The following excerpt is from Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean by Christopher M. Church (December 2017).
Introduction: Colonialism, Catastrophe, and National Integration
At five-thirty in the morning on 3 May 1902, the young schoolteacher Roger Portel awoke to an eerie scene outside his window in Saint-Pierre, Martinique. Everything was closed: shops, governmental buildings, and schools. The sky blackened under what looked like a gray snow, as roads, homes, and even people were covered in a thin layer of a substance like ground cement. Remarking to a friend that it was now “winter without the cold,” Portel shuffled outside to take stock of what was happening. Mount Pelée had lurched awake, and Saint-Pierre teemed like a kicked anthill. Joining a crowd of Saint-Pierre’s disoriented denizens, Portel quickly realized he could not see more than thirty feet in front of him, and he choked as his nose burned. While he pinched it to ward off the smell of sulfur, he wondered, “Are we all going to die of asphyxiation? . . . What’s coming tomorrow? A column of lava? A shower of stones? A wind of suffocating gas? Mass drownings? No one knows.” Portel had awakened to a living nightmare, a hellish postapocalyptic scene plucked straight from the pages of the Bible. And he suspected that his death was imminent. “Should I die,” he wrote to his brother, “don’t be too sad.” Unfortunately, Portel’s worst fears came true. Five days later, he and everyone else in the crowd in Saint-Pierre was dead—suffocated by sulfur, petrified by ash, frozen in a winter without cold. Ascension Day had come. Mount Pelée had erupted.1
Forty kilometers away, in the city of Fort-de-France, the island’s acting bishop, Gabriel Parel, said a mass commemorating Jesus’s entrance into heaven. Later, when he stepped onto his balcony shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, night descended as ash blocked the morning sun and a hail of stones assaulted Martinique’s capital. While helping his congregation seek refuge, Bishop Parel wondered what was happening at Saint-Pierre. When he learned that Pelée’s fury had obliterated the so-called Paris of the Antilles, turning it into what witnesses would describe as “one vast brazier” and claiming thirty thousand lives in a quarter of an hour, a cry of horror went up “like the funeral knell of Martinique” that “would take the pen of Dante and the accents of Jeremiah” to accurately describe.2 Thousands of miles away, a Parisian journalist, who described himself as an “old republican . . . [with] an absolute faith in the progress of the human race,” asked, “Our race, is it as grand as we had imagined it? Hasn’t this disaster belied all [our] grand ideas?”3 Pelée’s eruption had shaken the convictions of the French Republic, and all eyes turned toward relief and recovery lest French civilization in the Caribbean come to an end.
The Caribbean environment had sparked French fears about the obliteration of their colonial project since France’s occupation of Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1635. Two centuries of the forced migration of Africans shackled into slavery had thrown fuel onto those sparks, and by the end of the nineteenth century, nature’s wrath collided with social conflicts within France and its old empire. In the span of thirty years, the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe endured catastrophes from all the elements—earth, wind, fire, and water—as well as a collapsing sugar industry, civil unrest, and political intrigue. In 1890 Martinique experienced a fire that burned down its capital city, and a year later a cyclone destroyed the island’s primary source of income: sugar. Since 1884 the islands’ economies had been in a tailspin, and by 1899 labor unrest ignited an urban fire that destroyed the largest city in Guadeloupe and launched a general strike in Martinique the following February. And in 1902, the eruption of Mount Pelée became the deadliest volcanic eruption in modern memory, solidifying the association of the Caribbean environment with death and destruction.
Nationalist fervor was at its height in this period, as the French empire grew to its greatest extent and politicians of France’s Third Republic vied to build a democratic consensus and distance themselves from France’s recent autocratic past. With the humiliating defeat during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 came the first democratic government in France in a generation—the Third Republic. Republicans projected a fantasy of assimilation onto the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, two of France’s oldest colonies, where the Constitution of 1875 had bestowed full citizenship and governmental representation on the predominantly nonwhite population. Contemporaries described the Caribbean as “one of France’s oldest and most dear colonies,” where former slaves and indentured servants had been successfully integrated politically and culturally into the French nation-state, and republicans cast the Antilles as evidence of the “civilizing mission made good.” As the nineteenth century ended, however, environmental disasters threatened this republican fantasy by bringing to the fore existing racial and social tensions that held France’s ideological convictions of assimilation and citizenship to the fire. Disasters catalyzed the already rapid decline of the Antillean sugar economy, and injections of capital into the islands in the form of disaster relief rapidly made the former valuable financial assets a drain on the French economy. As Antilleans put forth an alternative image of Frenchness defined by its tropical surroundings and demanded state aid, disastrous moments precipitated a discussion of economic welfare and colonial assimilation and challenged republican cohesion.
When disaster struck in the French West Indies—whether the whirlwinds of a hurricane or the stirrings of an open rebellion—France faced a tempest at home as politicians, journalists, economists, and ordinary citizens debated the role of the French state not only in the Antilles but in their own lives as well. During the age of new empire, therefore, the “old colonies” of Martinique and Guadeloupe redefined what it meant to be a French citizen by prompting a discussion over economic rights and social welfare, and by laying claim to a definition of tropical Frenchness that preserved French civilization against a hostile environment. Disasters exacerbated existing societal tensions and marked a rupture in the status quo, however, and while centuries of cultural association demanded public assistance and political incorporation after these disasters, economic considerations led the French state to reexamine the long-term viability of its Caribbean colonies.
1. Lambolez and Coeur créole, Saint-Pierre-Martinique, 330–31. Bulletin de la Société astronomique de France, 304–5.
2. “Last Days of Saint-Pierre,” 610–33.
3. André Fagel, “Courrier de Paris: La Catastrophe,” L’Illustration: Journal universel, tome 119 (1902): 342.