La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-three
“As there was a weak place, going laterally, effected by that notch of the dry pond I’d told you about, under powerful pressure this gave, and the heavy mud flowed along the mountain. It devastated the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and carried away the Guerin factory, in the conditions that you know. But suddenly the chimney was swept away, released. I no longer saw any mud. I saw only a constant eruption of ashes and pumice.
“This eruption grew continually more intense. You would have to be blind not to see the danger this threatened. Me, I settled my family on the heights, to take shelter there.”
Declarations of M. Clerc
On the responsibilities of the government
The interview, you will see, became interesting.
I pursued him, asking:
“So, you were dreading what has occurred?”
“I beg you, do not make me say what I have not said, what I could not say. What has occurred is so unbelievable, mad, so much outside all human foresight, so new…that no one would have been capable of imagining it, consequently to dread it. There had been fear of another thing, not a catastrophe like that of the Guerin factory, since the mountain had emptied all its mud, but an earthquake. Our country is a country of earthquakes; it is never forgotten, and given the activity of the volcano so near to Saint-Pierre, we had not only the right, but the duty to predict misfortune…”
“So, if you had been governor, if you had been mayor of Saint-Pierre, you would have evacuated the city?”
“Completely. I would have done for the other families, what I’d done for mine. I have settled mine outside the danger zone at Parnasse, at the habitation of Litte. It would be insane to stay below. M. Mouttet is dead. M. Fouché is dead. Many others are dead… May God keep their souls!”
And a mist is seen in the eyes of my interviewee, a mist quickly dried, however. For he takes up again with a violence barely contained:
“They who pretend that we were absolutely ignorant of the danger until the last moment, they lie… There was a great earthquake, a great shaking forecast, and they feared the burning ash, as well, that it would cause fires…”
“But, the scientific commission, their report?”
“Officially, by order…this report… It was signed Landes, was it not? Well! Do you know what was the thought of Landes at the moment when he signed it, with the other members of the commission, this report which by a terrible irony of fate was posted in Fort-de-France the same instant that Saint-Pierre, crushed by the explosion, disappeared completely in the flames? Here is what he thought, the unlucky professor!
“I had seen him on the evening of the 7th, and I remember exactly, he said to me: ‘I sent a dispatch to the government saying that the Morne-Lacroix would collapse under the violence of the eruption and that this would constitute a grave danger to Saint-Pierre. And to me they responded: Thank you for your communication, but be careful of warning the public.’ I will never forget the expression of sadness, of worry and trouble that he had, the poor Landes, on the last evening of his life.”
“That is very interesting, what you say there. I’ve heard talk already of something like it. But I believed it was a fairytale, as it had been aired so much since the catastrophe, and as an edgy population is always disposed to welcome…and amplify, even forge…”
“No, no, a thousand times no. This is not a fairytale. It is the strict, the pure truth. I am absolutely sure of my memory. Landes said this to me. And I have even seen the dispatch he received. The administration was culpable. Dissect it any way you like, search all the explanations you please…me, I won’t go there. They demanded reassuring signs, and these they gave to the public. I am persuaded that, if they had not wanted at all costs to reassure, and reassure this same population who, had they been allowed to obey their impressions, their fears, say, even their madnesses… That thousands would not now be dead.
“They say that no human science could have predicted the cataclysm; agreed, let us admit this, but admit also that no human science was capable of denying the danger, of affirming that there was no danger, that we were in absolute safety at Saint-Pierre…as they had done.
“One must allow the people liberty to do what they please, to go if it is their wish. Or, we literally force them to remain, by affirmations of which we know the insanity, by a veritable pressure…less potent than the electoral pressure, it is true, but all the same effective. Behold, the error for which M. Mouttet has paid with his life, and that of his wife.
“Who imposed on this unfortunate governor this line of conduct? Whose, the responsibility for this attitude that the evidence condemns? Whose? Look, and you will see those truly responsible are not dead. You will see that one must perhaps look to Paris.”
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique: 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)