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