The Caribbean Volcano, an American Circus, and Worcester Cathedral Library

To find a crucifix in a Cathedral – even an Anglican one – is no surprising thing. However, the one in Worcester Cathedral Library has a particularly peculiar provenance – if the inscription on the wooden board to which it is attached is to be believed: “St Pierre, Martinique, 8th May 1902.” On that date, the town of St Pierre ceased to exist.

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The Crucifix. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

While not the administrative capital of Martinique, St Pierre was the island’s cultural and commercial hub, commonly known as “the Paris of the Caribbean”. On the eve of 8th May 1902, the town was home to some 30,000 souls. By the morning of the next day, legend has it, there was but one left alive. The rest had been killed in the eruption of nearby Mount Pelée – an eruption that would prove to be the deadliest volcanic event of the 20th Century.

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Aftermath of the eruption. Image in the public domain.

The legend of the sole survivor may have been perpetuated by the survivor himself. Louis-Auguste Cyparis, a 27 year old labourer, was spending the night in the town’s gaol following his involvement in a bar brawl. Luckily for Cyparis, his short temper had landed him in a fortuitously subterranean cell. Badly burnt and trapped in rubble for four days before being rescued, he was left with terrible scars. Eventually, he ended up joining an American circus company, Barnum & Bailey’. In fact, billed as “the man who lived through Doomsday”, he became a minor celebrity in the United States, and was the first black performer to star in the previously segregated show.

Postcard of Survivor of the Mount Pelee Eruption

Cyparis. Image in the public domain.

We now know that there were other survivors in addition to Cyparis, but only a handful – testament to the lethality of the pyroclastic flow that engulfed St Pierre. Yet the eruption of Mount Peleée was significant for more than its terrible death toll. News of the event spread rapidly owning to modern technology such as photography and telegraphy, and it was one of the first natural disasters to both be of public interest on a global scale and to generate an international aid response. Rescuers, engineers and sailors flocked to the island to begin the humanitarian, reconstruction and salvage operations. Tragically, a second eruption on occurred on 20th May and claimed a further 2000 lives. Since then Mount Pelée has seen no further eruptions, but remains active. Today in 2015 the population of St Pierre is around 5000 – only a sixth of its population before the disaster in 1902.

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Poster for The Barnum and Bailey Circus, c. 1900. Image is in the public domain.

We cannot find out why we have a crucifix from St Pierre in the Cathedral Library, and there seem to be no obvious links between Worcester and Martinique. Perhaps though the fact that we have it at all is further evidence of the eruption as a global media event that shocked, awed and caused a desire to commemorate it – and collect souvenirs – in an Edwardian English audience.

Tom Hopkins

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