La Catastrophe de la Martinique: eleven

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique









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.



1902 photo of destruction in public park La Savane



1902 photo of destroyed Saint-Pierre street



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.

The corpses…

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:



Spleen I.


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 pale dwellers of the neighboring cemetery

And 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.)




Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe (twelve)













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



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