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Saint-Pierre (Municipality, Martinique, France)

Last modified: 2023-04-02 by ivan sache
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[Flag of Saint-Pierre]

Flag of Saint-Pierre - Image by Pascal Vagnat, 18 October 2012

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Presentation of Saint-Pierre

The municipality of Saint-Pierre (4,453 inhabitants - Pierrotins - in 2009; 3,872 ha) is located on the west coast of Martinique, 30 km north of Fort-de-France.

Saint-Pierre originates in the foundation in 1635 of the St. Peter Fort by Belain d'Esnambuc, which was the first step in the colonization of Martinique, achieved in the next 25 years. The land surrounding the fort was cleared and grown with cassava and potato as food crops, and with achiote, woad, cocoa trees and tobacco, as cash crops. A small settlement emerged, made of three boroughs (Fort, Centre, Mouillage [Mooring]), each of them having its church. The colony attracted all kind of French and foreign traders, filibusters and adventurers. Of the "engaged" colonists, mostly coming from Normandy and Brittany, who were promised a plot of land to clear after they had served for three years, only a few survived the harsh environment conditions and hard labour. To resettle the colony, the King of France allowed "everyone who wanted to go there ... as well as all valid beggars and male and female tramps forced by imprisonment" to emigrate there.
Governor Jacques du Parquet became the sole owner of the island in 1650, following the bankruptcy of Compagnie de Saint-Christophe. He favoured the settlement of the Dutch and Jew colonists expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese; the new colonists introduced sugarcane cultivation. At the time, sugar was the most prized colonial product in Europe, which made the wealth of the planters, traders and shipowners. Requiring a lot of manpower, sugarcane cultivation boosted slavery, to the benefit of the port of Saint-Pierre, where the ships brought African slaves.

Colbert soon realized that the trade from Martinique was mostly controlled by Dutch merchants, with little profit for France. Raw sugar was shipped from Saint-Pierre to Vlessingen and Amsterdam by Dutch shipowners, refined in the Netherlands and sold to France at high prize. From 1664 onwards, Colbert completely revamped the colonial policy of the Kingdom. He created the private Compagnie des Indes Orientales and Compagnie des Indes Occidentales, reconstituted the Royal Navy (from 10 vessels in 1660 to 130 in 1685), established military ports and arsenals. Last but not least, he granted a strict commercial monopoly on colonial trade to the newly founded companies. The traders of Saint-Pierre did not obey the new rules, so that Colbert had to send a naval fleet to impose the "Exclusive System" to the whole island.
Implemented by Jean-Charles de Baas, who was appointed Governor- General in 1669, the new system redirected sugar from the Amsterdam refineries to those established in Dieppe, Dunkirk, Lille and La Rochelle. The Dutch reacted by openly fighting war on Compagnie des Indes Occidentales, capturing most of its ships. In 1674, Admiral Ruyters failed to land near Fort-Royal (today Fort-de-France). The Compagnie was suppressed the same year and Martinique was incorporated to the Kingdom of France, with the set up of a military and civil administration. Saint-Pierre became the seat of the Government General of the French Indies, which was eventually transferred to Fort-de-France in 1692.

In the 18th century, Saint-Pierre morphed into a European-like town, nicknamed "Little Paris". The wooden huts built by the early colonists were replaced by stone houses, the streets were cobbled and water supply was organized form the sources that gushed forth from the Mount Pelée. The town was the residence of the small social and intellectual elite of the island (békés), whose meeting place was the theater built in 1786. The famous local carnival yielded to the town another nickname, "Tropical Venice".
At the end of the 19th century, Saint-Pierre, counting 26,000 inhabitants, was still the main town of Martinique. The abolishment of slavery in 1848 and the crash of sugar prices in the 1880s changed the structure of the local economy; most plantations converted to rum production, which was more profitable and required less manpower. In 1900, Saint-Pierre was the first rum exporter in the world.

In the early months of 1902, Mount Pelée showed an increased volcanic activity. In April, the northern part of the island was hit by earthquakes; the submarine cables linking Saint-Pierre to Dominique and Guadeloupe were broken. On 5 May, an eruption suppressed a rum factory, claiming 25 lives, caused a tidal wave in the bay and covered the northern part of the island with ashes. The islanders massively moved to Saint-Pierre, thought to be a safer place. The tight pre-election situation in the town and the lack of scientific knowledge on volcanos at the time caused a gross underestimation of the risk by the authorities. The probability for lava to reach the town was deemed extremely low, because of the distance between the crater and the town (6 km) and the deep valleys expected to absorb lava. Accordingly, only a few hundreds of inhabitants left Saint-Pierre, most békés refusing to abandon their wealthy houses to potential looters.
On 6 May, the intensity of rumbling and ash release by the volcano dramatically increased; the first, unexpected pyroclastic flows (nuées ardentes) were reported north of the town. On 7 May, the scientific commission appointed by the authorities and the local newspapers released optimistic dispatches, recommending the inhabitants "to sleep quietly".
On 8 May, 7:50, the Mount Pelée exploded, releasing a pyroclastic flow that reached the town 10 minutes later, at a speed of 200 km/h and a temperature of 1000 °C. In a few seconds, the whole town was suppressed. Stone walls thicker than one meter were destroyed; thousands of rum casks exploded. Some twelve ships moored in the port were also sunk, either by the flow or by the resulting tidal wave, of 3 m in height. The next day, the newspapers announced that all the inhabitants of the town had been killed and that dead may number 25,000. Only one person survived the eruption. Four days later, the rescuers found in the underground dungeon of the former jailhouse a man named Louis-Auguste Cyparis, who had been arrested following a scuffle; Cyparis recovered and was subsequently hired by the Barnum Circus. Some journalists refused to believe the story, claiming that Cyparis was indeed a looter and could not have survived the heat. The President of the Court of Appeals eventually confirmed that Cyparis had indeed been locked in the dungeon during the night of the eruption.

Source: Zananas Martinique website

Ivan Sache, 18 October 2012

Flag of Saint-Pierre

The flag of Saint-Pierre (photo, town hall) is white with the municipal coat of arms.

The arms of Saint-Pierre are "Azure a caduceus or a bordure of the same. The shield surmounted by a mural crown or".
The caduceus represents trade performed peacefully (therefore the branch of olive behind the column) and carefully (therefore the snakes).

Olivier Touzeau, Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 18 October 2012