Martinique is a lovely French island in the Caribbean – with stunning black beaches, and quaint little fishing villages, and a tragic past.
Twice, in the past 250 years, nature has tried to wipe out Martinique (or at least the human habitats on it).
The Great Hurricane of 1780 produced a storm surge which killed nine thousand people in the then-capital of Saint Pierre. An eight-metre surge inundated the whole town, and destroyed virtually every structure.
The city was rebuilt, and became known as “the Paris of the Caribbean” with its arts, and literature, and grand homes and genteel lifestyle (unless you were a slave, of course…)
But that all came to a shuddering halt in 1902 when nearby Mont Pelee erupted and killed 30-thousand people – the entire population of the city, and of many surrounding villages.
There’d been rumbling and activity from the volcano for some days, but the belief was that the lava, if it erupted, would get trapped in nearby valleys.
Of course, NOW we know that the danger from volcanoes isn’t lava, but Pyroclastic Flow – the hot gasses and ashes and rocks that come from an eruption – but the residents of Saint Pierre didn’t know that. Then.
In fact, the French term for a Pyroclastic Flow is “Nuee Ardente” or “Burning Cloud” … and the term was first coined after the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelee.
As I say, the entire city of Saint Pierre was destroyed – and the capital was moved to Fort de France.
The naval base and fort at what is now Fort-de-France was first built in 1638, and named Fort Royal by the then governor.
Over the ensuing years, it came under attack a number of times – first against the Dutch (who were repulsed) and then the British who renamed it Port Edward – but when they were forced out of Martinique by the Treaty of Paris, the fort (and its nearby town) were returned to Port Royal.
Then in 1793, in a fit of revolutionary zeal, both were renamed Fort De La Republique.
About a year later, Britain took advantage of the chaos France found itself in – and again attacked and conquered Martinique. And again, they changed the name – to Fort Edward.
Three years later, France was back in charge – and this time, THEY renamed the fort to Fort Saint Louis.
But apparently the residents of the town didn’t much favour that name – so the city became Fort-de-France, while the military base remains Fort Saint Louis.
But the Navy’s not the only ones with ships (and boats) in Fort de France Bay.
There’s a large container terminal nearby, as well as the ‘Terminal Crosieres’ or cruise-ship terminal (where we berthed on the MSC Musica) and also the locals, with their ferries and tinnies and craft of all shapes and sizes.
On a quiet morning in April, many of those boats were tied up as we came into the harbour – but I have no doubt that they had already been out and done a day’s work, before we interloping tourists arrived.