Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Voice of Authority

If nothing else Haverstein's disastrous mishandling of the German economy is a salutary demonstration that official reassurances that 'All is well' cannot always be trusted. The following account, which also involves over-bearing officialdom, shows the extent to which a vested authority can blind itself to the realities of a situation when its own interests are at stake.

At the beginning of the new, 20th century the inhabitants of St. Pierre, the port and principle city of Martinique, were justifiably proud of their reputation as the 'Paris of the Caribbean'. The city had been established for well over two hundred years and had grown prosperous through the export of sugar and rum. From all accounts it was a most attractive, even picturesque, city, with much of its architecture dating from the 17th century. But in mid-April 1902 its peace was unexpectedly disturbed by a series of minor rumblings and belches from the ancient volcano that overlooked the town. Mont Pelée, or La Montaigne as it was more commonly known had, over the centuries, given the occasional rumble, but as they had never caused serious injury or damage to property these episodes had almost been forgotten. It was assumed that, as it always had in the past, La Montaigne would go back to sleep. But this time it didn't. The citizens of St. Pierre began to become more concerned when, on April 25th, the volcano threw out a huge cloud of ash and rock, covering the entire town with a grey-white dust. When a similar eruption occurred on the following day the civil authorities felt obliged to issue a calming statement. There was, they said, no reason for immediate concern. Nevertheless the island's Governor took the precaution of instituting an enquiry. A committee was appointed, headed by Prof. Landes an eminent citizen, head of the Lycée, who was a Professor of Natural Science.

By the time the investigating committee delivered its report in the first week of May there had been a series of further eruptions of increasing violence from Mt. Pelée, and these had been accompanied by a number of violent earth tremors. Despite these alarming events, and the fact that the city was by now inches deep in volcanic dust, the report was thoroughly reassuring. There was, it declared, nothing in this activity that warranted an exodus from St. Pierre, 'The safety of St. Pierre is completely assured'. Prof. Landes emphasized the point, declaring that 'Mont Pelée presents no more danger to the inhabitants of St. Pierre than does Vesuvius to those of Naples'. To further reassure the citizens the Governor himself moved to the city, bringing his family, from their residence in a neighbouring town. He also, as a precaution, stationed troops on the road out of town with instructions to turn back any who might be tempted to leave.

Unfortunately, early in the morning of the 8th of May 1902, just two days after Prof. Landes' confident assertion of its harmlessness, Mont Pelée erupted more violently than ever, ejecting a vast cloud of volcanic ash that thundered down its slopes directly towards St.Pierre. Travelling at a speed approaching 100 miles an hour this superheated mass of gas, ash and rocks smashed into the city, completely engulfing it. Its old stone-walled buildings were instantly flattened, and the incandescent ejecta ignited anything that would burn. Within minutes St. Pierre was converted into ruined inferno. The city was utterly devastated and the entire population of some 30,000 souls perished in those dreadful few minutes, including the learned Professor and his committee, and the Governor and his family. The eruption also overwhelmed the many ships that were anchored in St.Pierre's harbour, setting them on fire and capsizing most.

There were just two survivors of this cataclysm. One of these was a ne’er-do-well by the name of August Ciparis, who had recently been thrown into prison for drunken behaviour. By virtue of the immensely thick walls of his cell, and the fact that it faced away from the force of the blast, he miraculously survived. Although badly burnt he managed to make himself heard to rescuers, who dug him out of his cell some four days after the eruption. August received a pardon and later turned his appalling experiences to good account, telling his story and exhibiting his scars as a sideshow act. He ended up touring in the USA with the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus for several years.

Another who managed to survive the disaster was the Master of a ship loading sugar, one Captain Marino Leboffe. As a native of Naples he was unimpressed by assertions of Mont Pelée's harmlessness - 'If Vesuvius looked the way your volcano looks this morning, I'd get out of Naples'. On the 7th May, despite the fact that his cargo was only half-loaded, and that he had been refused permission to sail and was threatened with arrest, he took his ship, the Orsolina, safely out to sea. His crew had good reason to thank him, for there were few survivors from any of those vessels that chose to stay in the proximity of St. Pierre.

One of the stranger aspects of this tragedy, and one that throws a light on the almost pathological complacency of the authorities at the time, is the fact that almost up the to the final catastrophe the volcano's explosions and eruptions were consistently downplayed by Les Colonies, the St. Pierre daily newspaper. Over this entire period Les Colonies had, in fact, been far more preoccupied with a forthcoming election, which was due on May 11th. The newspaper made no mention of the mid-April eruptions - and those of the 23rd and 25th, which left the city covered with ash were also studiously ignored. Towards the end of April, when Mont Pelée was daily spewing out great clouds of ash and the town so reeked of sulphur that its citizens were forced to wear wet handkerchiefs in order to breathe, Les Colonies made only a passing reference to the fact. On May 2nd, in a bizarre display of insouciance, the newspaper carried a notice about a picnic, arranged by the Gymnastic and Shooting Club, which was to be held on the side of the volcano on the 4th! Shortly after this, however, the reality of the situation appears to have forced itself to the attention of the newspaper. Feeling that they could no longer ignore it the paper grumbles about the constant rain of ash, but made no mention of the terrifying explosions that were by now regularly shaking the city. The last issue, dated May 7th, finally gave these catastrophic events a reasonable coverage, but the journal is still preoccupied with the forthcoming election, and it is this that gets the biggest headline.

The bland assurances given out by the city officials and their appointed committee of experts, and the continued attempts by the conservative Les Colonies to downplay the violence of geological events may have been inspired in part by wishful thinking, but there is little doubt that the established authorities primary concern was to avoid panic and keep the population in place in order that they might be re-elected and retain their office.