La Catastrophe de la Martinique: nine
The Funeral Boat
On Land…What We Saw There
I had seen the volcano in passing near the coast, aboard the Saint-Domingue. I had observed the terror it threatened to hurl upon Fort-de-France. I wanted to see this more closely. And I wanted above all to see the ruins, to go over that which had been the prosperous city, the welcoming city, where four years ago on an earlier trip to the Antilles, I had been pampered, feted.
I went with what was called, in Fort-de-France, the Cappa mission, that is to say, the detachment of workers under the direction of M. Cappa, architect of the city, who had the mission of burying and burning the corpses. It was the dredging-boat of the port which each day…when it rested, when the sleep of the volcano permitted…carried this mission from Fort-de-France to Saint-Pierre.
The boat was always loaded with barrels of lime, jars of carbolic acid, and cans of kerosene. It had taken on the odor of a hospital ward, an “amphitheater”. I have sailed on all sorts of boats. I had missed that of gravedigger.
Dreary…do you think?
But no…it carried also two policemen and two priests, who told me stories…stories of the volcano.
And then it had this inestimable advantage, that it was a dredger, and could not go fast. And as it passed very near the coast when we were along the devastated regions, I could see well.
The southern limit of the destroyed zone was in the town of Carbet.
It was pretty, once, this town narrow and long, that slept on the beach at the foot of low hills furrowed and fertile. It was a town of rich cultivation, and rich fishing. The fire and the sea have left only ashes, only ruins.
It is at first scorched cocoanut trees and scorched cane; then, burnt cocoanuts and burnt cane.
And the debris of huts, and the scattered stone of houses. In a sheltering ravine, the church and its surrounding outbuildings are intact…but abandoned. The hot ashes have chased away the men.
And by measures, as we advance towards the North, we see destruction more profound. The trees remain only smoking trunks. The cane fields, nothing, nothing but ravaged earth. The huts debris on the soil. It is a tangle of rubble. All the shoreline is full of what the waves return, like dead algae on our own beaches. The flanks of the hills are planed, harrowed; the heights are scorched, defoliated, carbonized.
And everything afterwards is ash. It has come to rest in turbulence fallen with the rain. It gives the illusion of lava flows.
Then there are the naked rocks, grey and livid. The cliff looks like the walls of a lime-kiln. Farther on is the open land, under a frosting of white. The ashes flocked on the perimeters of the cliff and the hills, drawn in arabesques of unimaginable fantasy. All these combinations of grey and of white. The white of baked stone, the grey of ash. That which might be carved, modeled, drawn, painted, of this madness, could have no more than grey and white for the translation, in color, of a crisis.
At the Monsieur quarter, a wreck on the beach. And it is there the truly beautiful devastation begins. Clearly, one sees that a gust of fire has passed here, wrenching the skeletons of calcined trees on the desiccated soil, cooked and recooked. But the gust was not much elevated. On the hills, higher, at one hundred thirty to one hundred fifty meters, are fields of cane still green. This makes a brutal contrast. At the heights, life. Below, death.
At several points I could pinpoint, by this, the upper limits of the destructive phenomenon. From one hundred twenty to one hundred forty meters.
Then, it is the quarter of l’Anse. In the middle of the burned ruins, a house has its four walls and its roof. It sings a foolish solo in a décor of trees without leaves, twisted by fire.
The tornado of flame seems to have worked as though a factory for “bent wood”. This hallucinatory vision, with the headway of the boat, chases place to place; this vision of calcined trees in poses of agony. The corpses of men are frightful. But the dead lie. Death lets stand the corpses of trees. And this may be still more frightful. Death in that which lives a little, seems a more potent death…
She has stricken all here, death. At the southern tip of Saint-Pierre, on the flank of the hill, mid-coast, on a prominence that dominates the harbor, the sailors had lifted a great and beautiful statue of the “Bonne Mère”, to protect the shipping. The pedestal of the statue is all that stands. The virgin of stone has been projected twenty meters. But she has not broken in this fall. She has fallen intact, face to earth. One of the sailors of the funeral boat told me it is for weeping; not to look on the destruction she did not know how to prevent.
And the city…this which was a city…
The words, the words to tell it…
No…I can’t find them…
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(La Catastrophe de la Martinique, Jean Hess, 1902; translation 2018, Stephanie Foster)