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