(notes of a reporter)
To the lost souls of forty thousand
I dedicate this work of a reporter.
Forty thousand victims…
This statistic is not exact yet, and probably never will be. The number of forty thousand is that which was given at first. Afterwards, we tried to reduce it. The lieutenant of the vessel—Fontaine—who with his commander on the Tage, the captain Le Bris, made of the question a profound study, gave to me at Fort-de-France the number of thirty-seven thousand, five hundred. Now that the truth about the forced retention of the inhabitants at Saint-Pierre has seen daylight, thanks to the publication of my articles in the Journal; now that one knows, and is in no further doubt, that M. Decrais, minister of the colonies, had given the ill-fated governor Mouttet the order to keep the voters at Saint-Pierre, to assure the election of 11 May—as if one could palliate that which is odious and horrible by making a game, for the sake of a ministerial voice in Parliament, of the lives of forty thousand human beings…and to have lost…we seek to diminish the number of victims of the carelessness, the stupidity, the madness of government…
It is a bare thirty thousand that we admit…
If this continues, soon there will be no more…
And you will see that, for a little, we will pretend all this horrible tragedy of Mt. Pelée is but a fable, due to malevolence.
It is true that without any benevolence for our colonial administration, I relate these events that had preceded and followed the eruption of the volcano, Mt. Pelée.
Once more it was given to me to grapple with, from the first hour of the sinister actuality, the incapacity which characterized the people of the Pavillon de Flore in their misdeeds overseas.
Once more, in speaking only the truth, without even the obligation to comment, I have raised against these “minus-habentes” an indictment which would condemn them forever, if we had in our country, in colonial matters, an opinion capable of enlightenment.
In Indo-Chine, the people have killed the chicken for the golden eggs… I have predicted, I have said and repeated…
Enough! They will begin to believe me when the revolt, which for a year has rumbled in the frontier provinces, has rendered to fire and blood all the empire, when to the political bankruptcy is joined the economic bankruptcy…
In our old colonies, as to universal suffrage, we have always said that the government, with the sole restriction of maintaining order, must not weigh on the will of universal suffrage… For it was that, by ministerial order, to obtain the constituency of which he was certain; to assure this for having made all possible, and even impossible, pressures, M. Mouttet forced the functionaries, enjoined the inhabitants to keep at home in Saint-Pierre, despite the menaces of the volcano, despite the panics caused by these menaces; it was because M. Mouttet had taken an active part in the election…the volcano of Mt. Pelée killed, on 8 May, forty thousand human beings.
The notes, the documents that I collected on the spot, and that I publish, permit no doubt that this is so. For the election of 11 May to be legal, that it take place, it needed the population of Saint-Pierre not to abandon this city. M. Decrais gave to M. Mouttet the order of maintaining, by all the means possible, the population in the city under the volcano, under the menace of the volcano…
I had the honor to know M. Mouttet. This unfortunate was a disciplined official, who executed orders received, and who, always careful to cover his responsibility, would never permit, in a grave circumstance, of taking an important measure without referring it to his chief, the minister.
The fifth of May, when the volcano ravaged the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and the approaches to the Prêcheur, he alerted Paris. The sixth of May, when the volcano, in devastating the valley of the Rivière des Pères, poured its mud and its hot waters into the Roxelane, extending its activity as far as the city of Saint-Pierre, M. Mouttet again alerted Paris. He sought at the same time help for the victims… I specify…
The response of the minister, on which we waited:
As soon as Agriculture had given him the money, he would send 5000 francs.
The official charities in ordinary times fund themselves, in fact, with levies operated on sums engaged in the wagering at the racecourse. When the cocottes have had generous clients, when the speculators have swindled a money-lender, when the cashiers have made a forced loan to their patron, when the coin of vice “rolls” in quantity to the bookmakers, the better for a hundred levies by the Agriculture, to permit the ministers to practice the virtues of charity.
Wait, cabled M. Decrais to the unlucky Mouttet.
The volcano must wait. What mattered was the election—one votes first; one occupies oneself afterwards with measures for public safety.
But the volcano did not wait. The volcano mocked the election of the eleventh; its overfilled subterranean boiler must vomit. It vomited on the eighth. And it made forty thousand dead. Forty thousand dead, account for which public opinion [since the law did not provide penal sanction for this sort of crime (1)] has the right to demand of His Excellence M. Albert Decrais. Although he is an old enough politician, M. Albert Decrais has, I believe, still a conscience.
The wait is on, for the spectres of forty thousand of Saint-Pierre to come brighten the last moments of M. Albert Decrais, when on his deathbed, in that rapid return on their lives that the camarde allows to those in agonies, he will see all the unfortunates of Saint-Pierre, and the others, all of whom fell sacrifice by his incapacity, in the countries where “the colonial” operates—
The wait is on, for this hour of supreme justice
It must be. This I want, and this will be—it must
This he will carry upon his retiring, as the irons of the galley-slaves in their prisons; it must be that he carry these forty thousand dead
And that he has remorse
And that he has anguish
And that he has shame
And that, truly, it is necessary this be so. Too many political crimes are above the law. We are a people without courage. We support everything. We do not know how to feel indignant of anything. We do not know; we have no more will to punish…and the crimes are renewed. Under the pretext that M. Decrais certainly could not have wanted to kill forty thousand people—that he is an honest man; that he cannot be considered an assassin—the heap of those who believe themselves intelligent, and call themselves serious, clamors that it is madness to reproach an ex-minister of the Colonies with these forty thousand dead of Saint-Pierre…
I do not have to search for the intentions of M. Decrais.
I do not have to argue whether he is an honest man, for this case, at the least.
I do not have to say now whether he can be considered an assassin.
I have only to search and to say, these are the facts.
Author’s footnote: (1) There are many articles of law relating to homicide by imprudence; but as with us, ministerial responsibility is but a myth… We will not think about it.
Translator’s note: I could not find English words that gave a clearer sense to “cocotte” (in context, a sort of escort, paid in favors) and “camarde” (an allegorical figure of death); therefore, I offer illustrations below.
- Hess’s dedication uses the term “mâne”, which seems to be the concept, contrasting with “âme”, of a soul belonging to one who died unshriven.
- The Pavillon de Flore is a part of the Tuilleries complex in Paris, that at the time of this publication (1902), housed the offices of M. Decrais, the Colonial Minister.
- Minus habentes, a Latin plural, the singular of which, minus habens, is used as a legal term to define a sub-standard intellect.
Now the fact, at Saint-Pierre, is that these inhabitants wanted to go. And if these inhabitants seems to you too general, absolutely, take that portion of the inhabitants whose example had the chance of being followed…and the fact that M. Decrais had ordered M. Mouttet to keep these at Saint-Pierre until the eleventh. And the fact it was also these inhabitants; these the officials had retained by force at Saint-Pierre, that the volcano killed on the eighth…there were forty thousand victims. And that of these deaths, it is upon M. Decrais, with no possible discussion, and entirely obvious, the responsibility falls…
I am exposed to a danger against which no courage, no human force, can prevail…I know it, and I want to go… But I am a civil servant and you prevent me going; and you menace me with revocation if I go… I stay, to wager my life, and I lose it. The volcano kills me…it is true…it is not the minister. But they who weep over me, have they not the right to say the minister is my assassin!
There is the striking fact of my enquiry at Martinique.
When the catastrophe occurred, I was traveling in the Grand Antilles. Returning from Saint-Domingue, I arrived at Port-au-Prince on the eleventh of May. When the agent of the Transatlantic Company came aboard, M. Dardignac, he said to us, “Saint-Pierre is destroyed by the volcano. The whole of Martinique is threatened. Already forty thousand are dead!”
The first boat leaving Port-au-Prince, destined for Saint-Thomas, from where these “opportunities” are frequent for Martinique, was the Olinde-Rodrigues, of the Transatlantic Company, a regular mail from France; and which was meant to raise anchor on the thirteenth. I immediately took passage. The Haitians had the preposterous idea of beginning, the next day, a revolution, to fight in the streets, by day, by night…an interesting adventure, it is true, for people who want to see all the spectacles close up.
But a hitch that delayed our departure.
As there was no other foreign ship in port, M. Desprès, the minister of France, requisitioned the Olinde-Rodrigues, in order to have at his disposal a large vessel where, in case of danger too grave, foreigners could take refuge. He kept us until the sixteenth. That day an English boat arrived which the British consul requisitioned, while waiting until another boat came to assure the new service required by circumstance.
When I arrived at Saint-Thomas, I found the Saint-Domingue, belonging to the Transatlantic Company, ready to sail for Martinique.
(And of this I sincerely rejoiced… To travel aboard the English boats, the American, Dutch, German…in the Antilles above all…it has always seemed to me excessively disagreeable. A thousand times, I prefer the French, especially to cross the Atlantic. Patriotism? No. Simply a question of comfort. I like a good berth, good food, and good service. But these I have never found to my taste except on our own. And if you ask me why this digression, I reply that I love my fellow man, that I never let escape an opportunity of being useful to him, and thus, I deem it necessary to always fight the absurd legend people with bad stomachs propagate, wanting to make believe it better worth traveling on a foreign ship than a French ship…
I embarked from Saint-Thomas on the Saint-Domingue… But a new setback, caused this time by the volcano. Rather than make directly for Guadalupe, the packet-boat must go to Puerto Rico for the loading of sixty tons of food that the American generosity has sent to the victims of the distressed island. We were in Puerto Rico* on the twentieth. At five o’clock in the evening, we had a new emotion. The hawkers cried a broadsheet edition by the principle journal of the place, the Times of Puerto Rico, I believe…or something similar. This broadsheet contained a terrible dispatch, announcing that an eruption far more grave than the first had come to the place, that the ruins of the northern island were consumed, that the Dominique, yet distant, had been covered in ashes and debris…not to speak of Fort-de-France…but, one could assume all, all to fear (1)
This tells you in what state of mind we arrived on the twenty-first at Guadalupe.
(1)These Americans have the secret of sensational and alarming information. The reporters and the experts who were at Fort-de-France have literally panicked the population by their representations and their pessimistic predictions.
*Translator’s note: This was the 20th of May, 1902; the disaster occurred on the 8th of May, and by the 20th, the relief shipment had already arrived at Puerto Rico. Theodore Roosevelt was president.
But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand. Ezekial, 33:6 KJV.
At Basse-Terre, we were reassured. At Pointe we found a thousand Martiniquais refugees, of whom around five hundred had come not wanting to stay at Fort-de-France, for being told it had been rendered uninhabitable by the previous day’s eruption.
The 22nd, I was at Fort-de-France. I stayed there until the first of June. This allowed me to go to Saint-Pierre, to explore the ruins, to study the volcano as closely as possible…but, at a respectable distance. I was not like the American reporters—true salamanders, who disport themselves in the hot flows and burning vapors that score and constantly obscure in smoke all the slopes of the mountain—saying they have climbed to the point one could measure the crater exactly. I have looked from farther off, and yet I believe I have seen better, for the good telescopes are not made for dogs…
I have seen three eruptions: those of the 26th, of the 28th, and of June first.
Then, I have interviewed all the people capable of furnishing useful information; all those who had seen something of interest…
My excellent colleagues of the Opinion, the journal of Fort-de-France, were to me particularly precious for their articles; and their hints allowed me to work rapidly…with no loss of time. Permit me to thank them here.
The first of June, after an investigation conducted to the best of my ability, I embarked aboard the packet-boat Canada, of the Transatlantic Company. The obligingness of M. Vié, company agent to Martinique, and the amiability of M. Geffroy, commander of the Canada, made it possible for me to work aboard, and the fourteenth of June, I arrived at Bordeaux with the manuscript of this book.
Book is without doubt a large word to designate a collection of notes, also no less hastily gathered than rapidly collated and written. Some day we will write, I hope, a work mature, careful, and reflective, on this catastrophe of Saint-Pierre, unique in the annals of the world. And then it will be a book. Mine is not, truth to tell, more than a pile of information. These are my notebooks; this is the volume of a reporter, notes and documents.
What I Saw
Approaching the Volcano
(On the way to Pointe-à-Pitre, at dawn)
The agent that came aboard showed us a dispatch from Fort-de-France, saying that the city is uninhabitable, that they had almost died, and that all was full of ashes.
The Salvador conducted here five hundred refugees. These unfortunates had departed five hundred, arrived five hundred…and one. A woman, from fear, had given birth. I saw many of these refugees put ashore. The mayor of Point-à-Pitre had not enough time to house them all. Some waited, bleak, stupefied, under the awnings of the market.
I spoke with them and I found that they were still more bleak, more stupefied, than they appeared. Why they had gone… They had foreseen the fire of the volcano on their heads. They had received its stone and ash. They were afraid; they stormed the Salvador. And when the ship was crowded to capacity, they were sent to Guadalupe. They were there…and still they were afraid… An hysterical fear. When they spoke of the volcano, they looked up in the air, to see if the menace was not again on their heads. And their eyes were round, fixed. A man who knew scripture said to me, “Monsieur, the Lord has sent us a cloud… He has spared us this time… But…”
I spoke of the Soufrière of Guadalupe, whether one did not see it smoke more than was customary?
“Quiet, monsieur, quiet. One must not summon evil. And above all, one must not joke about misfortune.”
The people had completely lost their heads.
Some, however, returned with us to Fort-de-France. Notably, an old gentleman, the doctor Guerin, whose factory carried away three days before the catastrophe of the eighth, marked the first ravages of the volcano; and a young woman, a laundress who answered to the sweet name of Zulima. She said to us that Fort-de-France was void, dead, sad; the Zulimas had all filed off, for they did not want to die; and then they could no longer work as laundresses. There was no water in the channels of the fountains; they needed to use the gutters of the street, and those were muddy, full of ash.
Zulima told us afterwards that all this “was not good begaye”. I believe that she also spoke politically. She said that it was “no good either” that they had not reelected M. Duquesnay…that it was the fault of the governor…
“And the volcano?”
I dare not add that she answered: “That is the fault of the administration.” But she thought of it. She said to me also, that: “The Americans are very good people…yes, very good… Monsieur…”
Translator’s note: The salamander reference is to an old myth that salamanders can survive fire.
Bèl begay is Haitian creole, meaning today awesome or wonderful! The quote of Zulima’s Hess uses is “c’etait begaye pas bien”, italics his, indicating a non-French expression.
Before the Volcano
(On the way to Saint-Pierre, at sunset)
The land! It is always there at the end of a voyage, an impatience, a quivering, when we approach land. The eyes scrutinize, the glasses scour the horizon, searching between the sky and the waves, that place, in the uncertainty of the distance…the patch a little darker, which hour by hour, mile by mile, will come into focus, will delineate itself, marking the port.
With an anguish of impatience, in a confusion of sorrowful feeling, we searched on the horizon that little dark spot which, emerging, growing, must bring into clarity the glow of the destructive volcano; show us, in lieu of the welcoming port of our joys, a dead city, a cemetery of sadness.
At first, it was very beautiful. The day fell away in a calm light of thin mist, the rain that casts itself like a muslin veil on the tropical seas, in the months of high sun. The waves were a pale emerald, as the poet saw like to the eyes of Minerva, the blue-green eyes of the goddess…this was a sea very wise.
The land. A mountain of rounded forms, harmonious; a purple mountain, of light blue on light crimson, a mountain haloed in clouds that seemed rose powdered with azure. An exquisite pastel of delicate grace…
That…the volcano? This lovely thing…?
But, we approach. At the same time that the night…
In the night…
The tenderness coloring the countryside, from the details made precise by shadow, becomes a harsh anger. The sea plunges itself into mourning. The mountain grows large, black, tragic. A menace.
It is no longer veiled in rose and blue. It is helmeted, plumed in black smoke, with spots of red, with spots of blood. And this mounts to the sky, very high, launched by a powerful breath.
And we approached still. And there were, on the flanks of the mountain, large lava-channels, white. And then, under the black again, a stain of white, very large, long, at the bottom of the gulf…
But what blacks…! What whites…! I know of no words capable of rendering the livid filth, a thing never seen, beyond dreaming…and that you will not have imagined. No need to know that, in there, over there, are scattered forty thousand corpses, for this vision to seem frightening. No word, I tell you, to rehearse for you the horror…
White and black.
And never will a painter find on his palette such…so dismal, this black, this white; under the glow of the volcano, under the glow that, now yellow from the mudslides and the ashes they carried, greens the blues of night.
And we approach closer. We pass nearer, near to Saint-Pierre, this that was Saint-Pierre.
And then, it was more than horror…
The white ruins under the night, ruins that seemed a city of tombs, and from where we ventured, the stench of ashes. This white, that covered the mountain; this white, that covered the ruins—an immense shroud, all white, a white our eyes had never seen…all this white that lay white in the night, it was ashes…the ashes that had killed…
A nightmare vision. A terrible nightmare.
The hour after, we arrived at the harbor of Fort-de-France. There were ships. We heard, from a high deck, the Blue Waltz. The admiral was dining. We returned to reality.
Other Sights of the Volcano
The mountain emerges as a truncated cone, and the clouds are the truncated cone reversed. Cloud and mountain, two truncated cones interpenetrated by the mountain’s summit, a gigantic X, a solid base, a loose belt fluttering, a floating cap. At five miles from the vent, we breathed the odor of sulphur and received ashes. This powdery ash filters the light…
Each minute, thus to say, varies the aspect of the mountain…
The cone of the cloud is crumpled, the smoke tumbles very low. It is now a reversed plume that spreads towards the North. Then the cloud rises wide, enormous, very high, cleanly cut on the clearer sky of the South coast, confounding itself with the black sky of the North coast. It is a dark, sooty mass that reflects reddish, yellowish, that expands into layers very black at the heights. Is it the imagination, that all these lava flows, white on the mountain, have the air of an amphitheater’s stone slabs?
When we point South, and we ourselves are moving off, the mountain and clouds all resume the aspect of a pastel, of a dark indigo pastel; and there, where we divine the summit, the crater we see is a curved line, a very large U…five incandescent dots that must be huge. They seem to us, in the distance, in the somber blue of night, like five red balloons; you know, those of the engineer Beau, the balloons of celluloid in which the gaiety of the cities enclose their electric lights and render them more pale, more lovely.
The impressive thing about this photo, taken from Hess’s book, is the hand on the rope. It gives a sense of immediacy to the moment depicted, the ship approaching the ruin of Saint-Pierre, the passengers not yet knowing exactly how the horror will appear to them.
Translator’s notes: on page 8 of this translation, the Blue Waltz was heard from a “haut bord”. Because the next sentence is, “the admiral was dining” and because Hess is entering the harbor on a ship himself, I picture the music coming from the deck of another ship, a larger one with the admiral aboard, so I’ve chosen to state it this way.
On page 9, a puzzling phrase, “la joie des villes”, that in searching Gallica, I can’t find as a set expression; in context, it seems to refer to providers of conviviality generally, which I call here the “gaiety”.
These two instances may not be correct.
Ashes and Terrors
Black Fears. White Fears. Blue Fears.
Zulima has not lied. She has barely exaggerated. Fort-de-France is sad. The city seems to go forth from a bad dream. It lies in the ashes. It stinks of volcanism. The ashes cover everything…they are on the roofs, on the soil, in the air, on the trees, in the water of the mountain streams, in the water that we drink, in the bread that we eat…everywhere.
At the hotel I could not bathe; the water ran black in the basin, mud. All the cooking has a taste of ashes; on all the furniture, on the beds, in the drapes, it is ashes and always ashes.
They show me the pebbles that have fallen from the cloud, three days since; they are fat as a thumb, like pigeons’ eggs.
Ashes and pebbles…now I can explain to myself the terror of the people seen at Guadalupe. And explain the terror of the people who stayed, with whom I live.
We habituate ourselves to the volcano, to the trembling of the earth, I have been told by a friend—we in this neighborhood of constant menace have acquired a new temperament, one rather special…
I believe it.
But I believe it needs time, and also I believe the volcano must extinguish itself, that the earth no longer quake.
At present, the volcano of Mt. Pelée has not gone out; the smoke it spits can be seen at all times from Fort-de-France; we are always menaced, the silhouette blocks the sky…always we can ask ourselves if the death the smoke portends in its magnificent billowings, will not soon fall upon us.
And the earth under our feet no longer feels solid. It has not quaked, but it has shivered. This shivering agitates, unnerves, worries. And when one knows that, on the last night of Saint-Pierre, there had been similar shiverings, one is frightened…
Is it well to be terrified… well to fear…?
We breathe badly…there is a hot oppression, full of electricity…we suffer this in the hair. And there is the physical fear of being drowned in something, that one doesn’t see, that he can’t understand, but can feel… It is the fear of the body whose vital forces all bristle in revolt against a deadly threat that lowers upon them, penetrates them…
And, it is something that defies analysis, for, in the heavy body, the spirit becomes heavy. The head is heavy, the chest is heavy; the limbs are heavy. The nerves are weighed upon, and when, to the shocks of this mysterious force, which grinds out its gleams in the night, these vibrate painfully, heavily, it is a crushing anguish…
The man who thinks, the man who reasons the futility of fighting against these invisible forces, the man who knows the wise thing is to resign himself and wait for the inevitable…he resigns himself, and sleeps.
But I understand these crowds of animality closer to the origins; these crowds who shudder, who tremble, who have fear…a blind, deaf, mad fear…and who flee, and who weep, and who cry out.
In the African savannahs, in the months of fiery sun, when the grass burns, I have seen beasts escape with this same bellowing, roaring their fear.
The evening of the 26th I saw, I heard, this fear in Fort-de-France. I had passed the day in Saint-Pierre, I had seen the lava flows in the Rivière des Pères, seen the Roxelane smoking; I had seen the mountain covered in fumes, the crater active. I had felt the earth shake. My nerves were vibrating with the tension of the atmosphere. I returned to Fort-de-France at night expecting a powerful eruption, the more violent; thus what we would see of the city.
At nine o’clock, “it was there”. The night became black. An enormous cloud…black, opaque, black, black…advancing rapidly, in rolling billows that could be seen bounding; parti-colored, for they had to their black, reflections of a very deep red, and lightning also that peaked in gleams successively showing blacker the brooding menace.
This lightning flashed in the black night like bombs, a burst pimple of sooty red, bristling with long red jets, reflecting the yellow of the smelting pot threaded through with gold. Others had the form of a paste, as one of red ink feathering; there were also in this blackness, thin, long slits, like immense sabre cuts in the cloud, vibrating in an instant with red and yellow, which, barely seen, mutated into great, quivering waves of a luminous blue, retreating into the black as quickly as they had come out.
And this was of an unspeakable beauty… And this could be death, death to follow, for all, for all who lived in Fort-de-France…
A cloud like that, a cloud that from the crater’s mouth had flowed so heavy on the valleys of Saint-Pierre, had killed forty thousand beings; this that rolled on our heads some hundreds of meters off, was lighter, no doubt, unable to fall…but who knew it!
The people who reflect thoughtfully, many have said to me, and I think so myself, that this cloud so black was of the same nature as that destructive turmoil of the 8th, a turmoil of heavy gas, projected with force by the volcano, and carried by an air current, formed in answer to a zone of atmospheric heat, and that at the end of its projection, at the end of the current, the cloud had to fall, asphyxiating, and flaring fire.
There are in agony exquisite pleasures. I believe all men have that passion for the unknown, that attraction to the mysterious gulf, where at the toss, it is “heads or tails”, a fortune wagered at a stroke, even a louis. If it rolls at last on the carpet, the blood starts in the veins, the arteries, the heart…an excitation; it is the delicious anguish, the sheer voluptuousness, of waiting with bated breath for the instant to follow.
It was here, under the cloud of Fort-de-France.
In brief, a few Americans had planned to realize it, this ascent become classic and obligatory. They were at the Morne-Rouge. In complete equipage, they’d gone. Wagons, horses, mules, guides, and provisions. They had dined, very calm, happy in the beauty of the evening, the night at its birth.
The volcano appears to them as an American painting on the backdrop of an American decoration, of an American opera.
When, all at once, a change in the view.
The mountain growls and smokes…otherwise, it is as usual. For it is very rare it “rests”…more than an hour or two. But the Americans foresee the clouds of fire on them, and fly, abandoning horses, cars, all…in the night, without knowing where, without troubling themselves for the road, jumping across hedges, tumbling down ravines, crossing precipices, climbing banks, they go running, bounding…
They feel they are chased by the fire of the volcano, the fire at their rear, that makes beasts and men run…
They ran so all night. At daybreak, they fell exhausted on the road. The first black man they encountered, they covered with promises of dollars, if he would point them the way to Fort-de-France.
I would not be astonished to read in their journals a different account of their climbing the volcano. But the truth is mine. I know, in fact, someone in whom I place all confidence, and who that night was staying at Morne-Rouge…to see.
The French also showed beautiful examples of dementedness. A young functionary will remain famous in Martinique. During the panic of the 20th, he was seen to quickly exit his hotel, bare-headed, clad in underpants. He brandished an enormous cavalry revolver and cried: “Away, away…we are going to die…save us…if you do not make way, I will kill you!”
The unfortunate boy had been so much tried by fear, that he could live no more, but with the idea of killing himself, if “the fire of heaven” came to fall on Fort-de-France. He asked me how it needed to be done, to kill oneself with a shot.
“To the temple, monsieur, is it not? To the temple.”
“Eh! My dear monsieur, you must never tremble, for then you will miss. Like poor F—, who last month in a fit of fever fired badly, burning both eyes, and dying only after an agonizing fifteen days…”
“Then the heart…”
“This must equally be done with a firm hand…and I think that you tremble, monsieur.”
“Then, one must allow oneself to burn like that, without doing anything…”
“I believe so.”
“Ah, monsieur, one sees you did not view the martyrs that have been landed here…burned…burned… But you do not know what this is! My God! My God!”
And the unfortunate has gone in the night…with these gestures and these “my Gods!” Fool.
I assure you that the conversation was exactly such.
This man was one of those elite beings, to whom their knowledge and their impassivity, joined to a ministerial degree, give the right to judge the weaknesses of other men, and to condemn them.
The Dates of the Volcano’s Ravages
Before going further, that it not be lost in the information and interviews to follow, I bid the reader regard the map of Martinique. He will see the northern part of the island drawn within a circumference, having at the center, and culminating in a point, the mountain, Pelée.
From this orthographic node goes out, radiating towards the sea, a series of ridges, limited by the valley escarpments or the flowing of the rivers.
To the west, the valley of the river Prêcheur, ending at the town of the same name; then, the valley of the Riviére Blanche; the valley of the Riviére des Péres, and of the Roxelane, which flows through two northern quarters of Saint-Pierre. The southern part of the city extends along the harborfront, at the foot of the low hills drawing into a long plateau; farther south still, lies the town of Carbet.
Here now, “the dates of the volcano”:
In March, the crater begins to “vapor”.
It “smokes”, at the end of April.
On the fifth of May, it spits the mud that carries away the Guerin factory on the Riviére Blanche. May 6, it makes a flow of mud in the Riviére des Péres and in the Roxelane.
The 8th, it destroys Saint-Pierre and her suburbs, from Prêcheur to Carbet.
The 20th of May, it covers Fort-de-France in ashes and pebbles.
The 26th and 28th, it has two eruptions that extend their ravages, and force evacuations of the northern communities, up to that point spared, and where some thousands of inhabitants believed themselves still safe.
The 1st and the 6th of June, new eruptions.
And when the last?*
When does the terrible mountain rest?
In the Ruins
A Man of the Bible has said:
I saw the mountains and they trembled; I saw the hills, and they were all shaken; I cast my eyes about me and I found no men; and all the birds, even of the heavens, are gone; I saw the most fertile countryside become desert; and all the cities destroyed before the face of the Lord.
When I returned to the ruins, this verse of lamentation and terror came back in my memory.
*The telegrams received from Fort-de-France during the composition of this book have announced, on the 9th of July, one eruption more violent than the first, and rendering absolutely uninhabitable the north of the island.
Translator’s note: Hess, above, is most likely referring to Jeremiah 4:24, lamentation for Judah.
He presumably, as he said in his preface, took these lines directly from this notes, and his memory of them was not entirely as they appear in the bible, as I could not find his French version match anything in an internet search. The English (KJV) is:
I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly.
I beheld, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled.
I beheld, and, lo, the frutful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presense of the Lord, and by his fierce anger.
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…
It seems to me, when my memory before my eyes evokes the spectacle…it seems to me that I become stupid again, as I was made when the boat had stopped, when a canoe landed me on the beach.
Once, from a savage, I received a knock-out blow to the head, so violent that for a moment I had no thought of defending myself. A thing parallel to Saint-Pierre in its immense ruin…in the ruin without name.
It felt evil. From the acrid stench, a fetidity, and then another thing I don’t know: the moist ashes browning, the putrescence…it caught in the throat. A stupefaction as of drunkenness mounted to the brain. And of dazedness. Stupidity…no other thing.
I was, in effect, a moron. I looked, and did not know whether I saw. I tried to observe, to notice, and I did not know whether I thought. Not a line came to mind for my notebook. I had no notion of stirring to employ my photographic equipment.
The physicians tell us that when there are too many soundwaves, too many light waves, our ears can no longer hear, our eyes no longer see. Is a similar thing produced in our brains when impressions too many and too violent strike it all at once?
It was one of the gravediggers who brought me out of this dazed state. We followed a beach covered with debris; there were powdery ashes with nails pointing up in the air.
“Take care,” he said to me, “you are going to step on that…you will be punctured…and you know in this country, when a man gets a wound of that sort, he gets tetanus more easily than a pension…”
And this little detail, of my not stepping on the nail, not to catch tetanus, restored to me my legs and my eyes.
I looked, and I saw. And I know now what terror is, and what horror is…
And who will want to know the reality, of grand words one finds hard, barbarous, magniloquent, words a little mysterious in their distance of unreality, these words said of cataclysm and catastrophe…let him go in meditation, on a pile of broken things, formless and putrid, that has become the landscape once so lovely, of Saint-Pierre the laughing city…
Let him go…let him go, as I, to that place. And if these annoyances which come to men seem to him heavy…after…he will have but to recall Saint-Pierre and how little, before the least quiver of the earth, counts man.
In the twenty years that I have circled the globe, finding myself well-placed, at said hour, in such theaters as the human brute seeks Glory, I have seen beautiful wars, and destruction.
The months before Saint-Pierre, this winter, at Saint-Domingue in Haiti, I came to admire what efforts, what patience, what will, what cunning, what relentlessness, what genius, and what cruelty, sets men to their hateful work, when—for a few sous, a little pride—to assault an ephemeral power they will flock…unto the glorious breach.
The Martinique volcano shows better the destruction of a country…a magnificent work…imagine the monuments to an artilleryman who could confound you thus, in the landing of one blow…a city, ten villages, and forty thousand men. And we curse the mountain Pelée.
And to my own lips, as I wandered among the ruins, I felt anathema rise against the Mountain of Death.
Yet she works without anger, in the fatal serenity of Destiny, where inanimate matter, deaf to the anguishes of animate matter, boils, whirls, bursts, flies, and settles, balancing, for so moves the universe, the supreme law of Things and of Beings.
And no one could ever say, and no one imagine, the results of this “work”…this that I saw.
You know, in the museums, these reproductions of cities, done in pasteboard and painted wood. Dream of one stomped by an elephant, burned afterwards, drowned at last with mud and ashes, and you will see what I saw in Saint-Pierre…
Only there, what was destroyed, stricken, churned, set afire, was a city of three thousand houses, covering eighty hectares, with one hundred and three streets, a development of more than twenty kilometers… A city where nearly forty thousand inhabitants found themselves, when it was snuffed in the disaster.
Others have said of this disaster, that it was “like a giant pile-driver had worked over the city”, and left only ruins.
At a distance, we thought we saw the lines of low walls, as they have in cities of Southern Algeria, and the ashes gave them the appearance of Saharan huts at the feet of the dunes. We could have the illusion of something that was still a city.
Near, there was nothing but debris. Stones in heaps, in the streets, in the inside of what had been houses. Piles of stone everywhere. A shower of rubble and plaster. Elsewhere stone, nothing but stone. With lines of cracked walls, walls very low, two meters, three at most… The sections that remain standing, in the quarter of the Mouillage, are not, for saying so, only those that are parallel to the shoreline; in the quarter of the Roxelane, on the contrary, they are found in the axis of the valley.
But what, far better than phrases, will permit your trying to imagine this destruction, are photographs. I have brought back many. I am publishing some. See these, consider these…a countryside of crushed stone. And crushed, for certain quarters, is a word insufficient. The heights of the Fort district have been more than crushed…pulverized, torched; of the houses, of the people, nothing remains. The place has been swept, razed…there is nothing left.
And this, from the first great eruption, of the 8th. At the Mouillage, after the 8th, there were still a number of walls standing. The eruption of the 20th has completed the work of the first.
See, see, the photographs…they are eloquent, they are explicit, more than my words and descriptions.
Some notes, some details, though, penciled in my notebook.
Of the silence enveloping the countryside, a staggering silence… Nothing…nothing… Only two heaps of coal, that have burned since the 8th, speak…by their fire…of life in these ruins. Thousands of joists and long rods of iron have been projected, twisted, onto the beach. Below I saw, under a lava of ashy mud, tatters of dirty stuff…it was a dress of flowered percale… A woman…
Farther, a packet of papers…of smoky registers…
I search the cane. An attorney’s study was thrown away here… I picked up a letter from 1849… And some photographs stained and scorched. Of innocence, of grace, of beauty. Three portraits of babies who had asked no more than to live… Two portraits of beautiful young women…who had lived. One woman…the mother.
In a neighboring heap, thousands of clay pipes, a depository… Some are intact. I took one. Under the stones, not far from what had been a rich trading-house of the senator Knight; a house where standing remained alone what had been the masonry pavers containing safe and vault… In searching, in spreading ashes under rubble that smelled of death, I found some melted silverware. I have kept a spoon, fused together with a pair of sugar tongs.
There are no more remaining in the center. Everything here is stone. The second eruption made for them a vast tomb. The first I encountered was on the Grande-Savane, near the stone bridge of the Roxelane…and it was no more than a demi-cadaver, a blackened trunk without legs, having only one arm… For a head, a thing formless. The gravediggers covered him with a few shovelfuls of earth and ashes.
On the stone bridge I searched for the plaque of marble where, under the reign of Louis XIV and the generalship of the Count d’Ennery, a Danton, the monk Cleophas Danton, had engraved his name of agent-surveyor. It is no longer there.
Under the trunks of venerable trees, wrenched and broken as though wisps of straw, I saw the iron frame of an infant’s carriage.
Where, the baby being walked?
And it is with desolation, with dread, one goes further in this mournful exploration, the silent ruins, the mortal ruins, peopled with their dead, their victims. One listens for them…and one sees…
Not everywhere is it illusion. At Trois-Ponts, I saw…
They were rotting.
There, at Trois-Ponts, on the hills of Parnasse, the upper limit of the 8th’s gaseous whirlwind is well-marked along the flanks. All below razed. Higher, a fifth, to estimate, is left alone. This gives in the area of 120 meters for the height of the whirlwind.
At the botanical garden, in the valley that leads to the hills of Trou-Vaillant, and the settlement of Saint-James, life returns. In the midst of burned trunks, a few starts of green. The reawakening of nature in death.
Farther, in the fullness of destruction on a cinder-covered slope above a college, equally we saw a reappearance of life. From the grey shroud ventured a few shoots of green, and a white flower. We baptized it, “perce-cendre”. And that made us…something. I affirm to you, in all sincerity, that this is not “in the literature”.*
The singularities of the wreckage. They are always there. And this is useful, if only for the annoyance of those people always wanting, with these complicated phenomena of nature, an explanation very simple, unique… In the college, where this little white flower pushed up, everything was crushed. Still standing was a portico of the gymnasium, three thin wooden beams…
At the hospital, in the midst of the ruins, the disinfection tank had not been crushed.
And at the hill of l’Orange, again the dead…
It is an odor of death that has pursued me throughout the ruins.
The odor of forty thousand dead!
We have passed near the theater. It is not without a certain emotion I contemplate its incinerated ruins. Our friends of Saint-Pierre had proposed to make a great ceremony in honor of Schœlcher.
* This passage is a little cryptic. The reason for “something”, as I interpret, is that the name they gave the white flower, is a play on perce-neige, the French name for the snowdrop (galanthus). Their feeling may have been a sort of wistful humor, but Hess was reluctant to report that they laughed at this moment. Further significances could have come to their minds: the snowdrop is a traditional Candlemas offering, and generally associated with the Virgin. The Républic française called its fifth month, a period in January, Pluviôse, and a day of this month was called “perce-neige“.
In honor of which, a bonus:
Charles Baudelaire (a translation)
Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entière,
De son urne à grands flots verse un froid ténébreux
Aux pâles habitants du voisin cimetière
Et la mortalité sur les faubourgs brumeux.
Mon chat sur le carreau cherchant une litière
Agite sans repos son corps maigre et galeux;
L’âme d’un vieux poète erre dans la gouttière
Avec la triste voix d’un fantôme frileux.
Le bourdon se lamente, et la bûche enfumée
Accompagne en fausset la pendule enrhumée
Cependant qu’en un jeu plein de sales parfums,
Héritage fatal d’une vieille hydropique,
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.
Deluge-sion, pattered against the whole city,
A great flood from its urn pours a cold mystery
On the pale dwellers of the neighboring cemetery
And the waiting death over suburbs foggy.
My cat on the floor-tile searches his litter
Restless his body mangy and meagre
An old poet’s soul at sea in the gutter
Voices the sorrow of a shivering specter
The church bell lamenting and the log wrapped in smoke
Join with, in falsetto, the ailing pendulum’s stroke
A game but yet fulsome of soiled perfumes
Deadly inheritance of edemic old age
The brave jack of hearts and the queen of old maids
Sinister cause of their lovers’ undoing
(Because of the rainy imagery, I’ve translated the name Pluviôse as a pun.)
To raise a monument to the great emancipator, following I don’t know what baroque idea, they could not find a better place than the foyer of the theater. The philosopher’s image was to preside over the recreation of crowds amused by clowns… They found this very good…
The inauguration was to have taken place in May. They had written me to come. The invitation had, after Paris, gone to Saint-Domingue. Received sooner…and I don’t know if the 8th of May would not have found me at Saint-Pierre. I must…I should have been there. That was why, in papers too hastily published, I figured for an instant among the victims. It was not my hour.
During our return, aboard the Drague, we ate. The two priests made party to the mission had in their basket a Mariani wine. Yes, we ate. The leader of the gravedigger’s team teased the priest who’d needed a tonic, saying to him, “…as for work, that is digging enough!”
I have again seen the ruins. And it seems to me that, far from diminishing, the impression of horror which froze me at first glance must become each time more profound…
And again from my book I transcribe some notes.
In the valleys near the volcano, those that had not received the whirlwind of fire, but where fallen ashes cover the grass, the foliage; where the rivers have dried up in the valleys deserted by men, it is the livestock in an agony of starvation, of thirst. The desolated countryside vibrates with the plaint of masterless oxen; oxen from domestication having lost the instinct that drives wild beasts far from this land of the dead. And it is doleful.
Mount Pelée, on the ridges, on the crests, on the plateaus so far not engulfed by flows of mud and lava, but where the rock has been broken by tremors, burned by volcanic flame, shows a play of form to affright the maddest of imaginations…
But when I search for a comparison that permits an idea of the configuration, the slopes and hills of this gaunt mountain, I have found this: the unexpected aspects that took the dust of my school hourglass, when I was making piles and pastes of it on the slope of my desk. This hard dust of hard sand had ridges, plateaus, and slopes as could not have been given play in any other material.
This was the aspect of the mountain, fissured by the hiccups of the volcano.
The aspect in form.
The aspect in color…I give up.
One more, though…the slopes above the Prêcheur in the valleys and on the crests, where the fire hadn’t passed, but clouds of pebbles and ashes, and of heavy, hot vapors had rained, was a sulphurous landscape. A livid yellow. The foliage hung heavy. The field grasses resembled heavy old rugs.
The cocoanuts and the palms were frayed and heavy. The empty houses, their black windows…the holes of a mortuary…appeared to weaken, sag, waver under these heavy forces. And all this was a dirty yellow, old sulphur-green and grey. A lunar landscape, said an expert near me, when I looked at this. A landscape of hell, answered the helmsman, a negro who saw more rightly than the expert.
And also everywhere enormous blocks. In its convulsions, the volcano threw these, stone blocks that weigh many tons. And threw them, as well, no less far than the dust—for kilometers.
They have published a number of fantasies, in America principally, on the crater. This is what I saw, photographed, and drew.
A large cleft opened on the mountain at 2-300 meters, following a line northeast to southwest. This cleft, parting from the summit’s circumference, becomes at the top a hole, in the middle of which points a cone, that appears clipped, but which can never be seen to the whole of its extremity, for this is always wrapped in smoke; barely, in the shifts of the wind, it is possible to glimpse the extremity, whose sides burn, and burgeon red as the scabby edge of a healing abscess.
This cone makes a chimney. And from the height, smokes. It smokes also from its flanks, which are riddled as a sieve.
At certain moments it smokes like the heap of wood, covered in earth, where they make charcoal. And the hole where the cone is found smokes as well. But the great jet of smoke, that at times mounts three kilometers in the sky, straight up, to spread like a blanket following the wind; that carries the ash and stones; that comes from the central chimney of the cone—that alone is the true jet of the volcano.
And in reality, there is only one crater. Its tube, its chimney, if I may say, has thinned itself, crumbled, and this has made the hole where it rises from the summit, and the crevasse, by which the lavas and vapors flow… This I have seen very clearly, many times, and as near as one can. Before the eruption of 6th June, the crater was as I say, what I’ve drawn, and no other thing. The shock of the 6th may have transformed it.
Translator’s note: These sketches of Hess’s make me think of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), usually counted part of the American Realist movement. I don’t know if these were done in color, and I don’t know if somewhere they survive.
Those Who Have Seen
How was the destruction at Saint-Pierre accomplished? By what force were they thrown to earth, set afire, these ruins through which, in so sorrowful a promenade, I have led you?
I have seen the volcano hurl clouds of black smoke at night, alight with fire. I have seen the crater kindle itself and glow. I have seen the descent of lava flows, torrents of smoking, vaporing mud. I have seen the volcano spit ashes, and received the rain of them.
But all this cannot suffice to explain the crushing of a city and the death of forty thousand persons, then living there.
To understand this destructive phenomenon, it is necessary to question those who had seen the 8th, and those who could have studied the immediate aftermath…
This I have done. Eyewitnesses. But, let us pause on this word, “eyewitnesses”…this does not mean witnesses found in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe. Of that type, there are none. All who were alive in Saint-Pierre on the 8th of May, at 7:50 in the morning, died before the ticking on to 7:50 and one-half minutes…absolutely all.
The eyewitnesses were those who were found at the limit of the destructive phenomenon, at sea or on land; of whom some had been grievously burned—and most of these died, after a more or less lengthy agony.
Among all those I’ve listened to, here are the most interesting:
Conversation with M. le docteur Guérin
Eruption of the 5th
Dr. Guérin is an old man of seventy-two years. In type, he is the accomplished white creole of the Antilles. Very robust, spry, and let us say the word, very young despite his great age.
He was embarking at Pointe-à-Pitre, aboard the Saint-Domingue, where I had taken passage. He had, after the catastrophe, conducted his family to Guadaloupe, and returned to Martinique to occupy himself with what he had left behind. Not many things…the volcano had from him before, so to speak, taken all…
It was with him the volcano had begun, in destroying his factory, which was located 2 kilometers north of Saint-Pierre, on the ocean side, at the mouth of the Rivière-Blanche.
Guérin told me all he knew; all he’d seen. I will let him speak:
“Mt. Pélee began to make her noise around the 25th of April. The 28th, the manager of my house made the ascent, with a few other persons, of whom a young Parisian, M. Mervardt, I believe, perished afterwards in the catastrophe. He found L’Etang-Sec filled with water. The water was hot in certain places, cold others. It overflowed on the factory side, into the Rivière-Blanche. The river, which in ordinary times had little water, had tripled in volume. It was drinkable, tepid.
“Thursday, I left. Friday, my son telephoned me to say there was no more water in the Rivière-Blanche, but only mud. The mountain smoked. The ashes fell. Saturday, the hands, taken with fear, refused to work. The ashes fell that day as far as Fort-de-France.
“That Monday morning, they telephoned me that the factory was in danger. In the night, there had been an inundation of black mud, that overflowed defenses built for protecting the factory against the Rivière-Blanche. This mudslide stopped itself at four o’clock. At 9:30, the mountain was equally calm. More than five hundred of the curious came to eye this phenomenon, which began to worry me, as well as all those present.
“I wanted immediately to bring away my family and the factory personnel. I could not go until noon. I decided it would need two hours, and ordered my yacht put under steam at the factory port. At ten o’clock, I heard cries. They gave the alarm. The people flung themselves past my chalet, situated above the factory, people who clamored, frightened: “The mountain is coming down!”
“And I heard a noise which I can compare to nothing. An immense noise, what…? The devil on earth. And I went outdoors…I looked at the scene. It was coming down, under white smoke, crashing, an avalanche of black matter, an enormous mass more than ten meters high, at least a hundred-fifty meters wide. This mass goes along the bed of the Rivière-Blanche, rolls against the factory…an army of gigantic rams…
“Stupor nails me in place. I cannot move. All my life is before my eyes. My unfortunate son and his unhappy wife ran towards the shore. I saw them disappear behind the factory… As soon as it arrived, passing ten meters from me…I felt the deadly wind….at once came the mud… It was earth-splitting. All is broken, drowned, buried…my son, his wife, thirty people…the large buildings are carried away on the waves of the avalanche…
“They followed, one upon another in a furious push, these black waves. One upon another in thunder, making the sea recoil. Shards…swirling… A sloop is projected 150 meters and comes to kill at my side one of my foremen.
“I go to the shore. It is desolation without name. There, where an instant before had risen a prosperous factory, the fruit of a lifetime of labor, there is no more than a blanket of mud, black shroud for my son, my daughter-in-law, my people. This mud has chased the sea more than ten meters from the shore. The surf does not come back for two minutes. In this mudflow of the volcano, there are blocks of stone of all sizes. An officer saw one the next day, which must have weighed twenty-five tons.
“I returned to Saint-Pierre, and after to Fort-de-France, where I rejoined my wife and my daughters. I saw new mud flow from the mountain, new white smoke. I went back to Saint-Pierre. On the 6th, at three in the morning, the electric lighting was extinguished. The inhabitants, afraid, came out into the streets. It was shouted that by the river Roxelane, the mud would descend the mountain, and carry away the city as it had my factory. I believe the panic was due to negro thieves hoping to pillage abandoned houses.
“At 5:30 I saw come out of the crater a vertical column of smoke higher than ever, and which thickened at the summit, following the direction of the wind. The summit of the mountain was uncovered. The flanks were full of fumaroles as if there were hundreds of craters.
“The mountain worked on, in its smoke and noise. One felt an enormous effort, and it seemed that the earth was forcing out…”
[I have noted down the speeches of Dr. Guérin, and in all, there are none here but the expressions he used. This remark, moreover, I will make here once for all. In every interview I have transcribed in the course of this work, I’ve attached respect not only to the substance, but as much as possible to the form. And if sometimes the reader “blinks” at these expressions, these images, this rhetoric a little strong, I’ll thank him to attribute them not to me, but rather those from whom I got them! That said, let us return to the excellent Dr. Guérin.]
“Afraid, I would not stay in the city. And before I left, I saw a few friends, who accompanied me to the boat. I said to them in parting:
‘Your city is not habitable. Evil will come to you…’ And, in fact, how could one call habitable, and live in a city where there’d been, when I left on the 6th, something near five centimeters of ash on the streets…? The elections, without doubt. The elections they would pursue under the menace of the volcano. Three hours after my factory was carried away, when the emotion wrought in all the quarter of the Mouillage by the tidal wave had not yet calmed, they placarded the walls with election posters.
“Ah! Monsieur,” went on the good doctor, “there are things that should be brought to light. Who knows, who will ever know, if the election was not the cause of keeping the population at Saint-Pierre? They tell you, I am not ignorant of it…they affirm to you, that the people of Saint-Pierre believed themselves in no danger; that the estimation, to the contrary, was of far greater safety in their city than in Fort-de-France. But other people saw the danger. I could see it. On the morning of the 6th, I declared to my friends the city was uninhabitable. Why do others who see, others who know, others whose words have the chance of being heeded, why will they not speak of this? Politics, monsieur, elections.”
I asked Dr. Guérin if he had observed the phenomenon of the 8th. No. What he’d thought then, of what he could hear at Fort-de-France? He believed in a destruction by crushing, following the electrical discharges that reproduced themselves in the mass of flaming gas.
If he had not seen the phenomenon of the 8th, he had by contrast seen very well, he told me, that of the 20th which caused such a powerful panic in Fort-de-France. And for its description, I take his word:
“On the 20th, at Fort-de-France, at five in the morning, I heard a low growling, saw frequent lightning in the direction of the north. Then, cries in the street. Women, screaming out that the flame of the mountain was falling on Fort-de-France.
“I saw from my window a thick cloud come out of the volcano. Its base reached as far as the peaks of Carbet. The summit’s billowing invaded the entire sky, to more or less six thousand meters. The cloud was fluffy…its top gold. I attributed this coloration, that the public takes for fire, to the first rays of the sun. At the center of this majestic cloud, before its imposing, frightful face, burst numerous flashes that inspired a huge terror in the population. The cloud marched slowly towards the sea, upon Fort-de-France. It appeared inevitable that it would cover the city, making southwest. It dominated the shore, hanging over as it lowered itself, letting fall a rain of thick ashes, and slate-colored pebbles, of which a few larger were the size of pigeon’s eggs. All the population ran mad, any which way, to save themselves.
“I had gone with my family to the landing of Girard’s boats. A crowd followed me. I had an idea of commandeering one of the big steamers of the Compagnie Girard, of which I am a director. But I saw the danger in this. All the crowd, wailing in their terror, who’d followed me, would throw themselves on board at the same time, and would founder the boat. I thought of the Fort Saint-Louis. I ran there with my family, and we waited in a pillbox for the end of the terrific phenomenon. Then at the first opportunity I conducted my family to Guadaloupe, from where I return today.”
Translator’s note: I think the play Hess mentions, below, is Au Téléphone (see clipping), by MM. Lorde and Foley. The rest of the article is about another work being censored.
The telegraph operator’s exchange mentions a signal used to express laughter, a proto-emoji. This article, “LOL in the age of the telegraph”, from The Conversation, tells more.
The Agony of Saint-Pierre
by telephone and telegraph
You recall the play performed this winter at Antoine’s, where one saw the husband assist by telephone in the murder of his wife? There were a few things resembling this, in this catastrophe of the 8th. The last words, and the gasp of the telephone operator surprised at his apparatus by the volcano’s fire, were heard at Fort-de-France, by one of his colleagues. The director of telephone services is M. Garnier-Laroche. I have taken from him an account of his memories.
He told me:
“At five to eight, I spoke with an employee at Saint-Pierre, on his apparatus. This employee told me the situation had become very annoying. Dense clouds covered the city and made night of day. One could no longer see. They had been obliged to light lamps in the office. Everyone dreaded an imminent catastrophe. They could not hold on…
“Then, I passed the receiver to a worker, wanting to go warn the governor of this grave news. I was barely on the stairs when my employee called me back, telling me there was no more response from Saint-Pierre. He had heard his counterpart stammer incoherently all at once, sputtering as a man who strangles… There was a crackling of the apparatus… He had the sensation of a shock in his ear, then nothing…
“At that moment all the lights of the device flickered powerfully. The same phenomenon had been produced days earlier, and was produced again on the 20th.
“At 8:15, wanting to try retransmitting a communication to Saint-Pierre, I took another line, going to the office of Carbet…the closest neighbor of Saint-Pierre. The city was then in flames.”
On the telegraph, that is to say, the French cable, the employees at Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France also were occupied “talking”, when overcome by the catastrophe. Each morning, between stations, the employees before serving the public had to communicate the news of their respective residences.
He at Saint-Pierre spoke of the volcano. He laughed. He noted many of the terrors around him…but enough! He cannot see any reason to tremble, to wail, but to laugh. It is in a joke, a burst of laughter pointed and lined to his apparatus that he is surprised by death. The agent at Fort-de-France had sent this “band” in the direction of Paris.
The Day of the 8th at Fort-de-France
The account of the newspaper L’Opinion.
As a journalist, it is only natural I have asked a journalist for the story of the “terrible day”. The amiable director of L’Opinion has given me the article in which he recorded his memories.
Here it is:
Thursday, the 8th of May, 1902, Fort-de-France awakened, as to an ordinary day. A vague inquietude had hovered over the city since the burial of the Guérin factory under lava; but we said that after all, the distance from the volcano, situated 28 kilometers off as the crow flies, made a sufficient guaranty. And then it must be admitted, we wholly accepted the verdict, as to the progress of the cosmic phenomenon, from the commission charged with its study. Moreover, the day before, Governor Mouttet, alerted by the mayor of Saint-Pierre that the Roxelane rolled with black water, had been sent to the place. Mme. Mouttet, wishing to accompany her husband, was also at Saint-Pierre, as well as Mme. Gerbault, wife of the late colonel of artillery, president of the scientific mission. On the other hand, the cable dispatches put on display reassured again, in a way perhaps too absolute, the slightly terrified populations of the colony’s two great cities.
It is however a restriction worth establishing, that M. Landes—who, it seems, at the last moment had addressed to the governor a very alarming dispatch—told his students a few days before the dismissal of the high school that an analysis of the heavy material vomited by the volcano presaged an exceptionally violent eruption.
But, they were far from suspecting the cataclysm in its brutal reality!
They believed that an earthquake was the only fear, and as Fort-de-France rested on uneven terrain, the people of Saint-Pierre reasoned strongly that which may have been false, refusing to leave their city built on solid ground, believing they enjoyed, in this regard, complete safety.
They were to celebrate, on that day, the solemnities of the Ascension. While the whole of Martinique was in holiday mood, Mount Pelée, so long at work, launched death in the form of an electrically charged cloud of sulphurous gas, on the thousands of beings full of life and activity, who could not escape the terrible scourge, and annihilated abruptly, in a single blow, the city of industry, the intellectual and commercial center of the colony.
At Fort-de-France, around six in the morning, an atmosphere clear of haze, a lightened, pale sky, promised a day relatively lovely. Everyone was afoot at a good hour and going about in preparation for the Ascension. Suddenly, around eight o’clock, the sky grew black as ink; then a hail of small stones fell on the houses, producing on metal and tile a pattering that seemed at first inexplicable. At the same time, a cloud of airy ash enveloped the city and its environs, covering all in a grey veil. A fine rain came soon, transforming this into sheets of mud, soiling and spotting everything, while the formidable rumblings of the volcano increased the soul’s unease and fright.
At the first cracklings of pebbles on the roofs, the whole city population, seized with horror and dread, and not knowing which way to go, fled the houses searching for shelter, not caring where. It was an unforgettable exodus to the countryside. Each brought away whatever was most precious. The women carried their children, the men supported their wives; taken by an unexplainable notion, they directed themselves inland. There, on the heights, they need not fear, at least, the abrupt influx of the sea into their houses—an end by drowning without hope of flight. They might still find themselves buried by an earthquake, of all events that we feared most.
It was a fantastic procession, lasting all morning, under ashes blinding and dirtying; a terrified population appearing like a troop of sheep surprised in the valley by the first thunder of a dreadful tempest.
Towards midday, news of the disappearance of Saint-Pierre began to circulate. The city had been destroyed, they said, by fire…and the conjectures followed. How to get precise information? No more communication by telephone. The line of Saint-Pierre, after a cry of the ultimate suffering from the attendant, had gone dead. The ferry of the company Girard, which services Saint-Pierre, could not approach. From the side of our boat, we had a good view of the shoreline houses, or rather, what remained of them, preyed upon by flames; as to the others, it had been impossible to pick them out, enveloped as they were in an impenetrable fog of ashes and smoke. We returned to Fort-de-France.
There was then an hour of unspeakable anguish. All who remained, or who had returned to the city, had gone to the harborfront, to question one another with the hope of obtaining information as to our sister-city, death in their souls. Each counted there a parent, a friend, or acquaintance. For long hours, while the troops posted to the edges of the quays and along the shops of the seaside where they’d come to affix the seals, mounted guard to prevent who knows what danger, this mournful crowd, whose anguish shrunk from mystery and the unknown, demanded to know what could be so terrible, that what was happening must be hidden from them.
Meanwhile, at the Secretariat general had been frequent conferences between the Secretary, the Attorney General, a few notables, and the mayor of the capital, whose incredible activity and profound pain, visible on his features, suggested we hardly knew what impressions of unhappiness and despair.
But the population remained without news of Saint-Pierre. They bided in expectation of some unknown event imagination made still more appalling. When the Suchet arrived around ten in the evening with thirty victims, the crowd in despite of the soldiers, massed itself on the Esplanade, in the alleys, and the neighboring streets, hoping to meet in the lugubrious parade of artillery wagons bearing the dead and wounded, some dear one to assist and help, at the supreme moment.
Long after the last wagon had carried to the hospital its funereal burden, this crowd remained opposite the quays, their souls divided between varied sentiments, their hearts overflowing with an indefinable sadness. They asked one another if they were not played upon by some malign nightmare. It was in this mood each at last went to his bed, to rest limbs fatigued by a day’s poignant emotions and vain waiting.
Under the Rain of Fire
Chavigny de la Chevrotière
I spoke with one of the men treated and cured of his burns. The young Chavigny de la Chevrotière is a boy of twenty years. He has a bronzed complexion; his scars are all fresh, making great pink patches on the backs of his hands, on his arms, on his neck, his head, his brow. As this boy is dressed in only a shirt, I see also traces of burns on his shoulders and his chest.
With eleven of his comrades, he was leaving in a canoe on the morning of the eighth, from the Prêcheur, meaning to carry a dispatch to Saint-Pierre, because the telephone wires had fallen the day before, and the town’s inhabitants, frightened by the mud flows and fumes that threatened them, begged help from the chief city.
He began making his way at 7:30 a.m. The sea was fine, but the river carried mud into the town. There was a rain of ash, and the volcano’s smoke was black. The boating party found itself about a mile offshore, passing the semaphore station to the south of the Prêcheur, when suddenly, “everything was wrecked”.
Chavigny saw a flash go from the mountain that “set the sky ablaze and scattered…” The direction looked to him southerly. It made at the same time, a “formidable noise”, as of thousands of drums, thousands of cannons.
Then, there was a “flurry of hot earth”, that fell over the boat, burning everyone. “We had immediately thrown ourselves into the water and dived under,” added Chavigny. “When I came up to the surface to breathe, the hot earth fell and fell. It burned me on the head and hands. I dived again. Five times, so that I would not be cooked, I had to put my head down below. Finally, the sixth time when I came up, the flurry was finished. The seawater was all white, and a little warm at the surface.
“The sky was dark still, full of dark, rolling clouds. There were no more flashes of lightning. There was no more noise. You could not see the hills of Saint-Pierre. You could not see anything but a line of fire along the harborfront, in the place of the city. The rain of mud put out the line of fire…”
“A rain of mud?”
“Yes, I got it too. It fell also on the sea…and it lashed hard. There were drops as big as cubes of sugar.”
“You remained a long time in the water?”
“Yes, but I had no watch to tell the hour. And then, I was very scared. I landed at Abymes. I was taken up by the Pouyer-Querlier. They conducted me to the hospital, where I saw die many of the poor devils less lucky than myself. I was healed in thirteen days.”
“Now…I don’t know. They tell me there is nothing left along the Prêcheur. I am here. I wait. Why? I am ignorant. I am a victim. They feed me.”
“I don’t know any more!”
And the poor boy left, shrugging his shoulders in a gesture that signified…whatever you like.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
The Ships’ Crews in the Harbor
The Roddam; the Gabrielle; the Roraima
The nightmare of the sailors
The harbor of Saint-Pierre, as always in this era of great cargoes of sugar and rum, was filled with ships. All perished, save one, the Roddam, which had been able, being under steam, to slip her anchor and flee. She arrived at Saint-Lucie with half her crew dead…
The boat of the terror.
Read what the Journal of Saint-Lucie wrote of this arrival:
This afternoon of the eighth, May, a steamer entered the harbor, that seemed to have been powerfully tried. It was the Roddam, which had left here yesterday, at midnight, for Martinique.
The captain asked at once for a doctor. On the bridge were ten dead men and others dying. The captain was covered in ash and black grime, his hands horribly burned. Six inches of ash covered the ship. The captain told how he had come to drop anchor at Saint-Pierre, and was speaking with his agent, M. Joseph Plissonneau, who was alongside, when an awful cloud of smoke, brilliantly lit with pieces of flaming carbon, hurled itself from the mountain, towards the city and the port.
He barely had time to draw the agent’s attention to the phenomenon, when the terrible cloud was upon them, raining fire over the ship. He ordered the release of the anchors, luckily being still under steam, and was able to slowly move farther from land. His men fell one after another asphyxiated or burned all around him. After drifting many hours he was able, by a superhuman effort, to return to Castries…
M. Plissonneau had managed by hanging onto her, to board the Roddam.
All the other boats in the harbor of Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe had been burnt or destroyed, some at once; others, as the Roraima, the largest, sinking only in days to follow. But nearly all the sailors who found themselves on board perished.
A few, however, had been saved. The second captain of the schooner Gabrielle, belonging to Knight, M. Georges Marie-Sainte, and the deputy commissioner of the Roraima, notably, were living still, at the hospital, when I arrived in Fort-de-France.
For an answer to my questions, they gave me two numbers of L’Opinion, where I read the story of M. Sainte:
The day before yesterday, the eighth of May, at six in the morning, the sun illuminated a city of Saint-Pierre relatively tranquil. To the north, Mt. Pelée fumed, the wind driving the smoke towards the west, blotting out the sky in that direction. Between six-thirty and seven, the columns of smoke turned white, flaked with ash, coming out abruptly in turmoil, as a new crater 200 meters below the crest of the mountain crumbled already, split, fissured, high and low. This, for the whole city, made a general panic. The population spread along the shoreline, and wore themselves out in various conjectures. For some, the phenomenon of full day on the city and shadow on the sea was explained by an eclipse of the sun announced by the Bristol almanac; for others the obscurity of the eastern view was due to the smoke, black and sooty, spat from the volcano.
It was seven when the Diamant, of the Compagnie Girard, departed. Clearing the wharf, the little steamer at once fixed herself to a buoy. The boats in the harbor rode as usual at the mercy of the waves. Towards seven-ten those on the schooner Gabrielle spotted a yawl carrying the governor and members of the scientific commission. This passed fifty meters from the schooner. She seemed to direct herself toward the Prêcheur, and kept to a distance of at least 400 meters from the shore.
At seven fifty-five, a formidable growling made itself heard within the mountain, as if a monstrous rent bore from top to bottom. And then we saw, in the midst of a black smoke impenetrable to the eye, a gigantic mass, formless, boundless, that came falling over the valley at dizzying speed, burying in ruins, engulfing in torment the whole of Saint-Pierre, from Sainte-Philomène to Petite-Anse du Carbet.
On the sea, two-thirds of the ships in harbor, after a sinister creaking of all their frames, had their masts and their upper decks broken, raked, carried away, and were sunken at once, some by the prow, others by the stern.
Alone, three boats, of which two were steamers, the Roraima and the North America, could resist the shock. But of their charred crew, there remained but a few who had been saved by some miracle. M. Georges Marie-Sainte, who found himself then aboard the Gabrielle owed his life only to a sudden forced immersion. The water was so hot that his body, and the schooner’s four other survivors’, were terribly scalded. After wresting free of the rigging that hindered his movements, he came back to the surface. It was then he could contemplate, in all its grandiose horror, the frightful blaze that stretched before his sight, from Sainte-Philomène to three hundred meters from Carbet, devouring ruins of a city already in rubble, and coloring the place with fantastical gleams, as the fires of Bengal.
While he searched for some wreckage by which to try saving himself, a furious rain of incandescent lava, a nameless mixture of mud and lava-like stone, fell on the burning city and its environs, whistling and crackling on the sea like hasty bullets from a heedless fusillade.
Translator’s note: I’m not certain what the Roddam was doing with her anchor. Wikipedia gives a fairly extensive overview of anchors and anchoring techniques, from which I gather she would normally position herself more closely and perpendicular to the anchor, tightening the “rode” (rope or cable attachment), increasing tension until the anchor popped loose. The language: filer and lâcher, suggests she may simply have abandoned her anchor.
Fires of Bengal refers to a particular type of pyrotechnic flare, that burns with a blue light.
Towards nine in the morning, during a lightening of cover, M. Marie-Sainte could clearly distinguish Mt. Pelée reduced by at least three hundred meters, the crest sheared off, the flanks widely cracked. Surrounded by the survivors of his former crew, he was preparing, on some wreckage newly encountered, to gain a greater distance from the shore…when the wind, blowing until then from the northwest, changed abruptly and blew southwest. This wreckage was inexorably pushed towards the flaming harborfront. He took a decision to abandon it, but his companions, having not the stamina nor the courage to challenge the high seas, themselves clung on. Alone, confident of his will and the strength of his arms, the second captain of the Gabrielle stayed above water for more than two hours.
The wind again had changed in the interval. His companions tried to rejoin him. Soon, they could see the smoke of a steamer coming up. All their signals to make themselves known to this ship were in vain…no doubt, they could not be seen.
And during all these driftings, on land the growling of the volcano continued without interruption; the rivers overflowed, carrying debris of every sort, trees, animals, and human beings, asphyxiated or charred, masses without form, marred past recognition.
Towards two in the afternoon, the unlucky victims could see, a mile distant, an empty canoe. The courageous captain of the Gabrielle flung himself, swimming, with the intention of guiding it near his companions of misfortune and having them board. After a tenacious effort, after a struggle of half an hour against the waves, the wind and wreckage that covered the sea, the small boat freed of hot water and lava massing there, he at last had the happiness of seeing all his companions now possessed of a means of salvation.
It was around three p.m., when they discovered, coming in their direction, another steamer they were not long in recognizing: she was the Suchet. A whaler, standing on which were a few men and an officer, passed near to them. Finally, they came to the vessel, where they were received. She approached Carbet. A squad of sailors landed to rescue victims. Alas! These were hardly more than effigies, men, women, children, burned, maimed, dying—of whom a great number expired while being carried aboard, or during the crossing.
As the Suchet departed, the mountain, quite visibly sunken, vomited again enormous blocks of lava, aflame; the great city of Saint-Pierre, on the eve of the present day so animated, so bustling…no longer there, only a mass of burning rubble. And underneath, everywhere within a vast scope, one of charred corpses, asphyxiated by the immense furnace.
The return to Fort-de-France was mournful. The pleas of the wounded, the cries of despair of the burned, their sad contortions, death rattles…all this formed a lamentable tableau, worthy to excite human pity, of which there was no lack.
The Roraima was commanded by Captain Muggha, and had sixty-eight people above-decks: captain, crew, and passengers, taken in all. The passengers were just at the point of disembarking onto a tender alongside. The agent of the Quebec Line, M. Joseph Plissonneau, came aboard at seven forty-five. He told Captain Muggha that, since it was the day of the Ascension, there would be no work. As he had on board sixty passengers who were desirous of being taken to Saint-Lucie, he counselled him to return, there to unload his cargo for that island, and then to come back next day, to unload that of Martinique. Captain Muggha refused, deciding to stay in the port of Saint-Pierre until the next day for his disembarkation.
The agent left the Roraima to go on board the Roddam, belonging to a line for whom he was also agent, and who sat at some distance, in quarantine.
The agent had barely touched the Roddam, when the summit of the mountain, crowned in fumes, became more and more agitated, thicker volleys of smoke fountaining from the breast of the crater; smoke rising in spirals sometimes grey, sometimes blue, sometimes black.
Here is the account given of the catastrophe by M. H. Thompson, the deputy commissioner. He said that he was:
“…at panel number 2, leaning on the railing, looking with astonishment at the magnificent and terrible appearance of the mountain, and many of the passengers, as well as the crew, were on deck, contemplating the grandeur of the phenomenon. The third engineer, camera in his hands, was taking a photograph of the smoking mountain. This was a few minutes before eight.
“All at once, a horrifying roar made itself heard, followed by a powerful explosion. The noise could not be compared to anything but a thousand cannons of the largest caliber, discharged together. And the sky was nothing but a great flame.
“A momentary pause in the growling, and Captain Muggha rushed on deck, crying to the crew to raise the anchor. But it was too late. A whirlwind of steam fell on all the ships, and an avalanche of fire swept the city and the shore with the violence of a hurricane.
Mr. Thompson said that he flew into his chamber, while the steamer was heaving, and the masts and stacks were falling into the water.
“The eyes, the ears, the mouth, the clothing, of those who’d been on deck were full of ashes and lava, and the darkness so intense, the roaring so powerful, they could neither see nor hear what was only a few steps ahead of them. And everyone was literally suffocating. The scene was appalling, for a moment’s duration…
“The hurricane of fire, happily, did not last longer than a few minutes. The atmosphere became a little more pure, and breathing freer. The injured and the uninjured had now to combat the progress of fires at several points on the ship. Especially, the cries of the wounded, begging for water, were heartrending, their suffering terrible.
“And from the flames, the Roraima could not be saved. She’d lost the greater part of her passengers and crew. Some few were rescued by the Suchet, which arrived in the afternoon around three o’clock.”
Not all the captains in the harbor were surprised or killed by the disaster. One had a miraculous flash of insight; this was the captain of an Italian vessel, the Orsolina. He had been witness to the beginning of the eruption. He had seen the Guérin factory engulfed. He had felt the sea dance under his ship with the swellings of the tide. And above all, he had received the ashes. More, he’d had a compass running veritably berserk, always coinciding with resurgent eruptions of the crater. He was Neapolitan, familiar with Vesuvius, and he mistrusted this volcano.
On the 7th, he said, “If Vesuvius smoked this way, we would evacuate Naples.” And from the customs officer he demanded his papers, so as to raise anchor.
“Impossible!’ was the response. “You have not finished unloading your cargo. Your papers are not ready…”
“Oh, well. I will leave without papers.”
They threatened him with mighty penalties.
“Who is going to apply these to me?” answered the captain. “You? But tomorrow, you will all be dead!”
He left in the night, between the 7th and the 8th, carrying off, it has been affirmed to me, the customs officer who was on board.
It is at Nantes, these days, if I remember right, that he will probably arrive. I would like to be there to hear what he will say when they apprise him of Saint-Pierre.
And since I am in the section on captains of ships, still on this page of my notebook whose themes could serve writers wishing to work at the specialty of Poe and company…
They have shown me to the kiosk (the kiosk under which I have taken notes, where all of Fort-de-France comes to take aperitifs, digestives, and refreshments!)…
They introduce to me a captain who tells me a fine tale of terror.
He was helming a sailing boat to Saint-Pierre. He had left France thirty days since. He had touched no landing place. He knew nothing. He arrived on the 24th before Saint-Pierre…at night. A night when the volcano did not flash…when the smoke hid itself among the clouds.
There are in the literature, many stories of people who, before an unexpected phenomenon, unlooked for, inconceivable, impossible, suppose that they must be crazy…and sometimes become so.
I don’t know who the heroes might be who could think this, with all the reasons had by this captain and the people of his ship, that at the hour where, believing to land in a port before a city of green expanses…a place where must be found that town well known to them all…they would see, as they drew nigh, a cemetery of ruins, a landscape naked…
I have passed before Saint-Pierre at night. I know, however, had I not fought back, struggling, the terror…the terror of a beast…would have undone me before this inconceivable spectacle.
And he, this captain, they, his sailors, they knew nothing…
“The hair stands up on my head, when I think about it,” he told me.
And I would not dare to write he did not speak truth.
They arrived at night. They recognized the land. Then the captain went to bed, to sleep while awaiting the hour for coming into port. He had given the order to keep a little sail, to allow a gentle run. He was sleeping, when his cabin boy came to wake him, saying to him, on behalf of the quartermaster, that they must have been fooled.
They were probably not in Martinique, and certainly not before Saint-Pierre.
“Tell the master he is drunk.”
But the cabin boy returns. The master insists. The captain, then, mounts to the bridge. And he also asks himself if he is dreaming. In the mists, he recognizes well the point of the Prêcheur, well that of Carbet… But the rest, he does not recognize. The lights he should have seen at Saint-Pierre, he cannot see them. And he curses the people who let the lighthouse go dark. The mists diminish. The land appears more clearly. Then the captain no longer asks himself if he is dreaming, but if he has gone mad. The point of the island he recognizes, of this, he has no doubt. But, in the place that was Saint-Pierre…there is no more Saint-Pierre. And the tableau of a terrible devastation resolves itself out of the shadow. He sees the ravaged hills. He sees the ruins. He sees the mud. And the mountain begins to smoke, and to roar, and he understands. And he sets out for the cape of Fort-de-France, where he arrives, “sick with emotion”.
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.
(more to come)
See Paul Féval, The Daughters of Cabanil
Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902 (Public Domain)
Translated by Stephanie Foster