In 1902 a volcanic eruption in Martinique killed a town’s entire population, minus one man. CHARLIE CONNELLY peers into the strange history of (geologically) recent volcanic events.
A deeply flawed man is the lone survivor of a volcanic catastrophe that wipes out everyone and everything he’s ever known. He emerges from the isolation that saved his life and spends the rest of his days on the move, recounting his experience to enthralled audiences as part of a travelling circus.
Not an early, discarded back-of-an-envelope draft of The Purple Cloud, but the story of Louis-Auguste Cyparis, the only person in the town of Saint Pierre, Martinique, to survive the eruption of the Mount Pelée volcano in May 1902, barely a year after the publication of M.P. Shiel’s novel.
Cyparis would have seen Mount Pelée smoking and grumbling before he commenced his usual circuit of Saint Pierre’s seedier she beens on the evening of Wednesday 7 May: it had been doing so for two weeks. He was not long out of prison after resolving a drunken disagreement with a cutlass, so the man whose physical stature earned him the nickname ‘Samson’ was in good spirits. Nobody can say for sure what happened that night — mainly because everyone involved except Cyparis was dead within twelve hours — but trouble was never far away when he was around.
The town was more crowded than usual as people had been streaming into the city from the countryside, fearing an imminent eruption and wanting to be close to the city’s long, sweeping harbour in the event of any evacuation. Maybe Cyparis took exception to this invasion of bumpkins crowding into his favourite drinking haunts. Maybe one of the rural interlopers said something he didn’t like, not knowing Samson’s reputation. Maybe he’d tried to work his streetwise charm on the wrong farmer’s daughter. People were already feeling on edge given the tremors, spurts of ash and pyroclastic throat-clearing coming from deep within a volcano that had been placid for more than half a century, and on this hot, sultry, rum-fuelled night, three days before a closely contested election, it wouldn’t have taken much for tempers to explode.
Either way, Louis-Auguste Cyparis spent the night in the familiar confines of St Pierre’s solitary confinement block, a thick-walled box, half underground with a small opening above the door for ventilation through which Cyparis, if he hauled himself up high enough, could have seen the lanterns winking in the darkness on the masts of the boats in the harbour.
The people of the town had never properly seen a sunrise: their position on the west of the island in the shadow of Mount Pelée meant their mornings started when the sun finally heaved itself above the crest of the volcano. Early on 8 May the morning light was milkier than usual thanks to the thin veil of ash hanging high in the atmosphere, but despite the gloomy start to the day the town yawned and stretched, fishermen paddled out to their boats, families of displaced farmers sat huddled together on the pavements and political bigwigs fastened their collars in front of mirrors ahead of another day’s campaigning. A cell-bound Louis-Auguste Cyparis lay on the stone floor, curled up with his back to the door, trying to sleep in the face of a whopping hangover and the bruised ribs and swollen eye from the altercation that had landed him there. Again.
High above Saint Pierre just before eight o’clock, as the hubbub of a busy colonial town easing into its day began to fill the cool morning air, the south-western flank of Mount Pelée heaved as if wracked by a giant sob, and disappeared. Escaping from the enormous fissure was a giant nuée ardente, literally a ‘glowing cloud’, a purple-tinged rush of gas, ash, steam and dust heated to over 1,000°C and travelling so fast it would cover the four miles to St Pierre in less than a minute.
In his cell Louis-Auguste Cyparis’s eyes were clamped shut but he couldn’t sleep. The floor was uncomfortable, he was cold, various bits of him hurt and he couldn’t help thinking about the implications his impending court appearance held for his newly regained liberty.
There was a roaring sound and the skin on his back and arms puckered and blistered. Ash and dust began to fly in through the ventilation grille and, thinking quickly, Cyparis leaped to his feet, stripped off his clothes, urinated on them and stuffed them into the opening.
By the time he’d crouched down in the corner of the cell and wrapped his arms around his head only seconds after the cloud had enveloped Saint Pierre, 30,000 people were already dead. So quickly had the nuée ardente swept through the town that when rescuers arrived three days later they found the dead seated at tables, embracing, riding in ponies and traps, even shaking hands. Cyparis was discovered the following day, rescuers hearing his faint, hoarse shouts and finding him dehydrated, in agony but alive.
So astounding was Cyparis’s survival that he became an instant celebrity, his crimes forgotten. Within a few months he was touring the United States with Barnum and Bailey’s circus — choosing the slightly odd stage name of Ludger Sylbaris — and recounting his story from within a replica of his cell, spending the remaining quarter of a century of his life on the road billed as ‘The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday’.
The legacy of the disaster can still be felt in Saint Pierre. Arriving by sea one has to pick one’s way carefully through the many wrecks still littering the harbour while in the warren of streets behind the waterfront you don’t have to walk far before finding a scorched ruin from the erstwhile ‘Paris of the West Indies’. There have never been more than 5,000 inhabitants in Saint Pierre since the eruption, yet despite the sparseness of the population the streets feel claustrophobic, as though you’re walking through crowds of ghosts. Above the town, scarred, barren Mount Pelée is still active.
Volcanoes are an unwelcome reminder of the fragility of our existence; that we’re essentially all just tottering around on a fissured crust floating on a suppurating sea of molten primordial ooze. Right now across the world there are as many as twenty volcanoes in a state of eruption and a further five hundred are still active — and they’re just the ones on land.
This acne of the Earth provides a direct route to our planet’s creation, a throwback to the days when our bucolic landscapes and twinkling cities were just a mass of boiling gunge swirling beneath a cloud of red-hot gases. It’s not something of which we like to be reminded, hence we’ve rather placed volcanoes at the back of our minds in the hope that if we ignore them they may just go on pretending to be plain old mountains. That can, for example, be the only possible explanation for why three million people live in the shadow of Vesuvius, one of the most dangerously active volcanoes in the world.
You don’t even have to live close to a volcano: there’s more threat from one than simply calculating whether you can outpace a tide of lava coming down the street. When Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, the most powerful volcanic event in recorded history, the associated effects were immense. The ash cloud it created was so vast that it changed the climate of the northern hemisphere for months afterwards, to the extent that 1816 became known as ‘the year without a summer’. There was frost in Virginia in August and rivers froze over as far south as Pennsylvania. In parts of southern Europe it snowed brown and red flakes. In London the spectacular sunsets inspired Turner and prompted an awestruck Fleet Street pharmacist called Luke Howard to devise a system of classification for clouds that is used around the world today. On the shores of Lake Geneva, the miserable weather confined Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John William Polidori to staring forlornly out of the rain-strafed windows of the Villa Diodati and spending the evenings making up scary tales, like Mary Shelley’s of a man who created life from death in the form of a modern Prometheus.
It wasn’t all head-scratching bemusement and spooky stories in the firelight though. Crops failed across a Europe already ravaged by the Napoleonic Wars, leading to starvation, disease and food riots throughout the Continent. In Ireland, an estimated 100,000 people died as a result of the volcano-triggered failure of oats, wheat and potato crops and a three-year typhus epidemic. In Bengal, disruption of the monsoon season caused famine and a massive cholera epidemic that cost thousands of lives.
Yet still we underestimate the power of the volcano. The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud was a little more parochial than that of 1816 and its effects were nowhere near as cataclysmic. It was as if everything stopped for a week, as if the world had been frozen in a moment of mass displacement that underlined just how many people are in transit at any one time. No crops failed, there were no disease epidemics and nobody died. Some people had to hang around in airports for a long time and John Cleese spent more than £3,000 on a taxi from Oslo to Brussels, but otherwise, after some hindsight-regrettable duty-free purchases and a few Facebook rants about the sheer injustice of it all, people were back where they should have been and everything soon returned to normal.
Not far from Eyjafjallajökull, just off the southern coast of Iceland, are the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic). Walking on the eastern coast of Heimaey, the main island of the archipelago, one soon notices something odd: the ground is black, the mud is black, the fine sand on the beach is black. On a damp, grey day beside a mercury sea and beneath a scudding sky one’s vision becomes disturbingly monochrome, and spotting a small orange starfish on the beach is a great relief.
This is volcanic land, and it was created anew in the middle of the night on 21 January 1973 when Eldfell — ‘fire mountain’ — erupted with little warning. Fortunately for Heimaey’s 5,000 residents, bad weather that day had kept the fishing fleet in the harbour, meaning that, in a symmetric reversal of the Saint Pierre eruption, everyone escaped unharmed except one man who’d spotted the opportunity to rob a pharmacy and was fatally overcome by fumes.
The lava spread into the sea and threatened the end of Heimaey by closing off the harbour altogether, but the spraying of seawater on the advancing pyroclastic flow caused it to solidify in time, giving Heimaey a whole new black, smoky chunk of island. Walk on that land today, scrape at the ground with your foot, and a rush of steam issues forth.
Locals entertain visitors by digging a hole and baking a loaf of bread: a nifty trick but one that reminds them of the throbbing pustule on which they live.
Matthew Shiel grew up in the shadow of an island volcano, the Soufrière Hills, on his home island of Montserrat. As a child he too lived with the constant possibility of swift, arbitrary doom. Soufrière Hills eventually erupted in 1995, long after Shiel’s time. When it destroyed the island’s main settlement, just as had happened 160 miles to the south-east on Martinique in 1902, Plymouth had already been evacuated and there were no future circus turns to be found. No ghosts wander the lava-smeared streets of Montserrat.
But they’re eerily tangible in Saint Pierre. And while on Heimaey it’s sobering to realise you’re standing on land that’s younger than you are. These and the stories of Adam Jeffson and Louis-Auguste Cyparis, less than a year apart (the fictional one, incredibly, pre-empting the factual), remind us that we’re never quite as safe as we think, thanks to what’s burning and bubbling beneath our feet. Now that we’ve reached the stage where being forced to spend a few extra hours in duty-free shops trying on expensive sunglasses can make us act like ‘the man who survived Doomsday’, it’s definitely time to remember the ordeal of Louis-Auguste Cyparis and revisit the tribulations of Adam Jeffson.
CHARLIE CONNELLY has written fourteen books including the bestselling Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round The Shipping Forecast and makes radio documentaries for the BBC. He would swap it all in a heartbeat to tour the halls in a plaster mock-up of a prison cell.