(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 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, in a while, 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 officials, 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 responsibilities, 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…
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 does 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 bulk 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 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, 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, however 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 Guadeloupe.
(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 was uninhabitable, that they had almost died, and that everything 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 Guadeloupe. 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 Guadeloupe, 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 Guérin, 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 empty, dead, sad, the Zulimas had all filed off, for they did not want to die; and then they could no longer exercise their profession of laundress. 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…
This…the volcano? That lovely thing…?
But, we approach. At the same time 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 exhalation.
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.
Homer’s Hymn to Minerva
I sing the glorious Power with azure eyes,
Athenian Pallas, tameless, chaste, and wise,
Tritogenia, town-preserving maid,
Revered and mighty; from his awful head
Whom Jove brought forth, in warlike armor dressed,
Golden, all radiant! wonder strange possessed
The everlasting Gods that shape to see,
Shaking a javelin keen, impetuously
Rush from the crest of Aegis-bearing Jove;
Fearfully Heaven was shaken, and did move
Beneath the might of the Cerulean-eyed;
Earth dreadfully resounded, far and wide;
And, lifted from its depths, the sea swelled high
In purple billows, the tide suddenly
Stood still, and great Hyperion’s son long time
Checked his swift steeds, till where she stood sublime,
Pallas from her immortal shoulders threw
The arms divine; wise Jove rejoiced to view.
Child of the Aegis-bearer, hail to thee,
Nor thine nor other’s praise shall unremembered be.
Percy Bysshe Shellley
Published by Mrs. Shelley, 1839, dated 1818 (public domain).
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 Guadeloupe. 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…we can ask ourselves at all times 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, and therefore 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 with 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, or 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.
I have rediscovered an old and very dear friend. A friend of my young years. We go out to dinner, to a place for admiring the scene of apocalypse which the sky—if you prefer, the atmosphere—offers us in magnificent spectacle. We look at each other, and smile.
“It would be truly ironic…”
But it is not irony, it is a panic…of others. A rush of fear… Of packs of men, troops of women. Hysterics. Shrieks.
“The fire, the fire of the volcano is on us. We are lost!”
And on the shore, in the dark, it was desolation, lamentation. Then, a gust of wind…violent and sudden as it had come the cloud climbed again towards the north, vanished, disappeared; the stars rekindled…it was newly calm. A heavy calm.
The restlessness had not ended. For hours still I saw groups wander, frenzied unfortunates going, they did not know where…mute, holding hands.
And the heat was overpowering, and the thirst. At the kiosk of the hotel, on the Savane, we drank; also we discussed. Further, one searched, in the alcohol, for a night’s sleep. All had at the corners of their eyelids a crease…new, in the eyes a new glaze, in the voice, a new timbre…nervous.
For one has the fault of belief that only the black Martiniquais, mulattos, or creoles, cede to panic, make free with those manifestations of fear somewhat exaggerated…
Terror is an evil that strikes men without regard for race, like the smallpox.
The placid Anglo-Saxon is subject to it, as the nervous Spaniard, and the timorous African. One of the gayest stories in the order of events (if, however, we are allowed to speak of gaiety in such mourning), is that of an American globe-trotter and reporter.
This intrepid man, sent no doubt by the papers of his country—by contacts exalting his intrepidity—to uncover new impressions closer to the volcano, was taking lodgings in the hotel when I came down.
Arriving, his first care was to demand the hotel vault, to deposit his valise and notes, and to deposit himself, in case of a new eruption.
He was disappointed, heartbroken, on grasping that there was no hotel vault; but consoled all the more next day, the 20th, Providence heaping upon him sight of all the emotions and great spectacles he had come to research.
At five o’clock, he is roused by the people fleeing before the “fire of the mountain”.
He dresses himself, seizes his photographic apparatus, and descends to the park. He looks. He admires. He photographs the groups. He searches for pretty women a little undressed, for the sake of conserving their features. He is calm. He takes snapshots of clouds. He beams. It is so beautiful!
“Very beautiful!” he cries. “I would not give my ‘films’ for five thousand dollars.” But, the phenomenon aggravates itself suddenly. The odor of sulphur falls, the ash falls, the pebbles fall.
“Aoh!” And the intrepid Anglo-Saxon shows that he runs very fast, precipitating himself fleet as a deer towards the shoreline. He goes straight to the extremity of the wharf. He sets his apparatus on the boards…his watch, his hat, his vest…and dives headfirst into the waves. He swims well. A half-hour later, he returns to land. His bundle had naturally disappeared in the hurly-burly.
He retreats to the hotel, murmuring this time, no more, “beautiful!”, but “very bad, very bad”, and takes the first boat leaving. The emotions of the country were too strong for his nerves, however solid…being that they were Anglo-Saxon nerves.
The other Americans showed in equally striking manner the superiority of Anglo-Saxon legs for running. They had projected making an ascent of Mt. Pelée and going to contemplate the “monster face to face”. For Americans with self-respect, for Americans who are true Americans, such enterprise is child’s play. There is not one American come to Fort-de-France, who hasn’t downed his split of champagne at the edge of the fuming crater; or at least does not say so, and no doubt prints it…
These farceurs are truly admirable, and most humbly I bow before their superiority. I confess most piteously that I did not dare attempt the ascent, so innocuous, so easy…
From the New York Tribune of 8 June 1902.
Click the screenshot, left, to read an example of the American coverage, in its entirety. Location: Library of Congress, United States.
The visitors had not seen half the places they intended to see, when a hoarse shriek from the siren of the Potomac called all to the boat. The expected had happened. Without a shock or a detonation loud enough to disturb the deep silence of the city of the dead, Pelée was again in eruption.
* (Author’s note) This same friend, that the panicking crowd had separated from me, returning to the kiosk in the evening, mentioned a curious effect of the fear on women, or, to speak more precisely, on certain women. “I was at the end of the Savane [a public park], between the carénage [literally “fairing”; apparently, a traffic zone along the harbor front, outside the park] and the fort… No electricity. You know that the population believes the electric lighting attracts the volcano… So, no lights. Shadow. A young woman falls into my arms: ‘Save me, monsieur! I can’t take any more…” We were near a bench. I made her sit down. I tried to give her courage with a few words… She needed… I still don’t know if I dream… But this was fearfully mad…”
One of the frightened characters who drank near us launched an anathema on my friend: “You are a débauché and blasphemer. Monsieur (he cries to him), it is people like you who have made the anger of the Lord fall on the others, on the innocents…”
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, the backdrop of an American stage-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 negro 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 Guérin 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.
As he said in his preface, he took these lines directly from this notes, and his memory of them must be 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 fruitful 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 its predecessor.
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 hollows 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 in 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, 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 had he 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 Guadeloupe, from where I return today.”
The Agony of Saint-Pierre
by telephone and telegraph
You recall the play performed this winter at the Antoine, 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 post 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 dotted and dashed to his apparatus that he is surprised by death. The agent at Fort-de-France had sent this “band” in the direction of Paris.
Translator’s note: I think the play Hess mentions, 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”, tells more.
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-Quertier. 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.
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 8th, 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 charcoal, 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 7:10 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 towards 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 the 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 Guadeloupe. 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.”
That 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 their keeper. 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 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, 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 Guadeloupe.
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 54, voters today, have been slaves. Of the three generations active today, the one was born into slavery, the other grew up amid stories 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.
Behind the façade plastered with their grandiloquent political programs, there is this. The negro can no longer feed the white and the mulatto. Or, the white does not want to die, and the mulatto would like to live. This is the fact, the truth that I put out. All else you will be told is a joke.
Add, that in this struggle for life, to the political fury otherwise normal, since it is a consequence of the instinct for preservation that directs the actions of all living beings, joins itself and makes more violent, more ferocious, this racial hatred, these prejudices of color, always teeming.
You have an idea of the island, and you will understand why they fight, even upon the coffins; why the day after the catastrophe, the first distributions of aid were made as are the distributions of electoral money; why, while the communities of the north, anguished by fear, cut off from flight on the edge of the earth, clamored for help, the particular preoccupation was to promote the election in the south…
And you will understand the state of internecine war, wherever are found the survivors…. The confoundment of the whites, vanquished, decimated, ruined, the cream of the conquering mulattos…and the placidity of the negroes, of whom many are not far from thinking the profession of “victim” as good as any other.
M. Fernand Clerc, man of the volcano
M. Fernand Clerc is not only the white party’s political man most in view, the leader of the opposition, etc., etc… This catastrophe has made him the Man of the Volcano. It is he who has “piped the tune”, for the reporters and the American geologists; it is to him they address themselves, all those wanting to approach the monster…
Great gods! Here I come like a Yankee reporter… I’d sworn to write this volume without ever “hawking a monster” to my readers; but, finally, that must do… We allow “monster”. And since monster it is, let us say that M. Fernand Clerc has become its acknowledged guide. He divines, he sees, he knows, when the monster sleeps, and says to the Americans: “This is the moment. Go forth.”
One time, however, they did not go. The monster was smoking…it spat, it burned…it was lovely. The geologists admired it, along with M. Fernand Clerc, in one of the houses, of one of the properties, of M. Fernand Clerc, from where they could well see the monster.
“Oh, splendid!” murmured the one with phlegm…not the monster, the American.
And the smoke, and the pebbles, and the ash, and the fire, caught by a leap of wind, changed their direction, menacing the dwelling-place-observatory.
And it smoked more, it spat greatly, it burned grossly; not the American, the monster.
“Oh! Terrible!” then said the geologist, with less phlegm. And the spitting of the monster came to sink them in ashes and pebbles.
This time, the Yankee said, “Let’s fly!”
He had no more phlegm at all.
It is equally the stories of M. Fernand Clerc that furnished material for the most sensational articles published by the newspapers of the United States.
M. Fernand Clerc also owed to me, of France, an interview. The notes written under the dictation of M. Fernand Clerc do not constitute the least interesting chapter of my reportage…
And now, it is M. Fernand Clerc who speaks:
“At the summit of Mt. Pelée was once a plateau of around three hectares. There was beautiful vegetation, a little lake of beautiful clear water, but without fish; lower down on the Morne-Lacroix, one of its foothills, was a deep bowl of 120 meters, a dry pond, whose west wall had a great vertical notch…
“This summit of Mt. Pelée had been a walking destination for pleasure parties. We Martiniquais went there to picnic. The climb was not hard…one had but a few hundred meters to go by foot. The ladies were not afraid.*
“At the height was a magnificent view. One could see Saint-Pierre below. With a good glass, one could even recognize individuals.
“This dry pond was an old crater, that had not smoked since 1851. However, I recall perfectly that in May of last year, there were seen some fumaroles. The 26th of April it began to throw some ash. It spat and smoked up to the 5th of May, the day the Guérin factory was destroyed. The dust and the water of centuries had accumulated in the volcanic chimney, of which the dry pond is the mouth. The mud made a plug.
“When, for a cause that one can perhaps explain, the power of the actual eruption was produced, the plug was projected from the chimney, which I leave it to you to calculate the length…
‘But, it had to be very long, if one is to judge by the enormous volume of ejected mud.
Author’s note: *A young man, with whom I spoke of these pleasure parties to the mountain, and the ease of climbing, told me: “There were a few places where you would have to do a bit of gymnastics. Also, to climb the mountain, the ladies put on trousers…”
“As there was a weak place, going laterally, effected by that notch of the dry pond I’d told you about, under powerful pressure this gave, and the heavy mud flowed along the mountain. It devastated the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and carried away the Guérin factory, in the conditions that you know. But suddenly the chimney was swept away, released. I no longer saw any mud. I saw only a constant eruption of ashes and pumice.
“This eruption grew continually more intense. You would have to be blind not to see the danger this threatened. Me, I settled my family on the heights, to take shelter there.”
Declarations of M. Clerc
On the responsibilities of the government
The interview, you will see, became interesting.
I pursued him, asking:
“So, you were dreading what has occurred?”
“I beg you, do not make me say what I have not said, what I could not say. What has occurred is so unbelievable, mad, so much outside all human foresight, so new…that no one would have been capable of imagining it, consequently to dread it. There had been fear of another thing, not a catastrophe like that of the Guérin factory, since the mountain had emptied all its mud, but an earthquake. Our country is a country of earthquakes; it is never forgotten, and given the activity of the volcano so near to Saint-Pierre, we had not only the right, but the duty to predict misfortune…”
“So, if you had been governor, if you had been mayor of Saint-Pierre, you would have evacuated the city?”
“Completely. I would have done for the other families, what I’d done for mine. I have settled mine outside the danger zone at Parnasse, at the habitation of Litte. It would be insane to stay below. M. Mouttet is dead. M. Fouché is dead. Many others are dead… May God keep their souls!”
And a mist is seen in the eyes of my interviewee, a mist quickly dried, however. For he takes up again with a violence barely contained:
“They who pretend that we were absolutely ignorant of the danger until the last moment, they lie… There was a great earthquake, a great shaking forecast, and they feared the burning ash, as well, that it would cause fires…”
“But, the scientific commission, their report?”
“Officially, by order…this report… It was signed Landes, was it not? Well! Do you know what was the thought of Landes at the moment when he signed it, with the other members of the commission, this report which by a terrible irony of fate was posted in Fort-de-France the same instant that Saint-Pierre, crushed by the explosion, disappeared completely in the flames? Here is what he thought, the unlucky professor!
“I had seen him on the evening of the 7th, and I remember exactly, he said to me: ‘I sent a dispatch to the government saying that the Morne-Lacroix would collapse under the violence of the eruption and that this would constitute a grave danger to Saint-Pierre. And to me they responded: Thank you for your communication, but be careful of warning the public.’ I will never forget the expression of sadness, of worry and trouble that he had, the poor Landes, on the last evening of his life.”
“That is very interesting, what you say there. I’ve heard talk already of something like it. But I believed it was a fairytale, as it had been aired so much since the catastrophe, and as an edgy population is always disposed to welcome…and amplify, even forge…”
“No, no, a thousand times no. This is not a fairytale. It is the strict, the pure truth. I am absolutely sure of my memory. Landes said this to me. And I have even seen the dispatch he received. The administration was culpable. Dissect it any way you like, search all the explanations you please…me, I won’t go there. They demanded reassuring signs, and these they gave to the public. I am persuaded that, if they had not wanted at all costs to reassure, and reassure this same population who, had they been allowed to obey their impressions, their fears, say, even their madnesses… That thousands would not now be dead.
“They say that no human science could have predicted the cataclysm; agreed, let us admit this, but admit also that no human science was capable of denying the danger, of affirming that there was no danger, that we were in absolute safety at Saint-Pierre…as they had done.
“One must allow the people liberty to do what they please, to go if it is their wish. Or, we literally force them to remain, by affirmations of which we know the insanity, by a veritable pressure…less potent than the electoral pressure, it is true, but all the same effective. Behold, the error for which M. Mouttet has paid with his life, and that of his wife.
“Who imposed on this unfortunate governor this line of conduct? Whose, the responsibility for this attitude that the evidence condemns? Whose? Look, and you will see those truly responsible are not dead. You will see that one must perhaps look to Paris.”
“Just so. Mouttet was only an instrument. Mouttet obeyed. You could well say that he died a hero, a victim of professional duty if, from professional duty for a governor of Martinique, you hear absolute obedience to the minister of the colonies, for which the same professional duty consists of bowing down before M. Knight the mulatto… perinde ac cadaver… And it is thus one makes cadavers… Many… Too many.”
(When I said to you that in Martinique they will fight on the coffins!)
These events which preceded a catastrophe, M. Clerc, with his temperament, appreciates. He sets here all the passions of a party chief, who affirms himself victim of governmental tyranny, of the administrative oppression of an unjust judiciary. That is his right. All the whites in Martinique (save those of the government) say that it is his duty, and that he has reason. Me, I publish his declarations as a reporter, reproduce them with the greatest fidelity possible, that is to say, I believe with fidelity. Further, I will reproduce, also faithfully, other declarations, other letters, other facts from proofs…
But, precisely because I am doing the work of a reporter, searching for and telling the truth, I must, at the same time as the declarations of M. Clerc, immediately publish these…of others.
And one conceives readily that these others are not of the same view, that they are conscious of the appalling responsibilities that crush them…
Reflect on this a moment!
A city is threatened. Its inhabitants could flee. They would flee on their being told that prudent eyes estimate the situation dangerous. But no one communicates to them the view of prudent eyes. For they want the voters to remain. They want them to vote…in three days. They believe the election of the government is assured. And the government have need of all their seats…they count their majority in ones. And the chief of the colony, transformed into an electoral agent, has pressing orders, imperatives… It must be done. It must be done. Otherwise, it is a disgrace. Then they multiply the encouragements to remain. They publish reassuring opinions. They exhort. They give the example. And forty thousand are dead!
Ah! M. Decrais, if I were in your place, at night I would fear the ghosts of these forty thousand…
The Version of the Government
I ought to write: the versions, because there were two successive versions among the government people. At first, when told about the pessimistic views sent from Saint-Pierre, in M. Landes’s dispatch, etc., etc., they denied.
All so simple.
Landes could not have sent anything at all. Landes had not the status to communicate with the governor directly. He could not have sent him anything, and the governor could have responded nothing to Landes. The only thing one could attribute to Landes was optimistic assessment, for, if Landes were a serious man, the point could not be admitted of him, that he second-guessed the committee’s conclusions, which had been reassuring.
The only true fact, proven, was that.
And they add, not without an appearance of reason, that if the governor had received serious word of danger, he would not have escorted Mme Mouttet to Saint-Pierre. Certainly, he would have gone himself, since it was his duty, but he would have gone alone.
That makes the first explanation given by the government, that which they gave to me. A negation.
A great man, who has made some noise in the history of these recent years, would claim he has nothing to confess.
The government of Martinique will not confess.
They deny. It is easier and far more simple. But, once the precise affirmations of M. Clerc were known to a number of people, they believed it necessary to speak a little, and they said, to me…they said this to me:
“There is a confusion in the recollections of M. Clerc.
“It is true that M. Landes sent a dispatch to Fort-de-France saying the hill of Lacroix could collapse. But this dispatch spoke only of vague probabilities. Further, it had not been addressed to the governor, with whom M. Landes had not the right to correspond directly.
“It was a dispatch addressed to the director of the cable, who, since the 4th of May, posted the news relative to the eruption, news that many people, M. Sully notably, sent him from Saint-Pierre.
Translator’s note: The Latin term perinde ac cadaver refers to complete obedience to the spiritual direction of a superior, a complete subsumation of human will, so we may interpret M. Clerc to offer his comment in dark humor, meaning that governor Mouttet had obeyed orders; literally giving himself (and his wife) to authority “in the manner of a corpse”.
The “great man” hinted at, is probably Decrais, the colonial minister.
The photo above, was taken on May 11, showing the state of the city of Saint-Pierre on the day the disputed election would have been held.
When M. Jalabert received the dispatch, where M. Landes spoke of the possible fall of the Morne-Lacroix, and of the consequences, he thought it best before posting this, to communicate it to the governor.
“There was nothing immediately threatening in the dispatch, put out by a man who, for being a teacher at the high school of Saint-Pierre, could hardly, nonetheless, be considered a prophet in matters of the volcano.
“But, as the population of Fort-de-France was nervous, as was that of Saint-Pierre, and had rather needed to be reassured than alarmed, M. Mouttet asked the director of the cable not to post this dispatch. That is all.
“It is possible M. Jalabert had cabled such to M. Landes, at Saint-Pierre, and that his telegram was the one seen by M. Clerc. We know nothing. What we do know is, the governor had not corresponded with M. Landes. But he had not supposed for an instant a catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre…
“And of which the proof, we repeat, is that he had taken Mme Mouttet there…”
Here, a parenthesis. In another conversation with someone from the government, I have noted this:
When, for the first time, we had spoken of the volcano, M. Mouttet exclaimed:
“A volcano on top of the market! As if we didn’t have enough from the elections…!”
His preoccupation was to finish the elections, and to think of the volcano…after. The 7th, after the incident of the Landes dispatch, he was called on the telephone by the mayor of Saint-Pierre, M. Fouché. This mayor had posted a reassuring declaration the evening before, but… “it did not take”. He declared himself powerless to constrain the population and moreover to maintain order. It needed a higher authority…
This higher authority was M. Mouttet. He decided then to leave for Saint-Pierre with Mme Mouttet.
This is someone from the government who said this to me.
This someone did not add that the governor preferred for his stay in Saint-Pierre, to be aboard a ship, where the chances of safety were greater, the risk less, and had asked the commander of the Suchet to conduct him to Saint-Pierre and remain at his disposal for a tour in the communities of the north.
The commander of the Suchet had other orders from the minister of the navy. He evaded the governor’s requisition.
The officer from whom I had this detail, added: “The Suchet was not made for electoral tours.”
It is for this that M. Mouttet left Saint-Pierre aboard one of the Company Girard’s boats. And it is also for this that he left taking with him only the Gerbaud household. He had left behind at Fort-de-France a number of persons, including his chief of the cabinet, and the Pignier household, originally invited to accompany him. The quarters at Saint-Pierre, where at the last moment he saw himself obliged to take lodgings, had only two apartments.
Let us now give the floor to the “we” of the government:
“The governor (as they say), had not supposed for an instant that a catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre, and no one could have supposed this, M. Landes no more than any other. All this story is nothing but a political maneuver, from people who cannot reconcile themselves to an electoral failure.”
I believe, even, that some in the government have added:
“…of people who today would well like to profit from the catastrophe, to restore their business losses.” And that others even say, “…to fish in troubled waters.”
But, if this proposal is denied, I wish to consent that I have misheard.
You see it, that if on one side they are violent, they are not less so in the other camp.
I have given one side’s version, and the version of the other.
I believe it’s easy to choose.
And to make this easier, here is a document I want to publish at once, a simple letter received the day after publication of the Clerc interview, in the Journal.
Monsieur Jean Hess of the Journal
It is not without vivid emotion that I read in the Journal your account of the horrible cataclysm at Saint-Pierre, where mine are forever buried, as well as the different interviews received in the course of your peregrinations.
Without prejudging the conclusions that will be drawn from your impartial inquiry, it seems to me that so far, and apart from a serious presumption relative to the intentions of the governor, lost to the fire, any tangible proof cannot be made.
It is my part, then, to lift all doubts and enlighten the judgment of all, not with allegations—which is always easy, but with irrefutable proofs—
The 5th of May last, I found myself in my study at Saint-Pierre together with my two neighbors and friends, MM. Fouché and Landes. These gentlemen, very worried at the negative result of their pressing appeals, decided by me to remit a confidential letter for the governor at Fort-de-France, where I would call, on my affairs. At my departure, I had two letters to remit instead of one. The one of Fouché and the other of Landes. I left. On our way, we crossed paths with M. Mouttet. You know what came next.
During the crossing from Colon to Pauillac, I had the curiosity to read the two documents, although I sensed their contents, but I had not expected an indictment from beyond the grave so thunderous against improvidence and criminal carelessness, first cause of the death of forty thousand people.
If I have kept silent to this day, it is wholly from the cruel sorrow that strikes my father’s heart anew…I have had to watch at the bedside of my elder daughter until her death, from meningitis. Following upon the horrible vision of that place…!
I propose to publish the two documents with my notes, when they are coordinated. I am not ignorant of the importance of these two factors in the ultimate distribution of benefits, also my conscience shouts to me, not to make these disappear.
Will you accept, Monsieur, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments.
Notary of Saint-Pierre
16, rue de Jardin-Saint-Paul, Paris
23 June 1902
Translator’s note: The above photograph may not seem strikingly different from others of Saint-Pierre’s disaster. But it is worth a closer look. Put yourself shipboard alongside the photographer, and consider that this approach, three days after the eruption (note the wreckage is still smoking) was one of the first that could be made to view a horror examined up to that point, only to the extent the burning city and the volcano allowed.
The quality of this shot is grainy, but on the hillside you see the snow-like appearance of the ash cover that Hess noted earlier in his account.
M. Clerc before the eruption and in the ruins
We return to the volcano. Here is how M. Clerc described to me the eruption of the 8th, to which he was witness from the height of the predominant hills, immediate to Saint-Pierre.
“The morning of the 8th, we were in the house, of the Litté residence, at Parnasse. At ten to eight, we heard a detonation. Not very strong. We went out to look. Then, a second detonation, very strong, that one.
“Then, I saw come out of the dry pond, a river of heavy smoke, exceedingly black. This smoke flowed, burgeoning, with a sinister noise. One felt that this was weighty, powerful. One gigantesque battering ram, rolling…I repeat the expression, rolling. We heard the creaking of all that this whirlwind was breaking, tearing, on its passage. This black mass that rushed down, did not mix itself with the smoke that continued, in clouds, to rise from the crater. One saw the horizon above the smoke which descended on Saint-Pierre.
“This followed, with a roar, the valley of the Rivière des Peres, the valley of the Roxelane, and extended itself up to Carbet, covering all with a shuddering black shroud…
“I estimate that this avalanche of a new type needed no more than a minute and a half to flow, from the height of the mountain, to the limits of Carbet. Then, quick as thought, I saw all the black mass flaring, in a clap of thunder. And still in the dark, it was upon Saint-Pierre, these flashes of incineration.
“At once, after the outburst and the explosion of the gaseous whirlwind, the summit of the mountain cleared, the crater died down, and I saw, completely changed, the old silhouette of the Lacroix hill.
“And the dark came again. Within an hour, all the region, the shoreline, the mountain, the hills, the house where we found ourselves, all were in the dark. One must light the lamps.
“And when the calm and the light returned, a light without vividness, a light lifeless, dead, we were in a country of ash, it was as though a snow, of a light grey, had covered everything.
“Saint Pierre no longer existed; the Fort district was razed, and the harborfront burned. At ten o’clock, I went down to Trois-Points, and to the alley Pecoul, that I followed up to the electric lighting works. Three men accompanied me, walking barefoot. So, the ash already was not very hot.
“Everywhere, there were blackened corpses. But the district had not been burned. The people were dead of asphyxiation. As, by a gas charged with coal-dust, which then exploding, would have blackened them all to the same hue. The district of the Fort was not burned, but crushed… there was nothing left.
“I was still below, when, between eleven and eleven-thirty, I heard an explosion that came from the other side of the Lacroix hill. A new volcanic mouth had opened itself. The former, that of the dry pond, recommenced smoking towards three o’clock. And so, we left for our house at Vivet, to take shelter from new outbursts of the volcano.”
M. Fernand Clerc returned, afterwards, many times to Saint-Pierre, he said to me. And in the calmness of the volcano, he had approached as near to it as possible. They say even—and I believe the American reporters have telegraphed this to their newspapers—that he has made the complete ascent of the volcano, that he has most closely observed the new craters, and that he has measured these…! But that, he did not say to me. When I questioned him on this proposal, as our interview took place at the Café de la Savanne, an annoyance who came up permitted M. Clerc not to answer me.
During his jaunts to the mountain, M. Fernand Clerc was able to estimate that the rupture of the Lacroix hill had diminished its altitude by 125 meters. M. Clerc also recounted for me many other interesting things. His observations on the corpses were in accord with those of other persons, and of the doctors whose interviews I publish.
So, we pass on.
A detail, however. M. Clerc thinks that many saw the danger coming, and had time to have begun fleeing. (That, moreover, does not prevent their being blindsided, by a lightning-fast asphyxiation, by a fulguration, perhaps by both simultaneously.)
Along the rue de Longchamps, he had seen corpses, as though fallen while running, then pushed, crowded by the whirlwind, which denuded, scalped them. In the rue de la Banque, he had noted that the police guards, then on duty, must have fled towards the shore; they had fallen at different distances, the sabre was at the side of charred corpses.
Near the Knight house, he had seen the roof of a ship. On this roof, there was a corpse in the attitude of a man who breakfasts; at his side remained the plate, the knife, the bottle.
The miraculous prisoner and the two gunners
Here is an extraordinary story, that of the prisoner, Auguste Sybaris.
But, I do not suppose that M. Clerc believed it true, for M. Clerc is not…an American. M. Clerc had seen the said Auguste at the Morne-Rouge home of the curate. On the 8th, Auguste, who, it seems, had had what is called in Corsica an accident (his knife put by chance into the belly of an enemy), was closed in the prison of Saint-Pierre. They had given him lodgings in an underground cell.
Up to then, nothing but the very normal. But here is where it becomes less so. On the 12th, five people of the Morne-Rouge, including a municipal councillor, were walking in the midst of the ruins, of Saint-Pierre. It does not seem that this was for the meditating upon them, but rather, was devoted to some safeguarding of the vault. Whatever their intention, it appears that the five electors passed near the rubble of the prison. And from below the pile of ruins, they hear emerging human cries. They approach, questioning.
Someone responds to them: It is me.
“A poor prisoner forgotten in his cell, who dies of hunger, who dies of thirst, and who is all-over burned. For pity, save him!”
All this in creole. But if, to be wholly natural, I repeated it thus, you would not understand.
The five strollers do not hesitate. They dedicate themselves; they march to the voice. They pull down the ruins. They pass, by what had been the walkway. They arrive before a door, padlocked as are the doors of a prison. They blow this up; they have, providentially, a few of the necessary tools, for these sorts of operations. Again, a door, but simply closed by the latch. They pull the latch and, in his cell, find our Auguste, dying of hunger, dying of thirst, and what is more, frightfully burned, on the head, the hands, the knees, the feet…
That does not prevent this energetic man from following them, to the Morne-Rouge, by the hard roads. There, Auguste is received by a priest, who is stupefied by this miracle. However, the good priest recovers himself quickly; it is a secret known only to Providence, that in this city of forty thousand victims, where so many of the just have perished, the sole survivor is a sinner. And the sinner repents himself. The trial has brought him back to the path. And, to the curé who gives him a good bed and good wine, he recounts this prodigy.
On the 8th, in the morning, he meditated in his cell.
He told himself that, weighing all, it pays better, far better, to do good than evil, because evil has led you to prison. When, suddenly, a diabolical fracas…the end of the world. At the same moment, the flames of hell invade his cell. He is burned on the feet. He jumps to the ceiling. There, other flames burn his head. And he falls back, writhing, jumping, without the power to escape these cursed flames, that bite him like burning leeches. They disappear at last. Then it is dark and silent. The hours pass and no one comes. The unfortunate Auguste calculates that a day has slipped away. Nothing. Nothing but silence. And they do not bring him his ration. And he trembles. He does not know what it is…what does this silence of the cemetery mean? Perhaps he has gone mad. And he trembles the more. But still they do not bring him anything to eat, to drink. Happily that morning they had given him a large loaf, and a large jug of water. He economizes. When he has drunk the whole, rain showers flood his cell and his thirst is quenched…a little.
He listens, anxious. He hears steps, a voice. He calls for help. And he makes out that the people flee in fear, crying ghost, zombie!
And he waits his deliverance, until the 12th! God had pity on him, since He had saved him from the universal destruction, and conducted him after, into this good house of a good priest of the Lord…
And this story has stuck!
It is from the asphyxiating gas that flowed on Saint-Pierre, from the gas which had afterwards exploded, that caused a rarefaction of the atmosphere, then an inferno… All who breathed, all, absolutely all, all who were alive in Saint-Pierre were killed at once. There was no cell that could have sheltered any being, rat, dog, cat, man, for in all the cellars the air penetrated…it is a glaring proof… Well! That did not prevent the joke of Auguste Sybaris being taken seriously, by a heap of serious people. The good priest of the Morne-Rouge wrote to the Attorney General asking that he pardon that precious mystifier, Auguste.
(You note, as all has been annihilated at the various courts of Saint-Pierre, a farceur makes a pretty game of saying he was in prison, etc…)
And everyone interests themselves in Auguste. They choose him; they dote on him. He becomes the hero and the curious animal all at once. They show him to the American reporters, who weep with emotion, listening to his joyous story. How well this will do for their newspapers…! And they photograph his face, his profile, sitting, standing, lying…in bust, in half-bust.
The joyous story of joyous Auguste is a succulent canard to suit the taste of the Americans. Let them keep him. Let them pass him, even, to Barnum.
Translator’s note: Hess doesn’t believe the story of Auguste Sybaris. Online recountings are not very helpful, since nothing investigative has been done with the given details, and too much time has passed. You will find only circulations of the legend as told, represented as a fun slice of history, and a depiction of the cell in which the man who changed his name to Ludger (his surname sometimes given as Cyparis) when traveling with Barnum’s circus, is alleged to have been held. I include here a link to an article on the WWII bombing of Dresden, and what British POW’s, imprisoned there and forced into recovery work, discovered (warning: very gruesome details) as to the survivability of a superheated inferno.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
Below, from the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph of May 4, 1918, is a curiosity worth preserving—a fictionalized and romanticized version of the “miraculous prisoner”, with a love interest added. (No author credited.) Read slides column to column, with the fourth slide last.
And here, from the Pall Mall Gazette, October 18, 1907, an English review of an inspired French play, “Terre d’Eprovante”.
The wall falls down, revealing the petrified form of their gaoler, overtaken by lava…
And we will linger no longer in discussing the improbabilities, the crying impossibilities. Auguste Sybaris produced for me, simply, the effect of a pillager who, surprised by fire while at work prematurely on a bit of safe-cracking, had wanted to explain his burns, while scoring off his contemporaries, and whose negro imagination made from whole cloth the extraordinary story that we came to read, and that had been told to me by M. Clerc…and many others…
The imaginations of the whites, meanwhile, cede nothing to that of the negroes. We would make a great volume, publishing all the howlers that were repeated to me… But they have only the one interest, in proving that human credulity is without limits. I will shut them away, then. There is one, however, which has made too much noise, and has been swallowed by too many people… officials, for whom I hardly have words. It is the miraculous adventure of the two soldiers. You know, those who in the style of the barracks, we call practical.
This is the heroic odyssey of two cannoneers, the citizens Vaillant, and Tribut. These two cannoneers were on duty at the camp of Colson. From the camp they had seen that morning the eruption in the sky, above the mountain…but, they knew nothing. It was the secretary of the town hall of Fond-Saint-Denis who, passing on horseback rather late, announced that Saint-Pierre was destroyed. The men had been forbidden to go out from the camp. Desirous, no doubt, of seeing the spectacle up close, Vaillant and Tribut had long borne up under the order. They were on edge.
At three o’clock, commanded by telephone from Fort-de-France, the chief of the camp sent a brigadier and a mounted guide, to inform themselves on the situation at Saint-Pierre, as they were without news of the city. The two riders arrived at the heights and saw the burned ruins of Saint-Pierre, but could not approach within 400 meters. The heat was too great, there were ashes. They retraced their path. They encountered no one on the way. But coming back far enough from Saint-Pierre, they found along the road Vaillant and Tribut, and a wounded sailor. They brought them to the 30 kilometer post, where they all slept. And they returned next morning to the camp.
This is the report of an under-officer. This is certain.
Here is that which is uncertain.
Vaillant, whom they were preparing to lock in a cell, protested energetically and swore that he had been driven to Saint-Pierre by a duty to humanity, that he had explored the ruins, that he had found wounded people still alive, notably a family of whites, eight people with an old negro woman; he had given them the contents of his canteen to drink, and that of Tribut, and had promised to come back and find them… It was a duty he would fulfill at any cost. There were still many other people alive in the city, for he had heard many cries. But he had not pursued his investigations. He had hastened to search for help, and to bring it back.
As at the camp of Colson, the story did not take at all. He insisted on being authorized to go down to Fort-de-France, to tell the commander of artillery and the governor what he had seen.
He went to Fort-de-France, and was conducted to the governor, with whom was found the captain of the Suchet; he, for having landed on the place du Bertin with the public prosecutor, and seeing there all the city destroyed by fire, said it was his conviction no one was alive in Saint-Pierre.
M. Muller, who assisted at the scene, told me this.
Vaillant insisted. He had already convinced other people. He managed to return to Saint-Pierre. He returned on board a steamer that brought M. Lyautier. When the steamer, after many hours sojourn at the harborfront, blew the whistle for going back, Vaillant came with an old negro woman, burned. He embarked in triumph, saying, “You see that I am not a liar. I have at last found it, the house with the eight unfortunates… But, I was not allowed to come back soon enough. They are dead. None alive but this poor old woman. And she recalls that I had given her water. “Is it not true that I gave you water?” added he, in speaking to this unlucky woman, who, grievously burned, stupefied, bewildered, made with her head signs of distress which could pass for a “yes”. She died at the hospital, where they had taken her on disembarking at Fort-de-France.
And there it is, that upon which the legend rests, of survivors of Saint-Pierre, whose cries of distress had been heard by the gunner Vaillant, the day of the disaster. Having found, two days after, in the ruins, this old negro woman, who moved her head and died, without being able to answer to the questions he posed, anything other than frightened monosyllables, which cannot not be admitted as proof Vaillant spoke truly.
The old woman was not in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the cataclysm.
The doctor Lherminier, who has studied all this history, and who thinks what all people gifted with the critical sense think, knowing it for a trickery, told me that the old woman was one of the mad, at the asylum of Saint-Pierre. The asylum possessed, near the Litte, a branch campus where the quietest inmates were interned. In the disarray of the eruption, although the fire would not have reached this branch of the Litte, those who lived there fled. Thus, the poor old woman, found at liberty. Directed by what impulse I don’t know, she had returned to Saint-Pierre, burned herself there in wandering the ruins, where Vaillant found her and brought her back.
That is the truth.
And it is important to say, because it would be odious to allow the propagation of this absurd legend—survivors imploring for help, and receiving none. Dedicated people, doctors, soldiers, police, the simple citizens, have climbed through the ruins of Saint-Pierre as soon as the burning ashes, diminishing, permitted their going in without dying. The city was anxiously explored, by every means, and they found not a trace of the living. No more at the prison of the miraculous Auguste, than the streets vaguely indicated by Vaillant, as containing the house with the eight wounded.
Further, as I will go on saying, everything proves that all life was instantaneously snuffed in Saint-Pierre, at the moment of the catastrophe. To claim that anyone had survived, is as absurd as to say the law of gravity had been modified by ministerial decree. One can blame a great many things on the Administration, and as many times as the occasion demands, I will… But, frankly, blaming it for allowing death, without aiding the survivors of Saint-Pierre, and that taken on faith, from two cretinous jokers, the gunners Tribut and Vaillant, is too much!
To be able to say that no one had wanted to see the danger before the 8th, for the sake of the elections…that is enough!
The romance invented by these two humbugs to justify their spree is worthy of the prisoner Auguste. To believe these characters, and to make them heroes of sensational articles, you must be an American journalist… And again… one of those who planted their walking sticks on the side of the crater to pinpoint their measurements…
Let us not joke too much about the American journalists… Ours are not—alas!—much further from reproach…and have we published fantasies, in the great and little journals…?
Picked out from a newspaper of Bordeaux on the day of our arrival, this note on—
—an infantryman who escaped the disaster.
It is the soldier Jeannin, of the 4th regiment. He was in the garrison of Saint-Pierre, at the very flank of the peak, with a handful of men, seventeen, all of them brave, who mounted guard, turn by turn, on the redoubtable mountain.
Alone, he survived. The eve of the eruption, he had performed his accustomed task; he had gone up, gun in hand, onto the mountain. No sign had caught his attention. Mount Pelée was not frightening. They had walked, said the soldier, as on the hills at home. The next day, the mountain was on fire, and sowing around it misery and death.
Is it beautiful, these soldiers, who go up on the mountain, gun in hand…? Brave soldier Jeannin… Begone!
Interview with M. Raybaud
M. Raybaud is the managing director of the sugar-cane plantations that cover the hillsides of the Saint-James properties, situated above Saint-Pierre, on the east side. Four years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting these plantations, and I have retained the best memory of the charming welcome given me by M. Raybaud, in his lovely colonial house, in the settlement at Trou-Vaillant. My first care in arriving at Fort-de-France, thus, was to make inquiry of M. Raybaud, and to search for him. Happily, he had, as well as his family, escaped death. The altitude of the estate had preserved it from the scourge. The volume of the flaming torrent that rolled in the valley of the Roxelane, and destroyed Saint-Pierre, spread no higher than 120 meters, as I have said in recounting my visit to the ruins of Saint-Pierre.
The dwelling of M. Raybaud sits at 160 meters in altitude; it is that which saved it, as well as its inhabitants.
Advised of my arrival at Fort-de-France, M. Raybaud came to see me. He told me what he had seen. And he saw well, for he was placed, so to speak, in the best box.
I will let him speak:
“Since the 20th of April, the ash had fallen. One heard from the foot of the mountain, subterranean noises that seemed to come from the side of the Prêcheur. I had noted that the disappearance of the Guérin factory took place three days before the new moon of the 8th, which produced the terrible eruption. The eruption of the 20th also coincided with a phase of the moon.
“The phenomena occurring within the mountain had been terrifying Saint-Pierre. And, no matter anyone’s saying they doubted the danger, many people were afraid. The proof is that twenty-six of our friends came to beg our hospitality, notably the sister of M. Chomereau-Lamothe, the Deputy Director of the Bank of France*. They had said in the city, that there was much less danger on the heights.
*After reading this interview with M. Raybaud, in the Journal, where I had published a few chapters of this book, M. Chomereau-Lamothe kindly wrote to me two letters, from which I extract these few lines:
“Permit me, monsieur, to thank you for what you say of M. Raybaud, to whom I owe such gratitude [ … ] Allow me to add that the modesty of our friend has hidden a great part of the truth [ … ] My parents have in fact written to me that they owe their lives to the energy, the presence of mind, the intelligent initiative, and the sustained courage of the young son of M. Raybaud…
“During the night of the 7th to the 8th, the phenomena redoubled in intensity. The women gathered in the salon, praying. We heard continually the din of the volcano. One could distinguish three sorts of noises very distinctly: intermittent explosions, like the shots of a cannon; a low and regular growling in the volcano’s chimney; and a constant noise as of a thunderstorm. During all the night, sheets of fire came out of the crater, at the foot of the Lacroix hill. There were sparks. There were jets of flame that lasted more than a minute, climbing high, straight, with flowerings in sheaves, fans, bouquets of rockets. The volcano spat, the while, smoke that rose very high. Once, pushed by the winds southeast, this reached the clouds, the smoke produced lightning at the points of contact.
“I slept for two hours, until four o’clock.
“At four o’clock the rumblings of the mountain grew in intensity and woke me. At four-thirty, the dawn came, clear and limpid. Upon Saint-Pierre, to the west of my house, I saw darkness.
“The aspect of the volcano was typical. It was putting out billows of smoke that rose straight up. They covered the west. But on the east side, they drew a line ascending, neat and regular, cut against a very clear sky.
“The smoke all at once turned back towards our side. We cried: “The volcano is coming!” Mme Raybaud, very frightened, said that we must flee. And the blackness of Saint-Pierre grew deeper. Cauliflowers of smoke, blacker and blacker, came out of the volcano, and rolled from the east to the west. These fumes rose and fell, then spread from the Saint-Pierre side.
“At seven-forty-five, we were going to set a table for breakfast, when a noise most appalling stunned us. Imagine thousands of ships letting off their steam after mooring… It was truly terrifying. Our terror redoubled when we went out to see what had caused the noise. There was no more clear sky above our heads. It was chaos.
“Below in the valley, to 800 meters from our house, and flush with the ground, we saw coming, cutting through billows of black smoke, a sea of fire.
“Instinctively, we threw ourselves into the house. What to do? We huddled against one another. We wanted to die together…we were waiting for death. There was a moment of anguish. The fear…the lack of air? I don’t know. My son, more energetic without doubt than we others, went back outside. He returned immediately, saying, “Run! We have time!” The fire had taken hold at the front of the sugar cane. We could not stay. The fire gave us legs. We ran out the back door, and saved ourselves, on the road to Fort-de-France. It rained stones and mud, pieces of mud big as rope-ends.
Translator’s note: I can’t find that “bouts des cordages” has any idomatic meaning. The comparison of a mud chunk to the size of a rope-end doesn’t put the most accessible of pictures into the reader’s head, but it seems to have been M. Raybaud’s idea.
“On foot…very quickly, I don’t need to tell you…we went as far as Fond-Saint-Denis. I installed my family and my friends at the town hall of this village. For the moment, delivered from the care their safety had caused me, I returned to my property.
“The house had been spared. The highest plantations, the larger, were intact. But those below had been ravaged. And it is below, alas! that my workers found themselves. So many victims! Seventy-two dead. Twenty wounded. I harnessed my two cars, and all the carts of the workshop, to carry the wounded to Fort-de-France. Before leaving, I looked at the mountain. It was razed to the summit. The Morne-Lacroix was partly knocked down. And of this, I am of very certain, because a peak of the west, that before I could never see from my house, I saw distinctly.”
I saw M. Raybaud on the day of my departure. He is getting his own back. He has resumed his work. He has taken courage, if he had ever lost it. He is that brave type of the strong creole race of the Antilles. A worthy son of those whites, who, sword in hand, so valiantly defended their island, their French island, against the English…and we have kept it.
And yet we understand failures, after such terrible crises!
The account of M. Molinar
M. Molinar has dictated his memories and impressions to the Courier of Guadaloupe, which has published them, and from which I print them.
Monday, the mountain smoked in the ordinary way. I went down from Trois-Ponts, and on to the home of Mme Clerc, who lives on the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre).
She put a car at our disposal. We started off. In this car, were Mme Coypel, Mlle Carland, Mme Clerc, Mme Cambeith, my aunt, Mme Molinar, and myself. We went to visit the Rivière-Blanche. The accident to the Guérin factory had not yet occurred. On the road was around 15 centimeters of ash.
Coming to the factory, near a quarter to noon, we set foot on earth, and went to the river. But as the terrain was very spongy, Mlle Carland sank to her calves in mud. I gave her my hand, and helped free her. After this mishap, and the state of the terrain, we did not push farther; we reseated ourselves.
I went home to Trois-Ponts. It was there I learned of the accident at the Guèrin factory, coming just after our departure. The wedge of mud that swept the plant away advanced itself thirty meters into the water and formed a small cape. It had passed the very place where we’d been a moment earlier. At the same hour (towards half-past noon), the sea pulled away from Saint-Pierre, thirty meters, leaving the boats dry; then came back a minute or two after. It was from that moment that some people left Saint-Pierre. These are the ones who were saved.
The end of the day passed tranquilly.
Tuesday, I did not leave the house. There were peals continually from the mountain, which never ceased to throw ash.
Wednesday morning, I went down around nine o’clock, from Trois-Ponts to Fonds-Coré, to see the state of the Rivière-Blanche. I could not cross because of the Rivière-Sèche that obstructed the way with a mud flow to the height of 50 meters. Going back, around noon, and passing the Rivière des Pères, I believed I saw, just beyond the bridge, a chasm where the sea would rush in, and the river… in any case, there was an abnormal agitation.
Around one o’clock, we heard something like salvos of cannon-fire, issuing regularly, that is to say, at equal intervals.
This lasted about an hour and a half. That evening, M. Alain, director of the Pecoul settlement, warned us that there was a fissure on the side of Trois-Ponts, setting the town in a stir. Everyone was leaving as quickly as possible. Only M. Boudet, secretary of the mayor, and we, remained. Around ten o’clock in the evening, as the mountain growled terribly, I went to the window, and saw a flow of fiery lava in the direction of Trois-Ponts.
Quickly, everyone fled on foot, towards Parnasse, a property located from two to three hundred meters altitude, 200 meters higher than Trois-Ponts. We arrived there around midnight. At that moment, the mountain was in full eruption, hurling lava, smoke, and flaming rocks.
Thursday, around six in the morning, the mountain was completely calm, and we admired the puffs of smoke and of vapor, heading towards the sea.
Around eight-fifteen, without any sign in particular to announce a new thing, the mountain opened from top to bottom, and launched, like a great flash of lightning, a jet of flame in the direction of Saint-Pierre. For a quarter of an hour, it threw flames successively, always in the direction of Saint-Pierre, and its environs.
We, who watched the spectacle from Parnasse, were not in the zone of fire, thanks to a wind blowing against the flames, and permitting us to save ourselves. Running, we saw, in the direction of the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre), that all was on fire. (Place Bertin.) Around eight-thirty, when the turmoil began to calm itself, I went down from the heights, and was going to meet my younger brother, but the air was so hot, I could not go on.
Retracing my route and coming onto the hill Saint-Bernard, that rises over Trois-Ponts, the Centre, the Fort, as far as the sea, I perceived a complete desert. The Mouillage sat in ruins. On all the trajectory followed by the flames, all was annihilated. One could see nothing but a trail of ashes. In the part of Saint-Pierre called the Centre, and as that of the Fort, nothing remained standing. All the houses were reduced to ash. There was not even a corpse. All had been volatilized. It was only in the part of Saint-Pierre called the Mouillage, or on the harborfront, that there were a few corpses among the ruins.
All, from the Prêcheur, the Abymes, up to Saint-Pierre, had been volatilized. A part of Carbet was like the Mouillage. Two or three families only have saved themselves, from this locality.
After these jets of flame, the mountain was completely calm. It no longer launched flame or smoke. At around eleven, it recommenced smoking and hurling lava. It was then that we left for Trinity, where we must take shelter. I learned, since, that on the side of Macouba, and the Grande-Rivière, fissures had formed vomiting flaming lava. The population had to evacuate by sea, and reach Dominique; the roads by land were made impossible, by the two types of lava. There was mud lava, that thickened immediately, and fiery lava that went down to the sea. The lava fell as a flaming river, to the Roxelane, penetrated the earth, and came out on the shoal.
The story of M. ODILON DARSIÈRES
This story has been communicated to me by a friend at Fort-de-France, and I publish it as it is:
Saturday, 3 May. The volcano of Mount Pelée, which for four days has smoked, has littered all the ground and the roofs of the houses, with a greyish dust, a sort of cement which is silver in the rays of the sun. At six in the morning, a light rain of it explained this phenomenon in the night. Soon this rain, still of dust, was growing and covering passersby, and the travelers—of whom women, old men, children tumbling with their oxen, horses, and the rest, from the heights of the Soufrière, from the hill of Saint-Martin, and of the Prêcheur—are all grey from head to foot. Saint-Pierre believes itself a fair enough distance from the volcano, not having to move, and receives placidly these bewildered visitors.
At eight in the morning, I go to the heights, from the lowland of Saint-Denis to the hill of the Cadets (Chabert settlement), and during my climb the volcano does not cease to detonate and to throw a smoke and dust that the wind blows from east to west on Saint-Pierre and its environs.
The hill of the Cadets is 4 or 5 kilometers, as the bird flies, from the volcano, but faces it. All the ground is littered with ashes as in town. However, it is not raining them at the moment as on Saint-Pierre. There, the phenomena of the Soufrière are easy to consider. The crater is immersed in a thick cloud.
Otherwise, the day carries on in detonations, and Saint-Pierre receives all the vomitus of the crater.
At six in the evening, the sun disappears in a night of dust that covers the horizon. The onshore wind begins, and the mountain Pelée seems to take on gigantic proportions in a dusty envelope, which goes up to the sky, and stretches itself like a phantom on the hill of the Cadets, the green hill, in full detonation.
Sunday, the 4th. This morning, the dust has thickened, but Saint-Pierre and its environs show quite clearly under their blanket of whitish grey. It is seven, no breeze, the Soufrière throws a thick smoke that rises to the clouds. The animals can then graze. This day passes without further incident. The detonations continue regularly, lasting a minute, and repeat at intervals. An east-west wind sweeps the grey dust to the sea. Many people gather this dust, believing they can sell it for cement. In the night, from the 4th to the 5th, the detonations continue. But there is no more rain of dust after this night.
Monday, 5th. This morning, flat calm, detonations rare. The top of the mountain is covered in a clear, blue cloud. The neighboring houses appear all white. We hear noises like a lava that boils and overflows. Towards one o’clock, louder detonations. The Rivière-Blanche and the Guérin factory seem in the midst of a white rocket-blast, then we see no more but part of the smokestack; the rest has disappeared in a deluge of mud. At five o’clock, the remains of the factory show nested in white vapor. In the night between five and six, the growling rises to the point that, taking a lantern, I venture out under the mangoes. What can be the state of things? Nothing has changed.
Tuesday, 6th. This morning, we learn that the detonations of yesterday have been followed by an inundation of mud that has engulfed all of the Guérin factory and its people, so that the curious come from Saint-Pierre. The mud is above the factory to the height of around 10 meters, and took barely one or two minutes to make its way to the sea. The boats of the factory (tugs) have sunk in open water; they are called Carbet and Prêcheur. M. Eugene Guérin and his wife, and M. du Quesne, the foreman, have perished, overtaken by the mud flow while running to reach the boats. These were under steam since the morning.
The day of the 6th passes in a long trembling of the mountain, which, at 11 o’clock, appears without a cloud; this permits discovering the place of the crater. Until evening, it booms. Today, many people in a panic have left the city, fleeing at random.
Wednesday, 7th. The volcano smokes with greater abandon, and the detonations resound here until evening. At midnight, thick clouds in the direction of the west bury all in shadow to the sea.
Thursday, 8th. During the night from the 7th to the 8th, the rain has entirely washed the fields, and their greenness has reappeared; one believes in a lull, for the noise of the volcano is heard no more.
Towards 8 o’clock, a horrible detonation, following a discharge of thick clouds and water vapor. It directs itself north to south, through the riverway that leads to Saint-Pierre. I throw myself into my house with my wife and children; we close everything. By a little opening, I look for death to come. All seems finished, when a breeze from the east, a true cyclone wind, rises, fights against the cloud, and pushes it back, dispersing the whole. We are saved. I look. Saint-Pierre is in flames. There is nothing left; the population has disappeared in less than thirty seconds. The rest of the day passes in a flat calm.
The ninth, we take the determination to reach Fort-de-France; we go down on the Carbet, where we are collected on a barge, with the Manavit, our country neighbors.
(Proprietor of the Chabert farm, on the hill of Cadet, face-to-face with the mountain, six or seven kilometers as the bird flies, from the crater.)
Interview with M. Cappa, Chief of the Incineration Mission
M. Cappa is the municipal architect of Fort-de-France. He has been charged with searching for and burying, or burning, the corpses. They had first given this mission to the soldiers. But duties more imperative and more professional do not permit the military commander to withdraw from the garrison of Fort-de-France, relatively weak in numbers, that needed for the chore of burial in Saint-Pierre.
The municipality of Fort-de-France gathers volunteer workers for this special task, giving the direction of it to M. Cappa. I have accompanied M. Cappa on one of these funeral expeditions, and he has served me as guide, in crossing the ruins of Saint-Pierre. In the course of the voyage, while the dredging-boat conducted us to the dead city, M. Cappa told me his memories of the terrible fortnight. They are precise memories, neat, the memories of an architect. I transcribe them as I have them in my notes.
It is as a little diary, a memento:
“On April 23, vents opened on the southeast face of the mountain. They smoked. 30 April, the 1, 2, 3, 4, of May, the overflowing of the rivers Blanche, and Pères. The Blanche ceased to flow after a day, then ran with a fury. The curious came out in great number.
“In Fort-de-France, in the night of the 2nd to the 3rd, the wind from the north brought a rain of ashes.
“The 5th of May, at noon, the Guérin factory was carried away.
“Wednesday the 7th, at Fort-de-France, from two and a half to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we hear strong growlings, then a prolonged rumbling. There is a phenomenon of ebb and flow, to a height of around 30 centimeters.
“The 8th, at five in the morning, from Fort-de-France we still see the smoke from the crater. It has rained, around two in the morning. At six, the curious depart for Saint-Pierre, on the Diamant. At 7:45, many people arrive from Saint-Pierre.
“At 8:20, a rain of stones, following a rain of ashes.
“The steamers Rubis and Topaze try to reach Saint-Pierre. They cannot approach, and return saying the city is on fire.
“They believe the inhabitants had been able to save themselves; that they will arrive by land, and they make the first preparations for receiving them. The population waits on the shore; it is dismayed. Only that evening can the Rubis, the Topaze, the Pouyer-Quertier approach Saint-Pierre, and take stock of the catastrophe.
“The boats bring back wounded, from the harbor and environs of Saint-Pierre. The victims of the neighboring communities arrive. At eleven o’clock in the evening, we give them food at the town hall, and lodgings in the school.
“On the 9th begins the rescue-mission of Saint-Pierre. We fear scenes of disorder at Fort-de-France; we put sentries in front of the bakeries.
“On the 11th, the soldiers began incinerating corpses at Carbet. They did not return. The colonel commanding the troops needs all the soldiers at Fort-de-France.
“They put together a civil mission, which works the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th. On the 17th, the disembarkment cannot work, because the rain of ash is truly too strong.
“On the 19th, the mission is at work. Towards 11 o’clock, the mountain abruptly covers itself in a black cloud, very intense, shot through with lightning. Powerful detonations, prolonged, come from the crater. Rain of ash. The dredging-boat whistles the rallying signal. They re-embark.
“The 20th, the mountain smoked as usual. The mission set off from Fort-de-France; then around 5:20, a black cloud covered the mountain. It also was shot through with lightning. Huge masses of smoke formed with a great speed of ascension. Climbing to a certain height, these clouds lit by the rising sun took on the hue of fire. The mission took ship.
“The city is in panic. They cry, ‘The fire is in the sky?’ The cloud covers Fort-de-France in a few minutes. The population is terrorized. They flee in their night-dress. The women have no clothes on but a flannel shift. A man was naked, wearing a top-hat. The screams…those fleeing want to reach the shore. Many at the church. Rain of stones and ashes.
“The 21st, the crater still smoked a great deal.
“The 22nd, the mission left and worked as usual. We recognized, as had been announced by the Suchet, that the city had changed in aspect. This time, the ruin is consumed. Everything above 3 meters in height is razed. All the walls east-west, in the Ford district, and north-south, in the district of the Mouillage, razed. Those that remain barely stand. The second tower of the cathedral has fallen. The Eiffel bridge, on the Roxelane, is carried away. The ashes and mud have leveled the districts… etc., etc.
“A search done before the old barracks indicates a height of 30 centimeters of ash. Though the rain fell in quantity, this up to 3 centimeters is still hot. We had left in the streets of Longchamp, Amité, etc., 800 corpses that needed incinerating. We can no longer find them. The have been buried in ash.
“The crater smokes a little.”
(This was in the morning, for in the evening from five to six o’clock, arriving on the Saint-Domingue, I had seen from the sea an eruption of the crater with immense glowing smoke—Hess.)
“We saw with the naked eye a great rent, which cut the mountain in the direction of the southwest; a rent that had not existed on the 19th. The shaking of the twentieth has all-in-all modified the form of the mountain. It is entirely split.
“The 24th, the mission continued its work.”
Thus said M. Cappa, who, to the date of 30 May, when I met him for the last time, had noted in his book 3678 corpses incinerated. M. Cappa told me a thousand interesting things. I have noted the summary of his observations on the appearance of the corpses:
“Nearly all are lying on their stomachs. Barely a proportion of 1 in 100 are lying on their backs. So it can be said all fell with their heads to the south. The eyes were burned. The orbit is a black hole. There is a foam at the mouth. The tongue is out. We saw that many men had died in a fit of excitement. All the corpses were naked. They had no hair nor beard. The flesh was either carbonized or reddened and peeling. The fat had melted. The bowels of many had burst. The breasts of the women were bloated and punctured. The remains seemed in pieces…
“The medical instructions given to the mission,” continued M. Cappa, “prescribed burying the bodies in accord with scientifically established rules… A load of precautions, very good when we can conform to these… But, here, it was impossible. When we found a body, or a pile of bodies—before one house in the hospital district there were twenty-three—we covered them with pieces of wood, tree branches, we sprinkled them with petrol, we lit it, and the next day, went back to see. Generally, we found a pile of ashes. All were calcined.”
(This is astonishing enough, for incineration of corpses demands a great amount of heat, as results from a serious piling of wood. What served, I think, to make all these corpses disappear, is the ash from the eruption of the 20th.)
“My mission,” continued M. Cappa, “comprises 200 men, who operate in teams of ten. We have already used 180 cans of petrol… The winds from the south have allowed us to work methodically.”
You see all the horror contained within these cold lines? I have lived this horror…a day, in the broken city, in the city of corpses…
Interview with M. LAGARRIGUE
A moving voyage aboard the Rubis, on the morning of the 8th
Lagarrigue, confessor of Saint-Pierre is, I do believe, the only man of the cloth of this city who still exists. This he owes to having been, on the 7th, called to Fort-de-France. He had the intention of returning to Saint-Pierre on the 8th. He was going to embark at 8:50, on the Rubis.
He told me the events of this crossing, which carried him within view of the burning city, where all that was his perished, where his house burned, annihilating his fortune.
“We are about to climb aboard, when a woman says to me: ‘But see!’ And I see a grey, ashy cloud that comes from the mountain and surpasses the peaks of Carbet. We settle ourselves on board. At ten minutes after eight, the sea retreats, and the moorings of the boat break. The captain takes his post, nonetheless, and we leave. We are barely 150 meters from the wharf, when over us falls a hail of ash and pebbles. The boat continues on her route. Arriving at the heights of Case-Navire, we meet with a yacht making her way opposite our own. The people on this yacht shout to us, ‘Go back! Go back!’ We ask them to stop and explain, but they fly away without wishing to hear.
“The Rubis goes aside and follows them to Fort-de-France, to the carénage. There the pilot of the yacht tells us that, arriving before Case-Pilote, he heard an enormous noise, received a fall of pebbles, saw the smoke, and that Saint-Pierre was destroyed.
“‘Have you seen this?’
“Then the Rubis left once more for Saint-Pierre. On the beach of Carbet we saw people who made us the sign of turning back. We went on.
But, scarcely outside Carbet, we saw again a vast smoke along the coast. A new vent of the volcano, someone said. It was a burning hut.
“This was a little near eleven o’clock.
“We arrive at the cove of Latouche. Everything is burned. Then we can go no further, because of the ashes and the heat. All Saint-Pierre burns, all. The city, and the harbor, and the fields. All!
“We return to Fort-de-France, terrified, anguished… Our people, are they in this furnace?
“En route, we meet with the Suchet, which will try to approach the city.
“On the 12th, I went to Saint-Pierre. It burned no more. I saw corpses and rubble. A meter and a half of rubble and thousands of corpses. My fellow citizens…naked, scorched… An electric burn…but, this is not my area of competence.
“What struck me, is that in this ruin, in this chaos of death and terror, within the buried pipes still flowed, clear and alive, the water of the Goyave. And I drank.”
The Service of the Gendarmes
It is the fashion, in France, to mock the police. The constabulary offer subject matter to spur easy laughs, in an lighthearted spirit. Oh, well! To the course of these tragic events in Saint-Pierre, they have come to prove time and again that if they have boots…
You’ll allow me to dispense with the rest, won’t you?
These boots forge the paths of brave men.
On the 8th of May, at three o’clock, a detachment of gendarmes, including the brigadier Marty, the Constables Santandréa, Patin, and Allard, under the direction of Captain Leroy, embarked aboard the Pouyer-Quertier.
After stationing itself before Carbet, of which all the north part was burned, and whose inhabitants had come to be taken away on the dredging-boat, the ship tried to dock at Saint-Pierre. It was impossible, because of the number of flaming wrecks that burned in the harbor. They took to the sea, arriving at dawn in view of Cape Martin. At six a.m., they approached Macouba. They called out. No one answered. The houses appeared intact. It was the same at the Grande-Riviére.
At Prêcheur, there were many people on the beach. A blinding rain of ashes fell. They put two cutters in the water. Impossible to land, the bad sea barring this…they then used canoes, on which the women and children embarked, with shrieks and tears. They learned that 300 people who were north of Prêcheur, had found themselves with nothing to drink or eat for three days…
On the hill La Talie, were 300 calcined corpses. The Prêcheur had suffered a tidal wave, and a rain of fire.
At 11 o’clock, an upwelling from under the sea took place. At noon, the mayor sent a letter addressed to the governor, a letter asking aid for five thousand people without food and without water…
At twelve-thirty, the rescue became impossible because of the bad sea.
Captain Leroy said:
“We could no longer make out the coast. The low rumblings gave the illusion of trains passing on metal bridges, without interruption. A strong turbulence of fumes, several, with bubbles, formed on the sea all around the ship.
“At three o’clock, we left.
“The inhabitants of the north were ignorant as to the destruction of Saint-Pierre. Two hundred people from Céron refused to embark. The curé of Grande-Rivière related to us the exodus of inhabitants towards Basse-Terre, and La Trinité.
“In summary,” said the Captain Leroy, “on this journey, the Pouyer-Quertier collected from the town of Grande-Rivière and that of Prêcheur, around five hundred people, of whom the greater part had had nothing to eat or drink for three days, following the drying up of sources, and the interruption of communications with Saint-Pierre, an interruption that began with the 5th May eruption.”
The same day, another mission, commanded by the Chief of the Squadrons Herbay, and comprising the adjutant Lagarde, the local marshal Lamfranchi, and constables Calé and Donati, embarked aboard the Rubis, accompanied by R. P. Vetgli, Father Auber, the chemist Rozé, and a few customs officers.
The priests, debarking onto the Place Bertin, gave the last rites of the dead*, and chanted the Libera. Then, they went to the treasury and the bank. The treasury was pillaged. Thieves had taken 103,000 francs. At the bank, in the first room, the safe was gutted; in the second, the safe remained intact. The vaults were surrounded by fire.
The information furnished by the gendarmes permitted the public prosecutor to go, next day, with Captain Evanno, and the treasurer Peyrouton, to carry out the salvage of the bank’s valuables.
The 10th and the 11th, the gendarmes made missions of reconnaissance and surveillance.
The 12th, they accompanied the incineration mission.
The 12th, they learned that bandits were pillaging at Bellefontaine and Carbet. Five gendarmes went to chase them.
The 13th, a surveillance post was established at Saint-James.
The 14th, they took forty-five looters.
The 15th, they made seventeen arrests.
The 20th, they were exposed to the second eruption. The post of Saint-James had to flee before a rain of stones.
Add to this the intelligence service in the northern communities, then the policing of all the regions where looters circulated in search of abandoned houses to plunder, and you still will have but a feeble idea of the crushing task charged to the brigade of Martinique, a task perfectly accomplished, thanks to the sense of the chiefs and the devotion of the soldiers.
Sad acts. Sad Accusations… Ever the racial hatreds. The prejudice of color.
Some journals, who find it easier to invent the scenes they describe or that they draw, than go look at them (it is cheaper and faster), have drawn upon the ruins of Saint-Pierre a flight of crows.
There never were. (1) Birds flee a volcano at work. In Central America, the people recognize an approaching earthquake by the panic, the flight of birds. They know there will be no more shaking when they hear the cock crow.
So, despite the piles of corpses in the air, there was no living bird hovering over the carnage. Vultures, scavengers, and crows, have too much fear for this…
But, if the menace of the volcano frightens birds of prey, it does not inspire the same terror in men of prey…
The note you have just read on the service of the police proves it.
One day, forty-five looters are taken in the ruins; another day, seventeen.
These thieves, they call the crows.
The tribunal at Fort-de-France condemns almost a hundred in the “same batch”. The punishment, uniform: five years in prison.
Now and again the volcano charges itself with dispensing justice. There were found corpses of thieves killed by the eruptions which, free of police, left the field clear to the “crows”.
When I went to Saint-Pierre, on board the dredging-boat, a hunt was recounted to me by the gendarme, the “hunter”, and a priest, who was “spectator”. This gendarme had accompanied a trader, who searched for his house-safe in the ruins. The thieves were already at work on this same objective. The gendarme took twenty. But a gang of a hundred almost gave him a bad end. They threw rocks at him, also at M. Cappa and other people.
The looters were organized into real gangs, obedient to their chiefs.
(1). The prophet of the lamentations of the Bible, has noted this.
This blog, ASK FATHER, gives the best summary I’ve found on the question of last rites for a disaster’s dead, where the bodies have been destroyed. The last rites are essentially for the living, and no living person was found in Saint-Pierre (arguably, but see Hess’s remarks). Either a type of ceremony, and the chanting of the Libera, functioned as a service for the dead, or the rites were given to some of the looters who ran afoul of the still-burning fires.
And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch.
It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up forever; from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.
But the comorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl also and the raven shall dwell in it; and he shall stretch out upon it the line of emptiness.
Isaiah 34:9, 10, 11
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
The chiefs carried big sticks. The priest, who had seen this, and who heard the gendarme tell his story, added:
“What was most amusing were the wives of the thieves, who prepared their meals.”
The father did not pardon the looters for profaning the tabernacle of the cathedral while stealing those sacred vessels spared by the flames, and spreading the host in the ashes. The ciborium [container to hold the Eucharist] had been brokered at Saint-Lucie, where it was repurchased by a priest.
It was not the Martiniquais alone who came to “prospect” the ruins. They came from all the neighboring Antilles. And, as by day they were exposed to unlucky meetings with the gendarmerie, many amateurs worked by night. There were gendarmes posted to guard the land routes, but the great route of the sea was open to all. And they profited.
There were “crows” of every condition. A scandalous story ran in Fort-de-France…underground. On a day of high seas and contrary winds, a canoe mounted by several young men found itself in distress on open water off Saint-Pierre. An American ship collected these young men. But their attitude and their answers looked suspicious to the captain, who passed them to the Suchet.
There, they recognized among these the senator of the colony’s nephew, the young Godissart, and the affair was suppressed.
From another quarter, the journal l’Opinion had published an article entitled: “Crows of High Flight” where very clearly, the Martiniquais saw that the people of Senator Knight’s party accused the people of M. Clerc’s party of stealing the safes from houses of commerce where they had debts, to make these disappear.
Such stories of ruins gutted, pillaged, have given the parties new weapons in their political struggles…
They do not dare to write still more, but they make up for it in conversations.
That is what I’ve heard!
It is difficult to conceive just where the hatreds of race, the political struggles and the conflicts of interest can carry men…
To have an idea, you must have been in Martinique in these days of mourning. Friends have said to me that I was wrong to write this. I ought to hide this facet of human misery, and that in my book I would be generous to speak only of misfortune, of these unhappy Martiniquais, to make everyone pity them and help them.
Certainly, I have the greatest pity for all who suffer, and I appeal to all human compassion for their aid… But, I am a reporter, and I must give to my readers the truth, all that I have seen, all that I have heard, all that I have noted down.
I cannot worry myself as to what follows my reportage.
If it plunge a minister into shame, as at one time M. Lebon, when I had published his useless barbarisms of Cayenne—
If it afflict today M. Decrais, in revealing his acts upon the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre, restrained under the volcano unto their deaths, by his order—
This cannot, must not, influence anything in the work of a reporter, which must be a work of truth, truth in its entirety.
It is for this that I owe to the public, at the same time, the most complete notes on the eruption of the volcano, the ravages of the volcano, and complete information also on the people who still live near the volcano.
And then, we have there such beautiful documentation of humanity, such noble indications of the psychology of our human species…truly it would be a crime to shut this away.
And so, read what I have read, in l’Opinion:
Like a lion couched at the foot of its tamer, that rises in sudden repressed ferocity, and eats his master, the mountain Pelée, whose terraces lay for centuries above Saint-Pierre, their verdure smiling upon its plateaus, awoke itself one day, growling and terrible.
And with a brutality reborn of former ages, the volcano—quiescent, domesticated—whose fertile flanks were laden with abundant crops, opened upon that city, confident and sweetly reposing, which stretched itself at sunrise, a horrible maw. The frightful and enormous volcano engulfed everything under its flow of lava, sulphur and fire…
We can only weep, bowed by the wind of this formidable phenomenon. Whereas, for a child who dies, our oppressed throats throw to heaven the revolt of their blood, today we bow, reluctant before a discussion of eternal justice. The child of the cradle and the adolescent in flower, the modesty of virgins and the grace of young mothers, all that smiles, all that is radiant, all that disarms, the gluttonous Moloch has taken all.
It may have been necessary…
Qui sait si l’onde qui tressaille,
Si le cri des gouffres amers,
Si la trombe aux ardentes serres,
Si les éclairs et les tonnerres
Seigneur, ne sont pas nécessaires
A la perle que font les mers.
(lines from “Napoléon II”, Victor Hugo)
Who knows if the waves that shiver
If the wail of chasms bitter
If the tumult’s talons afire
If the lightning and the thunder
Lord, are not of need
To make pearls from the sea
All this literature tells you nothing. You believe it engenders itself merely from tropical rhetoric…
Well, this little phrase: It may have been necessary, and the couplet that follows: Who knows if…
…ne sont pas nécessaires
A la perle que font les mers
…has caused a great, very great emotion in the “whites”, who remain at Martinique, the Europeans and the Creoles. It is the whole battle of the races, black and white, that the whites saw within this…
The battle signalled by a victory hosanna, after the catastrophe had killed at one blow the majority, nearly the entire white population of Martinique.
It is appalling, to employ in my turn a robust adjective, that men could have supposed such an idea had occurred to other men. Ah, well! Sad as it is, so it is.
I’ve counted. Forty whites at least, of all classes and all ranks, creoles, officials, soldiers and officers, have affirmed to me with indignation, that in his writings (lines read between), the editor of l’Opinion had cleverly expressed what the blacks among the people cry brutally, to wit, that “the volcano has killed the béquets*, so the island becomes definitely the property of her natural masters, the brave blacks.”
One day, at the hotel café, many officers said this before M. Muller, the former cabinet chief of Governor Mouttet. M. Muller protested, insisting that this was not possible, that he knew of no such spirit in the black population of Martinique. The discussion grew lively. The officers maintained their own insistence. They had “heard”…
Elsewhere, there is an officer, who pointed out to me the l’Opinion article cited above, giving stress to the sensational passage…and explaining it to me.
I believe it needless to add that the men of the black party, to whom I’d spoken, have protested with an indignation just as violent as that of their accusers…
Sad, to see that despite the times, despite the new generations, the old hatreds of race and of color have not disappeared. What’s more, far from lessening, they are increasing. No one dares to say more in an official discourse, in a printed article, no one dares to flaunt in broad daylight the imbecility of which this prejudice of color is the mark…
And every day, in conversation, everyone breaks out with those hatreds due to this prejudice. I have heard the blacks hate the whites. I have heard the whites hate the blacks. The one cannot forget that he was once a slave. The other cannot be consoled that he is no longer to be master. And that is the constant clash. It is the war without truce. The parties are not disarmed even before the mournful work of the volcano!
One can write beautiful phrases of concord and of peace, of union and fraternity. Lies. I came to live for ten days in an atmosphere a thousand times more nauseating and more deadly than all the fumes of the volcano…
You would like to know the strength of this prejudice of color. The classic adventure of the white woman who cannot see a man in the negro, in the mulatto, and is no more modest before one of these beings than before an animal, is still contemporary. It is only yesterday. The mulatto employee of a tax-collector is called for some information by the wife of his boss. He arrives at the wrong time in her apartment and surprises her naked, absolutely naked. He spreads his hands, searches for an excuse, wants to leave.
“But no, stay as you are,” says the lady. “You know that for you this counts as nothing.”
*Béquet, also Béké, is a Creole term for white European settlers, of the French Antilles.
And as calm as if she had spoken to her dog, without looking to cover her nudity, the young woman asks this employee for the information she had needed!
And the creoles, the white women of Martinique, admire this trait. For them, the negro, the mulatto, has less humanity than a dog.
On the prejudice of color within another order of conjecture:
L’abbé Valadier, on a mission to Martinique, had imprudently said that the blacks are the children of God, entitled even as the whites. They no longer saw white women at his sermons…!
Again, a note on these politics, these hatreds that cannot be disarmed even in the face of mournings and afflictions. This note is from Dr. Guérin:
“Senator Knight,” (the doctor told me) “went to Saint-Pierre for his personal paraphernalia. He wanted to break open his safe. They had provided him a master locksmith. They had requisitioned a boat…M. Knight is person of importance…but not so much, however, as to occupy a boat alone… I wanted to take passage aboard this boat. M. Knight refused. Is he admiral…? No. Is this not an infamy…? Tell them this in France! Especially because I was going to resupply my people in Carbet. Tell it, monsieur…”
It was on the Savane the doctor confided to me, in this way, his anger. A moment after, on this same Savane, I met a man from the other side…
“How,” (he said to me) “you speak with that old…Dr. Guérin…” (that, an expression which despite my reporter’s sincerity, my care to always repeat exactly what was said to me, I cannot decently publish…)
“…how you listen to the doctor…! But, he is a man of trumped-up noises, that’s all… Do you know what he is putting about now…? No. Well! Here is the latest… He peddles it everywhere that for the scandals of relief distribution, the Americans have been moved… That President Roosevelt has given orders to stop all new shipments, to close all subscriptions… That it seems the Americans had learned their aid profited none but the negroes… (He said it, the negroes, monsieur, this béquet!) …and had decided to send no more shipments. But it is this, perhaps, he was telling you earlier.”
“No, he told me only that Senator Knight is the tyrant of the colony, and that he abuses the authority which the government gives him too freely under the circumstances…”
“Wait…here comes the senator. Ask him what he thinks of Guérin’s complaints.”
And I tackle the senator. At the name of Guérin, he turns green:
“Ah! This gentleman complains of being bullied. He says we give everything to the negroes, for the sake of electoral politics. That we fix our agents, our voters, with this gift of American charity. That the whites are once again sacrificed, forsaken by the Capital, by our tyranny… We are perhaps the evil stepmother, as is said of France, of the homeland, Monsieur. But of what does he complain, personally…that he wants, would claim for himself? He has lost nothing, this gentleman, he is not a victim. His factory. It belongs to him no more. In three days, it would have been seized by the bank. He says he has nothing left, that he is poor. But he is rich. As long as he has worked, he has always placed his profits in the name of his wife… Ah! Monsieur, this party has no heart! But we recognize their maneuvers and we will outplay them!”
(Translator’s note: As to the charges, exchanged above, Hess’s conversations with Senator Knight and Dr. Guérin would have taken place between May 20 and June 1, by the timetable Hess gives of his visit. I haven’t so far found these stories in American newspapers, but here is a useful map, and a sampling of items that touch on the treatment of relief funds.)
Interview with M. Peyrouton
The Treasury. The Bank.
Our former colleague, Peyrouton, who was director of l’Estafette, is treasurer of Saint-Pierre. Returning from leave, on the Canada, he was to have arrived, by schedule, at Saint-Pierre on the 8th, on the day. But a delay would not put the steamer at Saint-Pierre ahead of the 9th.
Saint-Pierre no longer existed.
M. Peyrouton was charged by the governor to go forward, with counting such valuables and cash as could be recovered under the rubble of the Treasury and the Bank.
He went to Saint-Pierre on the 11th, with the public prosecutor, Captain Evanno, and a detachment of forty soldiers.
The “chore” lasted from noon to 11 o’clock in the evening.
The Treasury had been pillaged. In the gutted safe, they found an account-register, indicating the count of assets at the time this had been stopped, the evening of the 7th, was 103,000 francs. The “private mission” in operation there, of search and excavation, had not failed to seize the day.
From the two vaults of the bank, they pulled out notes, gold, and silver, worth two million and a few hundred-thousand francs. There were 1500 bags containing each 200 five-franc pieces; the gunners carried these, two on each shoulder, from the bank to the shore. Captain Evanno, who commanded the detachment, found six looters. He arrested and set them to work at the carrying. No small thing, this employment of thieves in salvaging the money they’d coveted. The captain wanted them transported to Fort-de-France, but the prosecutor declared that they must “let go” these voters.
The observations of M. Peyrouton, on the disaster, on the ruins, on the corpses, etc., are the same as those of other witnesses cited elsewhere. But, in a few neat words, precise, as must be from the mouth of an eminent journalist, M. Peyrouton characterized the catastrophe:
“The great disaster” (according to him) “is less of material losses, and the mourned, than of the disappearance of the more intelligent and more active part of the population. Martinique is decapitated. Those gone are those who produced. Dead, are more than three thousand whites, all the important trade of the island, the heads of households, their sons, their families, those who would carry on the tradition, have the financial means…
“The old and fair race of the colonial gentleman, the white creole of Martinique, is stricken at the head and the heart. Though sacrificed long since to the colored population by the law of numbers, it was this race of creoles, this race who possessed the soil, this race that kept the commerce, the bank, etc., etc. It is they who nourished the island.
“Certainly, it is to be feared this disappearance must be as fatal to their enemies as to their friends…”
M. Peyrouton is too “Parisien” to enter into the battles that desolate this unhappy country. He does not yield, either, in this prejudice of color. But the fault does not prevent him from noting, and seeing, and saying, that if the whites had no love for the mulatto and the negro; they, for once able to return this payment, will render it well.
M. Peyrouton has noted also the progressive victories of the man of color over the white…if he must he call these victories. And M. Peyrouton told me of the hold taken on the bank by the blacks. It is a negro, by order of the interior [ministry], who will be head of the bank, to replace its director, dead at Saint-Pierre. A black who has, himself, his prejudices of color.*
“And, however” (M. Peyrouton said to me) “the Bank of Martinique is legally the property of the whites. When the government suppressed slavery in the colony, it compensated the white property owners. A part of the indemnity, a sum amounting to three million francs, under the law of 1849, put into effect in 1851, was for the founding of a bank, truly the property of the former owners of slaves, who remained owners of the land…a bank intended to promote, to facilitate, their culture and commerce.”
It must further be added, that all the whites of Fort-de-France complain bitterly of the bank operating under the administration of the “negro from the interior”—thus have they designated the unlucky officer called by the ministry to direct the business of a financial establishment—in a country where for such work it is necessary to have a gift, tact, and a particular competence, as not generally acquired in the offices of the interior.
*Translator’s note: The varying terms, “man of color”, “negro”, “black”, used in this paragraph, are taken as they appear in the original text.
(more to come)
See Paul Féval, The Daughters of Cabanil
Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902 (Public Domain)
Translated by Stephanie Foster