“Ash had fallen. Perhaps it had fallen the night before or perhaps it was still falling. I can only remember in patches.”
In 1976, three years before she died, Jean Rhys published “Heat,” an autobiographical story about the 1902 eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée volcano, which destroyed Saint-Pierre, then the largest city on the island. Some thirty to forty thousand people died; Rhys, who grew up nearby on Dominica, would have been eleven at the time.
Some said the disaster was divine retribution for Saint-Pierre’s moral depravity; not only was the city a haven for loose women, it had a theater and even an opera. But in the immediate aftermath, an air of grave concern fell over the region. “Nobody talked in the street, nobody talked while we ate, or hardly at all,” Rhys writes in “Heat”: “They all thought our volcano was going up.” The night after the eruption, the narrator’s mother points out the black clouds hovering over Martinique. “You will never see anything like this in your life again,” she says. When the narrator’s friends offer her a bottle of ash, she refuses to touch it.
Volcanoes are always in the background of life in the Caribbean. Though Rhys’s narrator didn’t know this, another volcano—La Soufrière, in nearby Saint Vincent—had erupted only hours before Mount Pelée, wiping out a Carib community. Decades later, in 1979, my grandmother lived through another of La Soufrière’s violent eruptions; she told me about the ash that covered Saint Lucia afterward. She was originally from Sint Eustatius, a twelve-square-mile island that’s part of the Caribbean Netherlands. Its main town, Oranjestad, lies on the slopes of the Quill, another volcano. It’s been dormant for nearly two millennia. On my last visit to the island, I climbed it: 1,972 feet of dry scrubs nestling a verdant rainforest in its crater.
That was my second volcano. My first was Saint Lucia’s Sulphur Springs, sometimes advertised as “the world’s only drive-in volcano,” where I went with my family when I was five or six. It’s outside another Soufrière, a different one—soufrière comes from the French word for sulphur, and it’s the name for several areas of volcanic activity in the Caribbean. There’s the town of Soufrière, in Saint Lucia, and then there are the actual volcanos: La Soufrière on Saint Vincent, which my grandmother recalled; La Grande Soufrière on Guadeloupe; and Soufrière Hills on Montserrat.
We left for Soufrière at about four in the morning, so it would still be cool by the time we arrived. Those were the days before the highway was completed—what now takes ninety minutes seemed then like a grand adventure. The town is located in the caldera of a dormant volcano called Qualibou. Its prominence during the French colonial period can be seen in its beautiful architecture, with high-pitched roofs, open balconies, and elaborate fretwork.
The springs are in the mountains just past Soufrière; you can pull off the main road and drive to them. There were no guardrails or safety measures. Our guide was a dreadlocked man who led us over a wooden bridge and onto the springs themselves. We roamed over the surface, testing the water in the tiny craters on the surface. Some people used to boil eggs there. I collected a series of sulphur rocks and later stored them in an empty cookie tin. They sat in my closet for many years, crusty, glittery, and smelling like rotten eggs.
Years later, I remember watching a live-action TV show that followed the folk character Papa Jab (the Devil) as he kidnapped children and carried them to his lair in the sulphur springs. It was filmed on location. I was amazed that anyone was allowed so close to the boiling water. By that time, the springs had been closed to the public. A crater had opened underneath a guide as he was showing some visitors how safe it was. They named it Gabriel’s Hole in his honor.
As for Saint-Pierre, I passed through it on a trip to Martinique once. The city was never rebuilt, and most of it is overrun with vegetation. Only four thousand people reside in what was once called le petit Paris. My friend and I visited the cachot (stone dungeon), which once had housed Auguste-Louis Cyparis, one of the 1902 eruption’s few confirmed survivors. He’d been arrested the day before for unruly behavior and survived only because of the cell’s thick walls. He was pardoned for his crime and later joined Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, where he was billed as Ludger Sylbaris: “The Only Living Object That Survived in the Silent City of Death.”
Matthew St. Ville Hunte lives in Saint Lucia. He is one of the Daily’s correspondents.