Martinique: Paris of the Caribbean

The featured image is of a 1947 4f stamp issued by the Caribbean island of Martinique. The design is simple, depicting a vista looking across a bay with shoreline buildings in the foreground and an impressive mountain rising up in the background. Surprisingly, the portrayed vista is the scene of one of the most devastating natural disasters of the 20th century.

The 4f brown stamp is one of three stamps (the others being the 5f in green and 6f in magenta) that feature an identical scene of Mount Pelée (Mont Pelé) as clearly identified in the tablet at the bottom of the stamp. Just to the right of the tablet, the engravers Barlangue are named. The stamps were part of a 20 stamp issue of 2 June 1947, including three air stamps. Martinique had become a French Overseas Department on 1 January 1947 and this was to be the last definitive issue of Martinique prior to the use of French stamps which continues to this day. Mount Pelée was to feature again in a French stamp issue of 1955.

1955 20f stamp issue of France featuring Mont Pelé, Martinique
1955 20f issue of France featuring Mont Pelé, Martinique

Mount Pelée, meaning ‘bald mountain’, is an active volcano in the northern tip of Martinique. Volcanoes feature extensively in stamp issues and are a popular theme for many philatelists, often depicting eruptions and lava flows at locations across the world from New Zealand and the United States to Ecuador, Argentina and Costa Rica. The stamp issues of Iceland are particularly striking and include the notable 1948 seven stamp issue of Hekla, commemorating the eruption of 1947 which started on 29 March and lasted for over a year with a the lava flow covering more than 40 km2.

1948 50a stamp issue of Iceland commemorating eruption of Hekla in 1947
1948 50a issue of Iceland commemorating eruption of Hekla in 1947
1948 5a Optd. stamp issue of Iceland commemorating eruption of Hekla in 1947
1948 5a Optd. issue of Iceland commemorating eruption of Hekla in 1947

Mount Pelée has the unenviable reputation of being the site of the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century. The eruption on 8 May 1902 destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre lying on its coastal west flank, killing between 29,000 and 30,000 people in just a few minutes. Indeed, it is understood that there were only two survivors of the resulting pyroclastic flow that swept through the town – Ludger Sylbaris survived as he remained protected inside a jail cell into which he had been incarcerated overnight for brawling and Léon Compère-Léandre, a shoemaker who lived on the edge of the city, who escaped with severe burns.

Prior to the eruption, Saint-Pierre had been regarded as one of the most important centres of culture and economic growth in the French colonies. Whilst not the official administrative capital of Martinique – a title retained by Fort-de-France further south on the island – Saint-Pierre earned a reputation as the ‘Paris of the Caribbean’. The coastal resort was a popular retreat for the wealthy French elite who were entertained in lavish theatres and bars. The thriving economy supported a burgeoning population that peaked at approximately 30,000 by 1900. Whilst there had been indications of activity from Mount Pelée, the phenomenon of the pyroclastic flow was not yet understood. Sadly, despite the warnings, the town of Saint-Pierre and its population was completely devastated by the 1902 eruption.

Photograph of the town of Saint-Pierre, Martinique, with a cloud-topped Mount Pelée rising up in the background
Town of Saint-Pierre with a cloud-topped Mount Pelée rising up in the background

Mount Pelée is part of the Lesser Volcanic Arc of the Caribbean which includes as many as nineteen active volcanoes. La Soufrière on Saint Vincent, which also forms part of the Lesser Volcanic Arc, erupted in the same year killing 1,680 people. Whilst Mount Pelée remains active, it is under continuous watch by geophysicists and volcanologists. The last eruption began in September 1929 and related tectonic earthquakes occur on Martinique every year. The town of Saint-Pierre may not have been fully restored to it’s original state of grandeur but it remains home to a population of more than 4,500.

To view postal issues of Martinique, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by nigelmandsphilatelycom

Nigel Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 30 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the Caribbean including associated British Commonwealth countries (incl. Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Monserrat, St Lucia, St Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos) as well as Cuba, Danish West Indies, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Martinique, Netherlands Antilles and Puerto Rico.

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