La Catastrophe de la Martinique: fifteen

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique










“I saw from my window a thick cloud come out of the volcano. Its base reached as far as the peaks of Carbet. The summit’s billowing invaded the entire sky, to more or less six thousand meters. The cloud was fluffy…its top gold. I attributed this coloration, that the public takes for fire, to the first rays of the sun. At the center of this majestic cloud, before its imposing, frightful face, burst numerous flashes that inspired a huge terror in the population. The cloud marched slowly towards the sea, upon Fort-de-France. It appeared inevitable that it would cover the city, making southwest. It dominated the shore, hanging over as it lowered itself, letting fall a rain of thick ashes, and slate-colored pebbles, of which a few larger were the size of pigeon’s eggs. All the population ran mad, any which way, to save themselves.

“I had gone with my family to the landing of Girard’s boats. A crowd followed me. I had an idea of commandeering one of the big steamers of the Compagnie Girard, of which I am a director. But I saw the danger in this. All the crowd, wailing in their terror, who’d followed me, would throw themselves on board at the same time, and would founder the boat. I thought of the Fort Saint-Louis. I ran there with my family, and we waited in a pillbox for the end of the terrific phenomenon. Then at the first opportunity I conducted my family to Guadeloupe, from where I return today.”





The Agony of Saint-Pierre
by telephone and telegraph


You recall the play performed this winter at the Antoine, where one saw the husband assist by telephone in the murder of his wife? There were a few things resembling this, in this catastrophe of the 8th. The last words, and the gasp of the telephone operator surprised at his post by the volcano’s fire, were heard at Fort-de-France, by one of his colleagues. The director of telephone services is M. Garnier-Laroche. I have taken from him an account of his memories.

He told me:


“At five to eight, I spoke with an employee at Saint-Pierre, on his apparatus. This employee told me the situation had become very annoying. Dense clouds covered the city and made night of day. One could no longer see. They had been obliged to light lamps in the office. Everyone dreaded an imminent catastrophe. They could not hold on…

“Then, I passed the receiver to a worker, wanting to go warn the governor of this grave news. I was barely on the stairs when my employee called me back, telling me there was no more response from Saint-Pierre. He had heard his counterpart stammer incoherently all at once, sputtering as a man who strangles… There was a crackling of the apparatus… He had the sensation of a shock in his ear, then nothing…

“At that moment all the lights of the device flickered powerfully. The same phenomenon had been produced days earlier, and was produced again on the 20th.

“At 8:15, wanting to try retransmitting a communication to Saint-Pierre, I took another line, going to the office of Carbet…the closest neighbor of Saint-Pierre. The city was then in flames.”

On the telegraph, that is to say, the French cable, the employees at Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France also were occupied “talking”, when overcome by the catastrophe. Each morning, between stations, the employees before serving the public had to communicate the news of their respective residences.

He at Saint-Pierre spoke of the volcano. He laughed. He noted many of the terrors around him…but enough! He cannot see any reason to tremble, to wail, but to laugh. It is in a joke, a burst of laughter dotted and dashed to his apparatus that he is surprised by death. The agent at Fort-de-France had sent this “band” in the direction of Paris.






Newspaper clipping talks about play The Telephone

Figaro 29 Nov 1901




Translator’s note: I think the play Hess mentions, is Au Téléphone (see clipping), by MM. Lorde and Foley. The rest of the article is about another work being censored. 


The telegraph operator’s exchange mentions a signal used to express laughter, a proto-emoji. This article, “LOL in the age of the telegraph”, tells more.



a Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe: sixteen


















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



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