Skip to main content

The eruption of Mont Pelée, Martinique, 1902

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/Y307E

Scope and Contents

A collection of loose gravure prints measuring approximately 190 x 125 mm, captioned in ink on the backs of the prints. The captions have been used as titles and recorded as found.

The great tragedy which overtook the island of Martinique and razed St Pierre in May 1902 is made more poignant by what we know of the city and its people before Mont Pelée erupted. Lafcadio Hearn spent some time on the island shortly before the disaster and gives a description which tallies with accounts given by other visitors:
'St Pierre is the quaintest and prettiest withal among West Indian cities - all stone-built and stone-flagged, with very narrow streets ... the architecture is that of the seventeenth century and reminds one of the antiquated French portion of New Orleans...’ (Hearn 1902).

Hesketh Bell was at the time Administrator of the neighbouring island of Dominica and his book gives a good description of the sequence of events which led up to the final catastrophe. Mont Pelée had been inactive for nearly a century, its dormant crater in fact filled by a lake, but a certain amount of activity had been noticed in the preceding months, a seismologist sent from Paris stating however, that should the volcano erupt St Pierre stood in little danger. The first intimations that this might not be so came to Bell on the afternoon of May 4 when he heard 'a mysterious booming sound, just like the firing of guns at sea'. On May 5 reports came in that La Soufrière in St Vincent was also showing signs of activity (which volcano was to kill 2000 people in the same year), and that flashes of flame were issuing from Mont Pelée. The next day, news of the disaster and loss of life became more concrete, followed by loss of telegraphic contact with Martinique. It was not until May 9 that Bell learnt the full extent of the destruction:
'I was dressing for dinner, just now, when I suddenly heard a terrible cry rise almost simultaneously from all parts of the town. A moment later my orderly rushed in exclaiming 'Oh, Sir! The whole of St Pierre has been destroyed today and everyone is dead!' ... The whole of St Pierre seemed to be enveloped in dense black smoke through which masses of flames shot up to a great height. The whole city, which is about the size of Eastbourne, seemed to be nothing but a gigantic furnace. The fall of hot dust and ashes was so thick, even far out at sea, that it was quite impossible for the ship to approach the shore'. (Bell 1946, pp. 55-56).

The loss of life throughout the island was enormous, and estimated at 30,000 in all. There were few survivors, one being a prisoner, who was incarcerated in an underground bomb-proof magazine. It withstood the effects of the great cloud of gas which blew out of the side of the mountain and enveloped the city. This man, under the stage name Ludger Sylbaris, later travelled with Barnum & Bailey's circus as 'the man who lived through Doomsday'.

The photographs in this collection may possibly have been taken by a member of the American National Geographic Society Expedition which visited the island shortly after the tragedy.

A set of ten postcards 'Saint-Pierre, Martinique, avant la Catastrophe', published by Benoit Jeannette, has been added to this collection. They have been catalogued as Y307E/34-43.


  • 1900 - 1902

Conditions Governing Access

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (


43 item(s) (43 images)

Language of Materials


Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

good condition.

Existence and Location of Copies

This collection is available on microfiche: South America/Caribbean, fiche number 4.

Related Materials

Some fine photographs of St Pierre before its destruction can be seen at Y307A/63-70.


For two brief personal accounts of St Pierre see: Hearn, Lafcadio (1902), 'Two years in the french West Indies', New York: Harper; Bell, Henry Hesketh (1946), 'Glimpses of a governor's life', London: Sampson Low. A full scientific account of this and other eruptions that occurred in the West Indies in 1902 can be found in: National Geographic Society (1902), 'The national geographic magazine', Vol. 13.


This item collection level description was entered by NE and MJC using information from the original typescript catalogue.



Includes index.
2004-01-28 10:22:49+00:00
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom