The Foreign Service Journal, November 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2023 55 An Origins Story Created by President George Washington in 1790, the U.S. consulate in St. Pierre, which was then the economic and cultural capital of the French colony of Martinique, was among the first 10 diplomatic and consular posts opened by the young North American republic. It was initially entrusted to Fulwar Skipwith, who served under difficult conditions in the midst of the French Revolution and left the island in 1794 as it began to be occupied by the British. Later, the U.S. government appointed agents to represent its interests in the colony, which was returned to France in 1802. Yet it was not until 1815 that a consular presence was reestablished, with the installation of John Mitchell in St. Pierre. From then on, the U.S. consuls in Martinique succeeded one another in the “Little Paris of the Antilles” until 1902. Disaster Strikes On May 8 of that fateful year, Mount Pelée erupted, unleashing one of the worst volcanic disasters in modern history. The city of St. Pierre was destroyed, and nearly 30,000 people died, including Mayor Rodolphe Fouché, Governor of Martinique Louis Mouttet, and consular officials serving the interests of the United States, Great Britain, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium. Among the victims were U.S. Consul Thomas T. Prentis and Vice Consul J. Amédée Testart G.; they were later honored by the Department of State, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), American engineer and volcanologist Frank Alvord Perret, the U.S. embassy in France, and the Municipality of St. Pierre (see the May 2020 FSJ, “The Unlucky Consul: Thomas Prentis and the 1902 Martinique Disaster” by William Bent, and the November 2022 FSJ, “Memorializing the U.S. Consular Presence in Martinique” by this author). With no news from his colleagues in Martinique, the U.S. consul in Guadeloupe, Louis H. Aymé, went to St. Pierre on May 10, 1902. He saw the general disaster and noted the disappearance of the American consular officers. A few days later, the American naval ships USS Potomac and USS Cincinnati reached the martyred city. Their crews explored the ruins of the consulate with the authorization of the colonial government of Martinique but did not manage to identify the bodies of Prentis and Testart. Under these circumstances, Aymé assumed the duties of acting consul in Martinique, setting up his office in Fort-de-France, the colony’s capital. The May 8 disaster was big news in the United States, where it generated a broad movement of solidarity. The U.S. government provided prompt and substantial aid to Martinique, with the invaluable on-site assistance of Aymé. In June 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a new consul to Martinique: John F. Jewell, who took his post in Fort-de-France. Jewell’s first successors were Chester W. Martin (1906-1908), George B. Anderson (1908-1910, who died of disease while on assignment, during a stay in the United States), and Thomas Ross Wallace, who remained in office for a record 14 years (1910-1924). The Two World Wars and in Between The consulate was on alert during World War I, but the State Department did not identify any real threat in Martinique. During the 1920s, however, the American envoys faced hostility from the Martinican population because of persistent rumors announcing the sale of the island to the United States. Despite this, they tried to promote trade in a context of global economic growth. The consul in Martinique from 1925 to 1929, Walter S. Reineck, noted the tourist potential of the Lesser Antilles. “In all probability, the West Indies will become more and more a winter playground for Americans and Canadians,” he declared in a speech delivered in 1928 or 1929, according to the Reineck family archives. In the following decade, with the active support of the consulate, Pan American Airways seaplanes began to fly to Martinique and Guadeloupe. Martinique’s strategic interest for the United States increased dramatically in June 1940, following France’s unexpected defeat by Nazi Germany. France’s new political regime, the Vichy regime—which was officially recognized by the United States—embarked on a path of collaboration with the Third Reich. The government of Franklin D. Roosevelt feared that Walter S. Reineck, U.S. consul in Fort-de-France from 1925 to 1929. COURTESY OF LILI REINECK OTT