La Catastrophe de la Martinique: seventeen
Meanwhile, at the Secretariat General, had been frequent conferences between the Secretary, the Attorney General, a few notables, and the mayor of the capital, whose incredible activity and profound pain, visible on his features, suggested we hardly knew what impressions of unhappiness and despair.
But the population remained without news of Saint-Pierre. They bided in expectation of some unknown event imagination made still more appalling. When the Suchet arrived around ten in the evening with thirty victims, the crowd in despite of the soldiers, massed itself on the Esplanade, in the alleys, and the neighboring streets, hoping to meet in the lugubrious parade of artillery wagons bearing the dead and wounded, some dear one to assist and help, at the supreme moment.
Long after the last wagon had carried to the hospital its funereal burden, this crowd remained opposite the quays, their souls divided between varied sentiments, their hearts overflowing with an indefinable sadness. They asked one another if they were not played upon by some malign nightmare. It was in this mood each at last went to his bed, to rest limbs fatigued by a day’s poignant emotions and vain waiting.
Under the Rain of Fire
Chavigny de la Chevrotière
I spoke with one of the men treated and cured of his burns. The young Chavigny de la Chevrotière is a boy of twenty years. He has a bronzed complexion; his scars are all fresh, making great pink patches on the backs of his hands, on his arms, on his neck, his head, his brow. As this boy is dressed in only a shirt, I see also traces of burns on his shoulders and his chest.
With eleven of his comrades, he was leaving in a canoe on the morning of the eighth from the Prêcheur, meaning to carry a dispatch to Saint-Pierre, because the telephone wires had fallen the day before, and the town’s inhabitants, frightened by the mud flows and fumes that threatened them, begged help from the chief city.
He began making his way at 7:30 a.m. The sea was fine, but the river carried mud into the town. There was a rain of ash, and the volcano’s smoke was black. The boating party found itself about a mile offshore, passing the semaphore station to the south of the Prêcheur, when suddenly, “everything was wrecked”.
Chavigny saw a flash go from the mountain that “set the sky ablaze and scattered…” The direction looked to him southerly. It made at the same time, a “formidable noise”, as of thousands of drums, thousands of cannons.
Then, there was a “flurry of hot earth”, that fell over the boat, burning everyone. “We had immediately thrown ourselves into the water and dived under,” added Chavigny. “When I came up to the surface to breathe, the hot earth fell and fell. It burned me on the head and hands. I dived again. Five times, so that I would not be cooked, I had to put my head down below. Finally, the sixth time when I came up, the flurry was finished. The seawater was all white, and a little warm at the surface.
“The sky was dark still, full of dark, rolling clouds. There were no more flashes of lightning. There was no more noise. You could not see the hills of Saint-Pierre. You could not see anything but a line of fire along the harborfront, in the place of the city. The rain of mud put out the line of fire…”
“A rain of mud?”
“Yes, I got it too. It fell also on the sea…and it lashed hard. There were drops as big as cubes of sugar.”
“You remained a long time in the water?”
“Yes, but I had no watch to tell the hour. And then, I was very scared. I landed at Abymes. I was taken up by the Pouyer-Quertier. They conducted me to the hospital, where I saw die many of the poor devils less lucky than myself. I was healed in thirteen days.”
“Now…I don’t know. They tell me there is nothing left along the Prêcheur. I am here. I wait. Why? I am ignorant. I am a victim. They feed me.”
“I don’t know any more!”
And the poor boy left, shrugging his shoulders in a gesture that signified…whatever you like.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation by Stephanie Foster)