La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-one
Another captain, when he came before Saint-Pierre in the same conditions; when he saw the volcano, once he knew it had ruined the city, had not wanted even to go to Fort-de-France. This was the captain of the Mariette, of Bayonne.
M. Cappa, who found himself aboard the dredger, met him off the coast:
“What is that mountain that smokes?”
“Mt. Pelée. Do you know nothing? Where do you come from? Where are you going?”
“From Bayonne. To Saint-Pierre. To carry cod.”
“Saint-Pierre does not exist. The volcano has destroyed it. But, they have need of food in Fort-de-France. Go there.”
“Thank you. I also have a cargo for Guadaloupe. I will go there.”
And the Mariette turned from him, without wanting to hear any more.
On the Outskirts of the Rain of Fire
The extent of the gaseous whirlwind’s destruction had been noted at many points. MM. Lasserre and Simonet were found on the road of the Morne-Rouge, making for the rise of the Petit-Réduit. They were going by car, when, arriving at the rise mentioned, they saw the whirlwind come up. They took their horse off at a gallop, shouting and applying the whip. But barely had they gained sixty meters, when the phenomenon was upon them. They were burned, but had the power, nevertheless, to save themselves.
“It was,” they told me, “as if we had had, thrown in our faces, a jet of steam mixed with ashes.”
Here is their only memory. For, they had not dreamed of observing this thing. They did not look it over. They fled. And that, one understands.
M. Guillaume, of Prêcheur, had seen the phenomenon of the 8th distinctly. His house is thirty meters from the limit of the devastation zone. His oxen shed was burned, with the animals and his wrangler. His impressions: a great terror.
He had heard what seemed a fusillade. He breathed an odor of saltpeter. His watch marked the time as five minutes after eight. The wind blew from the North, delivering clouds of hot ash, of small rubble, and the debris of fire. This lasted a half-second. The sky became red. Then two minutes of ash raining, and a half-hour of raining mud.
An Interview with M. Fernand Clerc
M. Fernand Clerc is chief of what one calls, in Martinique, the party of whites. Owner of a large factory, of large properties, he commands in the territory a great influence. It was he who four years ago nominated as Deputy, Denis Guibert, who was not known to a person on the island, who had never gone there, and will never come there. This year, M. Fernand Clerc had thought a Martiniquais would better defend to Parliament the interests of Martinique, or, if you prefer, the interests of the factory owners of Martinique. And he had presented himself.
A candidate hostile to the administration and to the mulatto party, he had been violently resisted. But just as I have said, he commands a great influence. He is, more, a man of rare energy, of great charm, and extraordinary activity. He was making his campaign…effective…and in the initial round had come in first. The volcano, at this point, would not allow him to face the electorate.
Although this is not immediate to a report devoted to the eruption of Mt. Pelée, since we are with the leader of one of Martinique’s parties, I believe it necessary and advantageous to expose here, briefly, the political situation of the colony. I say necessary, because if one knows this situation, one can have an exact idea of the mental state of the Martiniquais, before, during, and after the catastrophe. Of these human events, many seem inexplicable, if one does not have the key to the colonial psychology, particularly as to Martinique and Guadaloupe.
We see here three classes of men: the whites, the mulattos, and the negroes. The negroes make up the majority. They are the arms…the arms that work the soil, the arms whose labor nourishes the whites and mulattos. But the general economic condition makes this labor poorly remunerated. The colonial goods today are produced everywhere. They have fallen in price. Hence the crisis of Martinique. The whites would like to be alone, in profiting from the meagre benefits the island’s exploitation returns. The mulattos as well. And these fight on the backs of the negroes. For the poor man is always the one who pays.
Thus, the situation.
On one side, the masses, still ignorant…some a little brutal, naïve, credulous, fetishistic, passionate, manipulable, capable of being swept away, capable of a low servility, of crushing submission; and also of a generous pride, of fearful revolts…a mass, let us not forget, who were freed from slavery barely 50 years ago. To be exact, from 1848. Those negroes older than 50, voters today, have been slaves. Of the three generations active today, the one was born into slavery, the other grew up with memories of slavery, and the third has received, with their blood, all the grudges, the passions, the hates, all the special mentality of the first two.
It is this mass of land-laborers, this voting mass, who are at stake in the electoral battles, where political supremacy, disputed by the whites and the mulattos, is not in reality but a safeguard of local economic interests.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)