La Catastrophe de la Martinique: eighteen
The Ships’ Crews in the Harbor
The Roddam; the Gabrielle; the Roraima
The nightmare of the sailors
The harbor of Saint-Pierre, as always in this era of great cargoes of sugar and rum, was filled with ships. All perished, save one, the Roddam, which had been able, being under steam, to slip her anchor and flee. She arrived at Saint-Lucie with half her crew dead…
The boat of the terror.
Read what the Journal of Saint-Lucie wrote of this arrival:
This afternoon of the 8th, May, a steamer entered the harbor, that seemed to have been powerfully tried. It was the Roddam, which had left here yesterday, at midnight, for Martinique.
The captain asked at once for a doctor. On the bridge were ten dead men and others dying. The captain was covered in ash and black grime, his hands horribly burned. Six inches of ash covered the ship. The captain told how he had come to drop anchor at Saint-Pierre, and was speaking with his agent, M. Joseph Plissonneau, who was alongside, when an awful cloud of smoke, brilliantly lit with pieces of flaming charcoal, hurled itself from the mountain, towards the city and the port.
He barely had time to draw the agent’s attention to the phenomenon, when the terrible cloud was upon them, raining fire over the ship. He ordered the release of the anchors, luckily being still under steam, and was able to slowly move farther from land. His men fell one after another asphyxiated or burned all around him. After drifting many hours he was able, by a superhuman effort, to return to Castries…
M. Plissonneau had managed by hanging onto her, to board the Roddam.
All the other boats in the harbor of Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe had been burnt or destroyed, some at once; others, as the Roraima, the largest, sinking only in days to follow. But nearly all the sailors who found themselves on board perished.
A few, however, had been saved. The second captain of the schooner Gabrielle, belonging to Knight, M. Georges Marie-Sainte, and the deputy commissioner of the Roraima, notably, were living still, at the hospital, when I arrived in Fort-de-France.
For an answer to my questions, they gave me two numbers of L’Opinion, where I read the story of M. Sainte:
The day before yesterday, the eighth of May, at six in the morning, the sun illuminated a city of Saint-Pierre relatively tranquil. To the north, Mt. Pelée fumed, the wind driving the smoke towards the west, blotting out the sky in that direction. Between six-thirty and seven, the columns of smoke turned white, flaked with ash, coming out abruptly in turmoil, as a new crater 200 meters below the crest of the mountain, crumbled already, split, fissured, high and low. This, for the whole city, made a general panic. The population spread along the shoreline, and wore themselves out in various conjectures. For some, the phenomenon of full day on the city and shadow on the sea was explained by an eclipse of the sun announced by the Bristol almanac; for others the obscurity of the eastern view was due to the smoke, black and sooty, spat from the volcano.
It was seven when the Diamant, of the Compagnie Girard, departed. Clearing the wharf, the little steamer at once fixed herself to a buoy. The boats in the harbor rode as usual at the mercy of the waves. Towards 7:10 those on the schooner Gabrielle spotted a yawl carrying the governor and members of the scientific commission. This passed fifty meters from the schooner. She seemed to direct herself towards the Prêcheur, and kept to a distance of at least 400 meters from the shore.
At seven fifty-five, a formidable growling made itself heard within the mountain, as if a monstrous rent bore from top to bottom. And then we saw, in the midst of a black smoke impenetrable to the eye, a gigantic mass, formless, boundless, that came falling over the valley at dizzying speed, burying in ruins, engulfing in torment the whole of Saint-Pierre, from Sainte-Philomène to Petite-Anse du Carbet.
On the sea, two-thirds of the ships in harbor, after a sinister creaking of all their frames, had their masts and their upper decks broken, raked, carried away, and were sunken at once, some by the prow, others by the stern.
Alone, three boats, of which two were steamers, the Roraima and the North America, could resist the shock. But of their charred crew, there remained but a few who had been saved by some miracle. M. Georges Marie-Sainte, who found himself then aboard the Gabrielle owed his life only to a sudden forced immersion. The water was so hot that his body, and the schooner’s four other survivors’, were terribly scalded. After wresting free of the rigging that hindered his movements, he came back to the surface. It was then he could contemplate, in all its grandiose horror, the frightful blaze that stretched before his sight, from Sainte-Philomène to three hundred meters from Carbet, devouring ruins of a city already in rubble, and coloring the place with fantastical gleams, as the fires of Bengal.
While he searched for some wreckage by which to try saving himself, a furious rain of incandescent lava, a nameless mixture of mud and lava-like stone, fell on the burning city and its environs, whistling and crackling on the sea like hasty bullets from a heedless fusillade.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)