La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixteen
The Day of the 8th at Fort-de-France
The account of the newspaper L’Opinion.
As a journalist, it is only natural I have asked a journalist for the story of the “terrible day”. The amiable director of L’Opinion has given me the article in which he recorded his memories.
Here it is:
Thursday, the 8th of May, 1902, Fort-de-France awakened, as to an ordinary day. A vague inquietude had hovered over the city since the burial of the Guérin factory under lava; but we said that after all, the distance from the volcano, situated 28 kilometers off as the crow flies, made a sufficient guaranty. And then it must be admitted, we wholly accepted the verdict, as to the progress of the cosmic phenomenon, from the commission charged with its study. Moreover, the day before, Governor Mouttet, alerted by the mayor of Saint-Pierre that the Roxelane rolled with black water, had been sent to the place. Mme Mouttet, wishing to accompany her husband, was also at Saint-Pierre, as well as Mme Gerbault, wife of the late colonel of artillery, president of the scientific mission. On the other hand, the cable dispatches put on display reassured again, in a way perhaps too absolute, the slightly terrified populations of the colony’s two great cities.
It is however a restriction worth establishing, that M. Landes—who, it seems, at the last moment had addressed to the governor a very alarming dispatch—told his students a few days before the dismissal of the high school that an analysis of the heavy material vomited by the volcano presaged an exceptionally violent eruption.
But, they were far from suspecting the cataclysm in its brutal reality!
They believed that an earthquake was the only fear, and as Fort-de-France rested on uneven terrain, the people of Saint-Pierre reasoned strongly that which may have been false, refusing to leave their city built on solid ground, believing they enjoyed, in this regard, complete safety.
They were to celebrate, on that day, the solemnities of the Ascension. While the whole of Martinique was in holiday mood, Mount Pelée, so long at work, launched death in the form of an electrically charged cloud of sulphurous gas, on the thousands of beings full of life and activity, who could not escape the terrible scourge, and annihilated abruptly, in a single blow, the city of industry, the intellectual and commercial center of the colony.
At Fort-de-France, around six in the morning, an atmosphere clear of haze, a lightened, pale sky, promised a day relatively lovely. Everyone was afoot at a good hour and going about in preparation for the Ascension. Suddenly, around eight o’clock, the sky grew black as ink; then a hail of small stones fell on the houses, producing on metal and tile a pattering that seemed at first inexplicable. At the same time, a cloud of airy ash enveloped the city and its environs, covering all in a grey veil. A fine rain came soon, transforming this into sheets of mud, soiling and spotting everything, while the formidable rumblings of the volcano increased the soul’s unease and fright.
At the first cracklings of pebbles on the roofs, the whole city population, seized with horror and dread, and not knowing which way to go, fled the houses searching for shelter, not caring where. It was an unforgettable exodus to the countryside. Each brought away whatever was most precious. The women carried their children, the men supported their wives; taken by an unexplainable notion, they directed themselves inland. There, on the heights, they need not fear, at least, the abrupt influx of the sea into their houses—an end by drowning without hope of flight. They might still find themselves buried by an earthquake, of all events that we feared most.
It was a fantastic procession, lasting all morning, under ashes blinding and dirtying; a terrified population appearing like a troop of sheep surprised in the valley by the first thunder of a dreadful tempest.
Towards midday, news of the disappearance of Saint-Pierre began to circulate. The city had been destroyed, they said, by fire…and the conjectures followed. How to get precise information? No more communication by telephone. The line of Saint-Pierre, after a cry of the ultimate suffering from the attendant, had gone dead. The ferry of the company Girard, which services Saint-Pierre, could not approach. From the side of our boat, we had a good view of the shoreline houses, or rather, what remained of them, preyed upon by flames; as to the others, it had been impossible to pick them out, enveloped as they were in an impenetrable fog of ashes and smoke. We returned to Fort-de-France.
There was then an hour of unspeakable anguish. All who remained, or who had returned to the city, had gone to the harborfront, to question one another with the hope of obtaining information as to our sister-city, death in their souls. Each counted there a parent, a friend, or acquaintance. For long hours, while the troops posted to the edges of the quays and along the shops of the seaside where they’d come to affix the seals, mounted guard to prevent who knows what danger, this mournful crowd, whose anguish shrunk from mystery and the unknown, demanded to know what could be so terrible, that what was happening must be hidden from them.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation Stephanie Foster)