La Catastrophe de la Martinique: twenty-seven

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique














Two Legends 
The miraculous prisoner and the two gunners


Here is an extraordinary story, that of the prisoner, Auguste Sybaris.

But, I do not suppose that M. Clerc believed it true, for M. Clerc is not…an American. M. Clerc had seen the said Auguste at the Morne-Rouge home of the curate. On the 8th, Auguste, who, it seems, had had what is called in Corsica an accident (his knife put by chance into the belly of an enemy), was closed in the prison of Saint-Pierre. They had given him lodgings in an underground cell.

Up to then, nothing but the very normal. But here is where it becomes less so. On the 12th, five people of the Morne-Rouge, including a municipal councillor, were walking in the midst of the ruins, of Saint-Pierre. It does not seem that this was for the meditating upon them, but rather, was devoted to some safeguarding of the vault. Whatever their intention, it appears that the five electors passed near the rubble of the prison. And from below the pile of ruins, they hear emerging human cries. They approach, questioning.

Someone responds to them: It is me.

“Who, you?”

“A poor prisoner forgotten in his cell, who dies of hunger, who dies of thirst, and who is all-over burned. For pity, save him!”

All this in creole. But if, to be wholly natural, I repeated it thus, you would not understand.

The five strollers do not hesitate. They dedicate themselves; they march to the voice. They pull down the ruins. They pass, by what had been the walkway. They arrive before a door, padlocked as are the doors of a prison. They blow this up; they have, providentially, a few of the necessary tools, for these sorts of operations. Again, a door, but simply closed by the latch. They pull the latch and, in his cell, find our Auguste, dying of hunger, dying of thirst, and what is more, frightfully burned, on the head, the hands, the knees, the feet…

That does not prevent this energetic man from following them, to the Morne-Rouge, by the hard roads. There, Auguste is received by a priest, who is stupefied by this miracle. However, the good priest recovers himself quickly; it is a secret known only to Providence, that in this city of forty thousand victims, where so many of the just have perished, the sole survivor is a sinner. And the sinner repents himself. The trial has brought him back to the path. And, to the curé who gives him a good bed and good wine, he recounts this prodigy.





On the 8th, in the morning, he meditated in his cell.

He told himself that, weighing all, it pays better, far better, to do good than evil, because evil has led you to prison. When, suddenly, a diabolical fracas…the end of the world. At the same moment, the flames of hell invade his cell. He is burned on the feet. He jumps to the ceiling. There, other flames burn his head. And he falls back, writhing, jumping, without the power to escape these cursed flames, that bite him like burning leeches. They disappear at last. Then it is dark and silent. The hours pass and no one comes. The unfortunate Auguste calculates that a day has slipped away. Nothing. Nothing but silence. And they do not bring him his ration. And he trembles. He does not know what it is…what does this silence of the cemetery mean? Perhaps he has gone mad. And he trembles the more. But still they do not bring him anything to eat, to drink. Happily that morning they had given him a large loaf, and a large jug of water. He economizes. When he has drunk the whole, rain showers flood his cell and his thirst is quenched…a little.

He listens, anxious. He hears steps, a voice. He calls for help. And he makes out that the people flee in fear, crying ghost, zombie!

And he waits his deliverance, until the 12th! God had pity on him, since He had saved him from the universal destruction, and conducted him after, into this good house of a good priest of the Lord…

And this story has stuck!

It is from the asphyxiating gas that flowed on Saint-Pierre, from the gas which had afterwards exploded, that caused a rarefaction of the atmosphere, then an inferno… All who breathed, all, absolutely all, all who were alive in Saint-Pierre were killed at once. There was no cell that could have sheltered any being, rat, dog, cat, man, for in all the cellars the air penetrated…it is a glaring proof… Well! That did not prevent the joke of Auguste Sybaris being taken seriously, by a heap of serious people. The good priest of the Morne-Rouge wrote to the Attorney General asking that he pardon that precious mystifier, Auguste.

(You note, as all has been annihilated at the various courts of Saint-Pierre, a farceur makes a pretty game of saying he was in prison, etc…)

And everyone interests themselves in Auguste. They choose him; they dote on him. He becomes the hero and the curious animal all at once. They show him to the American reporters, who weep with emotion, listening to his joyous story. How well this will do for their newspapers…! And they photograph his face, his profile, sitting, standing, lying…in bust, in half-bust.

The joyous story of joyous Auguste is a succulent canard to suit the taste of the Americans. Let them keep him. Let them pass him, even, to Barnum.





Translator’s note: Hess doesn’t believe the story of Auguste Sybaris. Online recountings are not very helpful, since nothing investigative has been done with the given details, and too much time has passed. You will find only circulations of the legend as told, represented as a fun curiosity, and a depiction of the cell in which the man who changed his name to Ludger Cyparis when traveling with Barnum’s circus, is alleged to have been held. I include here a link to an article on the WWII bombing of Dresden, and what British POW’s, imprisoned there and forced into recovery work, discovered (warning: very gruesome details) as to the survivability of a superheated inferno. 



Stock photo of Auguste Cyparis prisoner of Martinique



La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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












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




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