On the anniversary of the 1902 disaster in the French outpost, ceremonies honor those lost and celebrate French-American relations.
BY SÉBASTIEN PERROT-MINNOT
The 120th anniversary of the May 8, 1902, volcanic disaster in Martinique was marked by French-American commemorative events there.
St. Pierre, a small and quiet town in the northern part of the island, is world renowned for having suffered one of the worst volcanic disasters in modern history: On May 8, 1902, an eruption of Mount Pelée destroyed what was then the economic and cultural capital of the French colony, a brilliant city known as the “Little Paris of the West Indies.”
The catastrophe took the lives of approximately 30,000 people, including Mayor Rodolphe Fouché, Governor of Martinique Louis Mouttet, and consular officials serving the interests of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy.
U.S. Consul Thomas T. Prentis and his colleague, Vice Consul J. Amédée Testart Grosval, appointed to St. Pierre in 1900 and 1898, respectively, were among the victims of the eruption, although their remains have never been recovered. [For more on Consul Thomas T. Prentis, see the article by Senior Foreign Service Officer William Bent, “The Unlucky Consul,” published in the May 2020 issue of The Foreign Service Journal.]
Prentis and Testart were honored by the U.S. Department of State and the American Foreign Service Association, their names engraved on the AFSA Memorial Plaques in the State Department lobby. Later, in 1935, the American engineer and volcanologist Frank Alvord Perret dedicated a memorial to Consul Prentis in St. Pierre; and in 1984, U.S. Ambassador to France Evan Griffith Galbraith had a plaque affixed to the monument in memory of Prentis’ wife and two daughters and Vice Consul Testart. That monument has, however, deteriorated with the passage of time.
Under the circumstances, the Municipality of St. Pierre decided to commission a new memorial, dedicated to all members of the Prentis and Testart families who died in the 1902 eruption: Consul Thomas T. Prentis, his wife Clara Louisa, their daughters Mary L.L. and Christine H., Vice Consul J. Amédée Testart Grosval, and his daughter Marie Louise.
The new memorial, created by the Martinican artist Hervé Beuze with volcanic rock, was placed in an area intended to become a memorial for the consular corps in the beautiful Louis Ernoult Garden behind the cathedral. It was inaugurated on May 8, 2022, the 120th anniversary of the 1902 catastrophe, as part of annual monthlong celebrations, “May of St. Pierre.” Mayor of St. Pierre Christian Rapha presided over the French-American commemorative ceremony, which featured U.S. Consul to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean (also accredited to Martinique) Ms. Jessica A. Hartzfeld, who read a letter from U.S. Ambassador to France Ms. Denise Campbell Bauer.
The mayor took the opportunity to recall the generous assistance provided by the United States to a suffering Martinique in 1902. The aid was provided under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress, and with valuable onsite assistance from Louis H. Aymé, U.S. consul in Guadeloupe and acting U.S. consul in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, following the disaster. Another memorial stone in the Louis Ernoult Garden, also carved by Mr. Beuze, refers to this American solidarity.
On May 8 another memorial plaque was unveiled, this one at the location of the former United States consulate in St. Pierre, next to Place Bertin, the square on the seafront. Founded as early as 1790 by George Washington, this consulate represents the privileged relations built up by the United States and France since the American Revolutionary War. It played a critical role in the development of exchanges between the United States and Martinique and contributed significantly to the international prestige of St. Pierre. Some consuls expressed a great attachment to Martinique, including William A. Garesché, who served from 1886 to 1891, and wrote: “The island itself was a dream of Paradise.”
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 subprefect of Trinité and St. Pierre, the president of the Assembly of Martinique, Senator Catherine Conconne, other mayors, the consular minister of the Embassy of India in France, and the honorary consuls of Brazil, Guatemala, Italy, and Seychelles in Fort-de-France. Such a gathering of consular officials is unusual in Martinique and shows that today’s St. Pierre, labeled “Town of Art and History” by the French Ministry of Culture, has the desire to remain open to the world.
Next year, May 8, 2023, will be another anniversary of the 1902 catastrophe; but it will also be the centenary of the rebirth of the town of St. Pierre (which had been removed from the list of the municipalities of France in 1910). At that time, the municipality will pay a general tribute to the seven consular officials who died in the eruption of Mount Pelée, as well as to the 10 consulates established in the Little Paris of the West Indies before the volcanic disaster: those of the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
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