La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-four
“Just so. Mouttet was only an instrument. Mouttet obeyed. You could well say that he died a hero, a victim of professional duty if, from professional duty for a governor of Martinique, you hear absolute obedience to the minister of the colonies, for which the same professional duty consists of bowing down before M. Knight the mulatto… perinde ac cadaver… And it is thus one makes cadavers… Many… Too many.”
(When I said to you that in Martinique they will fight on the coffins!)
These events which preceded a catastrophe, M. Clerc, with his temperament, appreciates. He sets here all the passions of a party chief, who affirms himself victim of governmental tyranny, of the administrative oppression of an unjust judiciary. That is his right. All the whites in Martinique (save those of the government) say that it is his duty, and that he has reason. Me, I publish his declarations as a reporter, reproduce them with the greatest fidelity possible, that is to say, I believe with fidelity. Further, I will reproduce, also faithfully, other declarations, other letters, other facts from proofs…
But, precisely because I am doing the work of a reporter, searching for and telling the truth, I must, at the same time as the declarations of M. Clerc, immediately publish these…of others.
And one conceives readily that these others are not of the same view, that they are conscious of the appalling responsibilities that crush them…
Reflect on this a moment!
A city is threatened. Its inhabitants could flee. They would flee on their being told that prudent eyes estimate the situation dangerous. But no one communicates to them the view of prudent eyes. For they want the voters to remain. They want them to vote…in three days. They believe the election of the government is assured. And the government have need of all their seats…they count their majority in ones. And the chief of the colony, transformed into an electoral agent, has pressing orders, imperatives… It must be done. It must be done. Otherwise, it is a disgrace. Then they multiply the encouragements to remain. They publish reassuring opinions. They exhort. They give the example. And forty thousand are dead!
Ah! M. Decrais, if I were in your place, at night I would fear the ghosts of these forty thousand…
The Version of the Government
I ought to write: the versions, because there were two successive versions among the government people. At first, when told about the pessimistic views sent from Saint-Pierre, in M. Landes’s dispatch, etc., etc., they denied.
All so simple.
Landes could not have sent anything at all. Landes had not the status to communicate with the governor directly. He could not have sent him anything, and the governor could have responded nothing to Landes. The only thing one could attribute to Landes was optimistic assessment, for, if Landes were a serious man, the point could not be admitted of him, that he second-guessed the committee’s conclusions, which had been reassuring.
The only true fact, proven, was that.
And they add, not without an appearance of reason, that if the governor had received serious word of danger, he would not have escorted Mme Mouttet to Saint-Pierre. Certainly, he would have gone himself, since it was his duty, but he would have gone alone.
That makes the first explanation given by the government, that which they gave to me. A negation.
A great man, who has made some noise in the history of these recent years, would claim he has nothing to confess.
The government of Martinique will not confess.
They deny. It is easier and far more simple. But, once the precise affirmations of M. Clerc were known to a number of people, they believed it necessary to speak a little, and they said, to me…they said this to me:
“There is a confusion in the recollections of M. Clerc.
“It is true that M. Landes sent a dispatch to Fort-de-France saying the hill of Lacroix could collapse. But this dispatch spoke only of vague probabilities. Further, it had not been addressed to the governor, with whom M. Landes had not the right to correspond directly.
“It was a dispatch addressed to the director of the cable, who, since the 4th of May, posted the news relative to the eruption, news that many people, M. Sully notably, sent him from Saint-Pierre.
Translator’s note: The Latin term perinde ac cadaver refers to complete obedience to the spiritual direction of a superior, a complete subsumation of human will, so we may interpret M. Clerc to offer his comment in dark humor, meaning that governor Mouttet had obeyed orders; literally giving himself (and his wife) to authority “in the manner of a corpse”.
The “great man” hinted at, is probably Decrais, the colonial minister.
The photo above, was taken on May 11, showing the state of the city of Saint-Pierre on the day the disputed election would have been held.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
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(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)