La Catastrophe de la Martinique: thirty

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique









“During the night of the 7th to the 8th, the phenomena redoubled in intensity. The women gathered in the salon, praying. We heard continually the din of the volcano. One could distinguish three sorts of noises very distinctly: intermittent explosions, like the shots of a cannon; a low and regular growling in the volcano’s chimney; and a constant noise as of a thunderstorm. During all the night, sheets of fire came out of the crater, at the foot of the Lacroix hill. There were sparks. There were jets of flame that lasted more than a minute, climbing high, straight, with flowerings in sheaves, fans, bouquets of rockets. The volcano spat, the while, smoke that rose very high. Once, pushed by the winds southeast, this reached the clouds, the smoke produced lightning at the points of contact.

“I slept for two hours, until four o’clock.

“At four o’clock the rumblings of the mountain grew in intensity and woke me. At four-thirty, the dawn came, clear and limpid. Upon Saint-Pierre, to the west of my house, I saw darkness.

“The aspect of the volcano was typical. It was putting out billows of smoke that rose straight up. They covered the west. But on the east side, they drew a line ascending, neat and regular, cut against a very clear sky.

“The smoke all at once turned back towards our side. We cried: “The volcano is coming!” Mme Raybaud, very frightened, said that we must flee. And the blackness of Saint-Pierre grew deeper. Cauliflowers of smoke, blacker and blacker, came out of the volcano, and rolled from the east to the west. These fumes rose and fell, then spread from the Saint-Pierre side.

“At seven-forty-five, we were going to set a table for breakfast, when a noise most appalling stunned us. Imagine thousands of ships letting off their steam after mooring… It was truly terrifying. Our terror redoubled when we went out to see what had caused the noise. There was no more clear sky above our heads. It was chaos.

“Below in the valley, to 800 meters from our house, and flush with the ground, we saw coming, cutting through billows of black smoke, a sea of fire.

“Instinctively, we threw ourselves into the house. What to do? We huddled against one another. We wanted to die together…we were waiting for death. There was a moment of anguish. The fear…the lack of air? I don’t know. My son, more energetic without doubt than we others, went back outside. He returned immediately, saying, “Run! We have time!” The fire had taken hold at the front of the sugar cane. We could not stay. The fire gave us legs. We ran out the back door, and saved ourselves, on the road to Fort-de-France. It rained stones and mud, pieces of mud big as rope-ends.




Translator’s note: I can’t find that “bouts des cordages” has any idomatic meaning. The comparison of a mud chunk to the size of a rope-end doesn’t put the most accessible of pictures into the reader’s head, but it seems to have been M. Raybaud’s idea.


“On foot…very quickly, I don’t need to tell you…we went as far as Fond-Saint-Denis. I installed my family and my friends at the town hall of this village. For the moment, delivered from the care their safety had caused me, I returned to my property.

“The house had been spared. The highest plantations, the larger, were intact. But those below had been ravaged. And it is below, alas! that my workers found themselves. So many victims! Seventy-two dead. Twenty wounded. I harnessed my two cars, and all the carts of the workshop, to carry the wounded to Fort-de-France. Before leaving, I looked at the mountain. It was razed to the summit. The Morne-Lacroix was partly knocked down. And of this, I am of very certain, because a peak of the west, that before I could never see from my house, I saw distinctly.”

I saw M. Raybaud on the day of my departure. He is getting his own back. He has resumed his work. He has taken courage, if he had ever lost it. He is that brave type of the strong creole race of the Antilles. A worthy son of those whites, who, sword in hand, so valiantly defended their island, their French island, against the English…and we have kept it.

And yet we understand failures, after such terrible crises!


















The account of M. Molinar




M. Molinar has dictated his memories and impressions to the Courier of Guadaloupe, which has published them, and from which I print them.


Monday, the mountain smoked in the ordinary way. I went down from Trois-Ponts, and on to the home of Mme Clerc, who lives on the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre).

She put a car at our disposal. We started off. In this car, were Mme Coypel, Mlle Carland, Mme Clerc, Mme Cambeith, my aunt, Mme Molinar, and myself. We went to visit the Rivière-Blanche. The accident to the Guérin factory had not yet occurred. On the road was around 15 centimeters of ash.

Coming to the factory, near a quarter to noon, we set foot on earth, and went to the river. But as the terrain was very spongy, Mlle Carland sank to her calves in mud. I gave her my hand, and helped free her. After this mishap, and the state of the terrain, we did not push farther; we reseated ourselves.

I went home to Trois-Ponts. It was there I learned of the accident at the Guèrin factory, coming just after our departure. The wedge of mud that swept the plant away advanced itself thirty meters into the water and formed a small cape. It had passed the very place where we’d been a moment earlier. At the same hour (towards half-past noon), the sea pulled away from Saint-Pierre, thirty meters, leaving the boats dry; then came back a minute or two after. It was from that moment that some people left Saint-Pierre. These are the ones who were saved.

The end of the day passed tranquilly.

Tuesday, I did not leave the house. There were peals continually from the mountain, which never ceased to throw ash.

Wednesday morning, I went down around nine o’clock, from Trois-Ponts to Fonds-Coré, to see the state of the Rivière-Blanche. I could not cross because of the Rivière-Sèche that obstructed the way with a mud flow to the height of 50 meters. Going back, around noon, and passing the Rivière des Pères, I believed I saw, just beyond the bridge, a chasm where the sea would rush in, and the river… in any case, there was an abnormal agitation.




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe: thirty-one









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



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