours later, Montagne Pelée snuffed out some 27,000 souls, and the same volcano killed another 1200 on 30 August that year. These numbers are those most likely to represent the real death toll - which is quite a few thousand less than those numbered by Zebrowski. Some of the most accurate scientific accounts of those events are cited in Zebrowski's bibliographic list but little of their information is used in his book. This is most notable in the case of T.Anderson and J.Flett (1903), who wrote a harrowing tale of the Soufrière (St. Vincent) eruption and witnessed one of the major eruptions of Montagne Pelée in July 1902. Interestingly, the most prominent scientist studying Montagne Pelée and its activity in that period was the French professor A. Lacroix, who is mentioned relatively briefly in Zebrowski's book. His monumental monograph "La Montagne Pelée et ses éruptions" (1904) is not even included in the bibliography, which does, however, refer to the less known and somewhat controversial "La Montagne Pelée après ses éruptions", published by Lacroix in 1908.
We find less errors of this kind in Scarth's book. This is partly due to the fact that Scarth has close relationships to volcanologists who have worked, and are working, on the 1902 Montagne Pelée eruption and its effects. Some of them are French. Im am certain that Scarth has indeed read through at least large portions of Lacroix' "La Montagne Pelée et ses éruptions". I know that book fairly well. It does not very much deal with the political and social turmoils preceding and following the eruption. But as for details concerning the eruption itself, and its tremendous effects on human beings and their environment, this is one of the most thrilling things to read - if one is familiar with French. Unfortunately, this makes it quite unaccessible to non-French readers, besides the fact that it is extremely difficult to find (Amazon France has a used copy "in correct state" offered for 995 Euros - more than 1000 US$)...
Without being too critical about the somewhat higher amount of flaws in Zebrowski's book, I find that in the end both Zebrowski and Scarth are definitely worth a read, also because they deal with very different details - so there is not all that much of a repetition there. Both do a precious effort to put things about the 1902 events into the right perspective. I hope that they will help to diminish the vast amount of misinformation currently in circulation.
Catania (Sicily, Italy), 3 February 2006
Decent read - but beware of quality issues!
Spurred on by Scarth's great 'Vulcan's Fury: Man against the Volcano' and my interest in the Pelée disaster of 1902, I purchased this book from Amazon. First of all, Scarth really knows his business and, just as importantly, he knows how to convey it to the audience. However, there are some stylistic aspects that I have trouble with, most of all Scarth's preference for drama, as witnessed in sentences of the '... but little did he know that in a few days...' variety. Already present in 'Vulcan's Fury', it tends to become very annoying in this book. The story doesn't need it, and neither does the book.
The second problem is something that is hardly Scarth's fault, but Amazon sent me a real monday morning copy: low-res images, smeared print, unreadable text, moiréd photographs, the works. I don't know whether this is a unique problem, but you might want to check out this title in a book store - at least be aware of possible quality issues.
All in all a worthwile book, but I'd go with Ernst Zabrowski's 'The last days of St. Pierre' any day. However, it needs to be said that both authors put their emphasis differently, with Zabrowski giving a detailed picture of the days leading up to the May 8 eruption, and Scarth devoting more attention to the events following the disaster.
Loved this book, could not put it down, felt like I was there.I want to keep reading .
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