Translation: Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique (one)

Posted by ractrose on 20 Apr 2018 in Translation

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique dead




Jean Hess

La Catastrophe

de la



(notes of a reporter)









To the lost souls of forty thousand
of Saint-Pierre
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.




(more to come)




  • 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.



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

Translated by Stephanie Foster




Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

La Catastrophe de la Martinique: two


















(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)




Virtual cover for novel A Figure from the Common Lot

See A Figure from the Common Lot










%d bloggers like this: