In 1848, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by the French government, ending all slavery in the French West Indies, indentured laborers from India were brought to Martinique to replace the black slaves.
As of 2012, the population of Martinique was 412,305, with 91,249 living in the current capital city of Fort-de-France. The capital, however, prior to 1902, was St. Pierre, home to Mt. Pelee. At the turn of the century, St. Pierre was a vibrant colonial city, known to tourists as the “Paris of the West Indies,” and home to more than 20,000.
As early as January 1902, Mt. Pelee showed an increase in fumarole activity. (A fumarole is a vent from which volcanic gas escapes into the atmosphere.) Appearing unconcerned, resident continued as usual—at least until April, when minor explosions began. Community leaders climbed the volcano to determine the danger, reporting to the Governor on May 5, 1902 that “there is nothing in the activity of Mt. Pelee that warrants a departure from St. Pierre.” It concluded that “the safety of St. Pierre is completely assured.” The only scientist in the group was a local high-school science teacher.
Of course the community leaders were completely wrong. Based on this report and encouraging newspaper articles, many people in the countryside fled to St. Pierre. Thinking it was the safest place to be, the city’s population swelled to 28,000, all of whom died in the May 8, 1902 eruption.
An enormous cloud of superheated gas, ash and rock headed straight for St. Pierre at more than 100 miles per hour and struck the city with hurricane force in less than 1 minute. Everything—people, homes, animals, buildings—was destroyed by the pyroclastic flow. Some may have died from the force of the blast or from burns, but most died within seconds of inhaling the hot fumes and ash.