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#BTColumn – 1902 Martinique volcanic disaster

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by Sébastien Perrot-Minnot

On May 8, 1902, Martinique suffered one among the worst volcanic disasters in modern history: on that fateful day, an eruption of Mount Pelée destroyed the sensible city of St. Pierre, the “Little Paris of the West Indies”, which was the economic and cultural capital of the French colony.

The catastrophe took the lives of roughly 30,000 people, including the Mayor of St. Pierre Rodolphe Fouché, the Governor of Martinique Louis Mouttet, and consular officials serving the interests of the US of America, the UK, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium.

The US Consul Thomas T. Prentis and his colleague, the Vice Consul J. Amédée Testart G., who were among the many victims, have been honoured by the US.

Department of State and the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). Moreover, in 1935, the American engineer and volcanologist Frank Alvord Perret dedicated a memorial to Prentis in St. Pierre, and in 1984, the U.S. Ambassador to France Evan Griffith Galbraith had a plaque affixed to the monument in memory of the Prentis family and Vice Consul Testart.

Nevertheless, this monument has deteriorated with the passage of time. Under these circumstances, the Municipality of St. Pierre decided to dedicate a memorial stone to the victims of the Prentis and Testart families, in an area intended to turn out to be a memorial of the consular corps, in the gorgeous garden Louis Ernoult (behind the Cathedral).

This highly symbolic work was created by the Martinican artist Hervé Beuze with volcanic rock. It was inaugurated on May 8, on the a hundred and twentieth anniversary of the 1902 catastrophe (as a part of the standard “May of St. Pierre”), during an awesome French-American commemorative ceremony presided over by the Mayor of St. Pierre Christian Rapha and involving the US Consul in Barbados, Jessica A. Hartzfeld, who read a letter from the US Ambassador to France, Denis Bauer. Mayor Rapha took the chance to recall the generous assistance provided by the US to suffering Martinique in 1902.

Then again, a memorial plaque was unveiled at the placement of the previous United States Consulate in St. Pierre, next to the Place Bertin, the square on the seafront. Founded as early as 1790 by George Washington, this Consulate is emblematic of the privileged relations built up by the US and France for the reason that American Revolutionary War.

It played an important role in the event of relations between the US and Martinique and contributed significantly to the international prestige of St. Pierre.

Besides Mayor Rapha, Consul Hartzfeld and the U.S. Consular Agent in Martinique Leah McGaw Maurice, the ceremonies were attended by various personalities, including the Sub-Prefect of Trinité and St. Pierre, the President of the Assembly of Martinique, Senator Catherine Conconne, other mayors, the Minister of the Embassy of India in France, and the Honorary Consuls of Brazil, Seychelles, Italy, and Guatemala in Fort-de-France. Such a gathering of consular officials is unusual in Martinique and shows that today’s St. Pierre, labelled “Town of Art and History” by the French Ministry of Culture, has the need to stay opened to the world.

Sébastien Perrot-Minnot, PhD, is an archaeologist and lecturer on the University of the French West Indies (Martinique), Honorary Consul of Guatemala in Fort-de-France, Associate member of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) [email protected]

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