La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-five

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique







When M. Jalabert received the dispatch, where M. Landes spoke of the possible fall of the Morne-Lacroix, and of the consequences, he thought it best before posting this, to communicate it to the governor.

“There was nothing immediately threatening in the dispatch, put out by a man who, for being a teacher at the high school of Saint-Pierre, could hardly, nonetheless, be considered a prophet in matters of the volcano.

“But, as the population of Fort-de-France was nervous, as was that of Saint-Pierre, and had rather needed to be reassured than alarmed, M. Mouttet asked the director of the cable not to post this dispatch. That is all.

“It is possible M. Jalabert had cabled such to M. Landes, at Saint-Pierre, and that his telegram was the one seen by M. Clerc. We know nothing. What we do know is, the governor had not corresponded with M. Landes. But he had not supposed for an instant a catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre…

“And of which the proof, we repeat, is that he had taken Mme Mouttet there…”


Here, a parenthesis. In another conversation with someone from the government, I have noted this:


When, for the first time, we had spoken of the volcano, M. Mouttet exclaimed:

“A volcano on top of the market! As if we didn’t have enough from the elections…!”

His preoccupation was to finish the elections, and to think of the volcano…after. The 7th, after the incident of the Landes dispatch, he was called on the telephone by the mayor of Saint-Pierre, M. Fouché. This mayor had posted a reassuring declaration the evening before, but… “it did not take”. He declared himself powerless to constrain the population and moreover to maintain order. It needed a higher authority…

This higher authority was M. Mouttet. He decided then to leave for Saint-Pierre with Mme Mouttet.


This is someone from the government who said this to me.

This someone did not add that the governor preferred for his stay in Saint-Pierre, to be aboard a ship, where the chances of safety were greater, the risk less, and had asked the commander of the Suchet to conduct him to Saint-Pierre and remain at his disposal for a tour in the communities of the north.

The commander of the Suchet had other orders from the minister of the navy. He evaded the governor’s requisition.





The officer from whom I had this detail, added: “The Suchet was not made for electoral tours.”

It is for this that M. Mouttet left Saint-Pierre aboard one of the Company Girard’s boats. And it is also for this that he left taking with him only the Gerbaud household. He had left behind at Fort-de-France a number of persons, including his chief of the cabinet, and the Pignier household, originally invited to accompany him. The quarters at Saint-Pierre, where at the last moment he saw himself obliged to take lodgings, had only two apartments.

Let us now give the floor to the “we” of the government:

“The governor (as they say), had not supposed for an instant that a catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre, and no one could have supposed this, M. Landes no more than any other. All this story is nothing but a political maneuver, from people who cannot reconcile themselves to an electoral failure.”

I believe, even, that some in the government have added:

“…of people who today would well like to profit from the catastrophe, to restore their business losses.” And that others even say, “…to fish in troubled waters.”

But, if this proposal is denied, I wish to consent that I have misheard.

You see it, that if on one side they are violent, they are not less so in the other camp.

I have given one side’s version, and the version of the other.

I believe it’s easy to choose.


And to make this easier, here is a document I want to publish at once, a simple letter received the day after publication of the Clerc interview, in the Journal.














Monsieur Jean Hess of the Journal


It is not without vivid emotion that I read in the Journal your account of the horrible cataclysm at Saint-Pierre, where mine are forever buried, as well as the different interviews received in the course of your peregrinations.

Without prejudging the conclusions that will be drawn from your impartial inquiry, it seems to me that so far, and apart from a serious presumption relative to the intentions of the governor, lost to the fire, any tangible proof cannot be made.

It is my part, then, to lift all doubts and enlighten the judgment of all, not with allegations—which is always easy, but with irrefutable proofs

Here’s how!

The 5th of May last, I found myself in my study at Saint-Pierre together with my two neighbors and friends, MM. Fouché and Landes. These gentlemen, very worried at the negative result of their pressing appeals, decided by me to remit a confidential letter for the governor at Fort-de-France, where I would call, on my affairs. At my departure, I had two letters to remit instead of one. The one of Fouché and the other of Landes. I left. On our way, we crossed paths with M. Mouttet. You know what came next.

During the crossing from Colon to Pauillac, I had the curiosity to read the two documents, although I sensed their contents, but I had not expected an indictment from beyond the grave so thunderous against improvidence and criminal carelessness, first cause of the death of forty thousand people.

If I have kept silent to this day, it is wholly from the cruel sorrow that strikes my father’s heart anew…I have had to watch at the bedside of my elder daughter until her death, from meningitis. Following upon the horrible vision of that place…!

I propose to publish the two documents with my notes, when they are coordinated. I am not ignorant of the importance of these two factors in the ultimate distribution of benefits, also my conscience shouts to me, not to make these disappear.

Will you accept, Monsieur, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments.


Charles Riffard

Notary of Saint-Pierre


16, rue de Jardin-Saint-Paul, Paris

23 June 1902






1902 photo of Saint-Pierre from harbor


Translator’s note: The above photograph may not seem strikingly different from others of Saint-Pierre’s disaster. But it is worth a closer look. Put yourself shipboard alongside the photographer, and consider that this approach, three days after the eruption (note the wreckage is still smoking) was one of the first that could be made to view a horror examined up to that point, only to the extent the burning city and the volcano allowed.

The quality of this shot is grainy, but on the hillside you see the snow-like appearance of the ash cover that Hess noted earlier in his account. 



La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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












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



%d bloggers like this: