Jean Hess

La Catastrophe

de la

Martinique

 

(notes of a reporter)

 

 

1902

 

 

 


 

 

To the lost souls of forty thousand
of Saint-Pierre
I dedicate this work of a reporter.

 

 


 

Preface

 

 

 

 

 

Forty thousand victims…

This statistic is not exact yet, and probably never will be. The number of forty thousand is that which was given at first. Afterwards, we tried to reduce it. The lieutenant of the vessel—Fontaine—who with his commander on the Tage, the captain Le Bris, made of the question a profound study, gave to me at Fort-de-France the number of thirty-seven thousand, five hundred. Now that the truth about the forced retention of the inhabitants at Saint-Pierre has seen daylight, thanks to the publication of my articles in the Journal; now that one knows, and is in no further doubt, that M. Decrais, minister of the colonies, had given the ill-fated governor Mouttet the order to keep the voters at Saint-Pierre, to assure the election of 11 May—as if one could palliate that which is odious and horrible by making a game, for the sake of a ministerial voice in Parliament, of the lives of forty thousand human beings…and to have lost…we seek to diminish the number of victims of the carelessness, the stupidity, the madness of government…

It is a bare thirty thousand that we admit…

If this continues, soon there will be no more…

And you will see that, for a little, we will pretend all this horrible tragedy of Mt. Pelée is but a fable due to malevolence.

It is true that without any benevolence for our colonial administration, I relate these events that had preceded and followed the eruption of the volcano, Mt. Pelée.

Once more it was given to me, to seize 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…

 

1

 


 

In our old colonies, as to universal suffrage, we have always said that the government, with the sole restriction of maintaining order, must not weigh on the will of universal suffrage… For it was that, by ministerial order, to obtain the constituency of which he was certain; to assure this for having made all possible, and even impossible, pressures, M. Mouttet forced the functionaries, enjoined the inhabitants to keep at home in Saint-Pierre, despite the menaces of the volcano, despite the panics caused by these menaces; it was because M. Mouttet had taken an active part in the election…the volcano of Mt. Pelée killed, on 8 May, forty thousand human beings.

The notes, the documents that I collected on the spot, and that I publish, permit no doubt that this is so. For the election of 11 May to be legal, that it take place, it needed the population of Saint-Pierre not to abandon this city. M. Decrais gave to M. Mouttet the order of maintaining, by all the means possible, the population in the city under the volcano, under the menace of the volcano…

I had the honor to know M. Mouttet. This unfortunate was a disciplined official, who executed orders received, and who, always careful to cover his responsibility, would never permit, in a grave circumstance, of taking an important measure without referring it to his chief, the minister.

The fifth of May, when the volcano ravaged the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and the approaches to the Prêcheur, he alerted Paris. The sixth of May, when the volcano, in devastating the valley of the Rivière des Pères, poured its mud and its hot waters into the Roxelane, extending its activity as far as the city of Saint-Pierre, M. Mouttet again alerted Paris. He sought at the same time help for the victims… I specify…

The response of the minister, on which we waited:

As soon as Agriculture had given him the money, he would send 5000 francs.

The official charities in ordinary times fund themselves, in fact, with levies operated on sums engaged in the wagering at the racecourse. When the cocottes have had generous clients, when the speculators have swindled a money-lender, when the cashiers have made a forced loan to their patron, when the coin of vice “rolls” in quantity to the bookmakers, the better for a hundred levies by the Agriculture, to permit the ministers to practice the virtues of charity.

Wait, cabled M. Decrais to the unlucky Mouttet.

The volcano must wait. What mattered was the election—one votes first; one occupies oneself afterwards with measures for public safety.

But the volcano did not wait. The volcano mocked the election of the eleventh; its overfilled subterranean boiler must vomit. It vomited on the eighth. And it made forty thousand dead. Forty thousand dead, account for which public opinion [since the law did not provide penal sanction for this sort of crime (1)] has the right to demand of His Excellence M. Albert Decrais. Although he is an old enough politician, M. Albert Decrais has, I believe, still a conscience.

 

2

 


 

The wait is on, for the spectres of forty thousand of Saint-Pierre to come brighten the last moments of M. Albert Decrais, when on his deathbed, in that rapid return on their lives that the camarde allows to those in agonies, he will see all the unfortunates of Saint-Pierre, and the others, all of whom fell sacrifice by his incapacity, in the countries where “the colonial” operates—

 

The wait is on, for this hour of supreme justice

It must be. This I want, and this will be—it must

 

This he will carry upon his retiring, as the irons of the galley-slaves in their prisons; it must be that he carry these forty thousand dead

 

And that he has remorse

And that he has anguish

And that he has shame

 

And that, truly, it is necessary this be so. Too many political crimes are above the law. We are a people without courage. We support everything. We do not know how to feel indignant of anything. We do not know; we have no more will to punish…and the crimes are renewed. Under the pretext that M. Decrais certainly could not have wanted to kill forty thousand people—that he is an honest man; that he cannot be considered an assassin—the heap of those who believe themselves intelligent, and call themselves serious, clamors that it is madness to reproach an ex-minister of the Colonies with these forty thousand dead of Saint-Pierre…

 

I do not have to search for the intentions of M. Decrais.

I do not have to argue whether he is an honest man, for this case, at the least.

I do not have to say now whether he can be considered an assassin.

I have only to search and to say, these are the facts.

 

3

 


 

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.

 

La Catastrophe de la MartiniqueLa Catastrophe de la Martinique

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Notes:

 

  • 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.

 


 

To report…

Now the fact, at Saint-Pierre, is that these inhabitants wanted to go. And if these inhabitants seems to you too general, absolutely, take that portion of the inhabitants whose example had the chance of being followed…and the fact that M. Decrais had ordered M. Mouttet to keep these at Saint-Pierre until the eleventh. And the fact it was also these inhabitants; these the officials had retained by force at Saint-Pierre, that the volcano killed on the eighth…there were forty thousand victims. And that of these deaths, it is upon M. Decrais, with no possible discussion, and entirely obvious, the responsibility falls…

I am exposed to a danger against which no courage, no human force, can prevail…I know it, and I want to go… But I am a civil servant and you prevent me going; and you menace me with revocation if I go… I stay, to wager my life, and I lose it. The volcano kills me…it is true…it is not the minister. But they who weep over me, have they not the right to say the minister is my assassin!

There is the striking fact of my enquiry at Martinique.

When the catastrophe occurred, I was traveling in the Grand Antilles. Returning from Saint-Domingue, I arrived at Port-au-Prince on the eleventh of May. When the agent of the Transatlantic Company came aboard, M. Dardignac, he said to us, “Saint-Pierre is destroyed by the volcano. The whole of Martinique is threatened. Already forty thousand are dead!”

The first boat leaving Port-au-Prince, destined for Saint-Thomas, from where these “opportunities” are frequent for Martinique, was the Olinde-Rodrigues, of the Transatlantic Company, a regular mail from France; and which was meant to raise anchor on the thirteenth. I immediately took passage. The Haitians had the preposterous idea of beginning, the next day, a revolution, to fight in the streets, by day, by night…an interesting adventure, it is true, for people who want to see all the spectacles close up.

But a hitch that delayed our departure.

As there was no other foreign ship in port, M. Desprès, the minister of France, requisitioned the Olinde-Rodrigues, in order to have at his disposal a large vessel where, in case of danger too grave, foreigners could take refuge. He kept us until the sixteenth. That day an English boat arrived which the British consul requisitioned, while waiting until another boat came to assure the new service required by circumstance.

 

4

 


 

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…

Close parenthesis.)

I embarked from Saint-Thomas on the Saint-Domingue… But a new setback, caused this time by the volcano. Rather than make directly for Guadalupe, the packet-boat must go to Puerto Rico for the loading of sixty tons of food that the American generosity has sent to the victims of the distressed island. We were in Puerto Rico* on the twentieth. At five o’clock in the evening, we had a new emotion. The hawkers cried a broadsheet edition by the principle journal of the place, the Times of Puerto Rico, I believe…or something similar. This broadsheet contained a terrible dispatch, announcing that an eruption far more grave than the first had come to the place, that the ruins of the northern island were consumed, that the Dominique, yet distant, had been covered in ashes and debris…not to speak of Fort-de-France…but, one could assume all, all to fear (1)

This tells you in what state of mind we arrived on the twenty-first at Guadalupe.

 

5

 


 

(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.

 

 

La Catastrophe de la Martinique: three

Oakes Republican May 16, 1902

 

 

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.

 

6

 


 

 

What I Saw
Approaching the Volcano
I.
At Guadalupe
The Refugees
(On the way to Pointe-à-Pitre, at dawn)

 

The agent that came aboard showed us a dispatch from Fort-de-France, saying that the city is uninhabitable, that they had almost died, and that all was full of ashes.

The Salvador conducted here five hundred refugees. These unfortunates had departed five hundred, arrived five hundred…and one. A woman, from fear, had given birth. I saw many of these refugees put ashore. The mayor of Point-à-Pitre had not enough time to house them all. Some waited, bleak, stupefied, under the awnings of the market.

I spoke with them and I found that they were still more bleak, more stupefied, than they appeared. Why they had gone… They had foreseen the fire of the volcano on their heads. They had received its stone and ash. They were afraid; they stormed the Salvador. And when the ship was crowded to capacity, they were sent to Guadalupe. They were there…and still they were afraid… An hysterical fear. When they spoke of the volcano, they looked up in the air, to see if the menace was not again on their heads. And their eyes were round, fixed. A man who knew scripture said to me, “Monsieur, the Lord has sent us a cloud… He has spared us this time… But…”

I spoke of the Soufrière of Guadalupe, whether one did not see it smoke more than was customary?

“Quiet, monsieur, quiet. One must not summon evil. And above all, one must not joke about misfortune.”

The people had completely lost their heads.

Some, however, returned with us to Fort-de-France. Notably, an old gentleman, the doctor Guerin, whose factory carried away three days before the catastrophe of the eighth, marked the first ravages of the volcano; and a young woman, a laundress who answered to the sweet name of Zulima. She said to us that Fort-de-France was void, dead, sad; the Zulimas had all filed off, for they did not want to die; and then they could no longer work as laundresses. There was no water in the channels of the fountains; they needed to use the gutters of the street, and those were muddy, full of ash.

Zulima told us afterwards that all this “was not good begaye”. I believe that she also spoke politically. She said that it was “no good either” that they had not reelected M. Duquesnay…that it was the fault of the governor…

“And the volcano?”

I dare not add that she answered: “That is the fault of the administration.” But she thought of it. She said to me also, that: “The Americans are very good people…yes, very good… Monsieur…”

Oh! Zulima!

 

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La Catastrophe de la Martinique

 

 La Catastrophe de la Martinique: four

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

II.
 
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.

Unforgettable spectacle!

At first, it was very beautiful. The day fell away in a calm light of thin mist, the rain that casts itself like a muslin veil on the tropical seas, in the months of high sun. The waves were a pale emerald, as the poet saw like to the eyes of Minerva, the blue-green eyes of the goddess…this was a sea very wise.

The land. A mountain of rounded forms, harmonious; a purple mountain, of light blue on light crimson, a mountain haloed in clouds that seemed rose powdered with azure. An exquisite pastel of delicate grace…

That…the volcano? This lovely thing…?

But, we approach. At the same time that the night…

In the night…

The tenderness coloring the countryside, from the details made precise by shadow, becomes a harsh anger. The sea plunges itself into mourning. The mountain grows large, black, tragic. A menace.

It is no longer veiled in rose and blue. It is helmeted, plumed in black smoke, with spots of red, with spots of blood. And this mounts to the sky, very high, launched by a powerful breath.

And we approached still. And there were, on the flanks of the mountain, large lava-channels, white. And then, under the black again, a stain of white, very large, long, at the bottom of the gulf…

But what blacks…! What whites…! I know of no words capable of rendering the livid filth, a thing never seen, beyond dreaming…and that you will not have imagined. No need to know that, in there, over there, are scattered forty thousand corpses, for this vision to seem frightening. No word, I tell you, to rehearse for you the horror…

White and black.

And never will a painter find on his palette such…so dismal, this black, this white; under the glow of the volcano, under the glow that, now yellow from the mudslides and the ashes they carried, greens the blues of night.

And we approach closer. We pass nearer, near to Saint-Pierre, this that was Saint-Pierre.

And then, it was more than horror…

The white ruins under the night, ruins that seemed a city of tombs, and from where we ventured, the stench of ashes. This white, that covered the mountain; this white, that covered the ruins—an immense shroud, all white, a white our eyes had never seen…all this white that lay white in the night, it was ashes…the ashes that had killed…

A nightmare vision. A terrible nightmare.

The hour after, we arrived at the harbor of Fort-de-France. There were ships. We heard, from a high deck, the Blue Waltz. The admiral was dining. We returned to reality.

 

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III.
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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

La Catastrophe de la Martinique: five

Photo from La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902, author Jean Hess.

 

 


 

 

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.

 


 

 

(more to come)

 

Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902 (Public Domain)

Translated by Stephanie Foster

 


 

 

See Paul Féval, The Daughters of Cabanil
Music to the Silent Spirit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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