La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-two

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique









Behind the façade plastered with their grandiloquent political programs, there is this. The negro can no longer feed the white and the mulatto. Or, the white does not want to die, and the mulatto would like to live. This is the fact, the truth that I put out. All else you will be told is a joke.

Add, that in this struggle for life, to the political fury otherwise normal, since it is a consequence of the instinct for preservation that directs the actions of all living beings, joins itself and makes more violent, more ferocious, this racial hatred, these prejudices of color, always teeming.

You have an idea of the island, and you will understand why they fight, even upon the coffins; why the day after the catastrophe, the first distributions of aid were made as are the distributions of electoral money; why, while the communities of the north, anguished by fear, cut off from flight on the edge of the earth, clamored for help, the particular preoccupation was to promote the election in the south…

And you will understand the state of internecine war, wherever are found the survivors…. The confoundment of the whites, vanquished, decimated, ruined, the cream of the conquering mulattos…and the placidity of the negroes, of whom many are not far from thinking the profession of “victim” as good as any other.




M. Fernand Clerc, man of the volcano


M. Fernand Clerc is not only the white party’s political man most in view, the leader of the opposition, etc., etc… This catastrophe has made him the Man of the Volcano. It is he who has “piped the tune”, for the reporters and the American geologists; it is to him they address themselves, all those wanting to approach the monster…

Great gods! Here I come like a Yankee reporter… I’d sworn to write this volume without ever “hawking a monster” to my readers; but, finally, that must do… We allow “monster”. And since monster it is, let us say that M. Fernand Clerc has become its acknowledged guide. He divines, he sees, he knows, when the monster sleeps, and says to the Americans: “This is the moment. Go forth.”

One time, however, they did not go. The monster was smoking…it spat, it burned…it was lovely. The geologists admired it, along with M. Fernand Clerc, in one of the houses, of one of the properties, of M. Fernand Clerc, from where they could well see the monster.

“Oh, splendid!” murmured the one with phlegm…not the monster, the American.

And the smoke, and the pebbles, and the ash, and the fire, caught by a leap of wind, changed their direction, menacing the dwelling-place-observatory.

And it smoked more, it spat greatly, it burned grossly; not the American, the monster.





“Oh! Terrible!” then said the geologist, with less phlegm. And the spitting of the monster came to sink them in ashes and pebbles.

This time, the Yankee said, “Let’s fly!”

He had no more phlegm at all.

It is equally the stories of M. Fernand Clerc that furnished material for the most sensational articles published by the newspapers of the United States.

M. Fernand Clerc also owed to me, of France, an interview. The notes written under the dictation of M. Fernand Clerc do not constitute the least interesting chapter of my reportage…

And now, it is M. Fernand Clerc who speaks:


“At the summit of Mt. Pelée was once a plateau of around three hectares. There was beautiful vegetation, a little lake of beautiful clear water, but without fish; lower down on the Morne-Lacroix, one of its foothills, was a deep bowl of 120 meters, a dry pond, whose west wall had a great vertical notch…

“This summit of Mt. Pelée had been a walking destination for pleasure parties. We Martiniquais went there to picnic. The climb was not hard…one had but a few hundred meters to go by foot. The ladies were not afraid.*

“At the height was a magnificent view. One could see Saint-Pierre below. With a good glass, one could even recognize individuals.

“This dry pond was an old crater, that had not smoked since 1851. However, I recall perfectly that in May of last year, there were seen some fumaroles. The 26th of April it began to throw some ash. It spat and smoked up to the 5th of May, the day the Guérin factory was destroyed. The dust and the water of centuries had accumulated in the volcanic chimney, of which the dry pond is the mouth. The mud made a plug.

“When, for a cause that one can perhaps explain, the power of the actual eruption was produced, the plug was projected from the chimney, which I leave it to you to calculate the length…

‘But, it had to be very long, if one is to judge by the enormous volume of ejected mud.





Author’s note: *A young man, with whom I spoke of these pleasure parties to the mountain, and the ease of climbing, told me: “There were a few places where you would have to do a bit of gymnastics. Also, to climb the mountain, the ladies put on trousers…”


La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe: twenty-three
















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


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