La Catastrophe de la Martinique: thirty-one

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique








Around one o’clock, we heard something like salvos of cannon-fire, issuing regularly, that is to say, at equal intervals.

This lasted about an hour and a half. That evening, M. Alain, director of the Pecoul settlement, warned us that there was a fissure on the side of Trois-Ponts, setting the town in a stir. Everyone was leaving as quickly as possible. Only M. Boudet, secretary of the mayor, and we, remained. Around ten o’clock in the evening, as the mountain growled terribly, I went to the window, and saw a flow of fiery lava in the direction of Trois-Ponts.

Quickly, everyone fled on foot, towards Parnasse, a property located from two to three hundred meters altitude, 200 meters higher than Trois-Ponts. We arrived there around midnight. At that moment, the mountain was in full eruption, hurling lava, smoke, and flaming rocks.

Thursday, around six in the morning, the mountain was completely calm, and we admired the puffs of smoke and of vapor, heading towards the sea.

Around eight-fifteen, without any sign in particular to announce a new thing, the mountain opened from top to bottom, and launched, like a great flash of lightning, a jet of flame in the direction of Saint-Pierre. For a quarter of an hour, it threw flames successively, always in the direction of Saint-Pierre, and its environs.

We, who watched the spectacle from Parnasse, were not in the zone of fire, thanks to a wind blowing against the flames, and permitting us to save ourselves. Running, we saw, in the direction of the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre), that all was on fire. (Place Bertin.) Around eight-thirty, when the turmoil began to calm itself, I went down from the heights, and was going to meet my younger brother, but the air was so hot, I could not go on.

Retracing my route and coming onto the hill Saint-Bernard, that rises over Trois-Ponts, the Centre, the Fort, as far as the sea, I perceived a complete desert. The Mouillage sat in ruins. On all the trajectory followed by the flames, all was annihilated. One could see nothing but a trail of ashes. In the part of Saint-Pierre called the Centre, and as that of the Fort, nothing remained standing. All the houses were reduced to ash. There was not even a corpse. All had been volatilized. It was only in the part of Saint-Pierre called the Mouillage, or on the harborfront, that there were a few corpses among the ruins.





All, from the Prêcheur, the Abymes, up to Saint-Pierre, had been volatilized. A part of Carbet was like the Mouillage. Two or three families only have saved themselves, from this locality.

After these jets of flame, the mountain was completely calm. It no longer launched flame or smoke. At around eleven, it recommenced smoking and hurling lava. It was then that we left for Trinity, where we must take shelter. I learned, since, that on the side of Macouba, and the Grande-Rivière, fissures had formed vomiting flaming lava. The population had to evacuate by sea, and reach Dominique; the roads by land were made impossible, by the two types of lava. There was mud lava, that thickened immediately, and fiery lava that went down to the sea. The lava fell as a flaming river, to the Roxelane, penetrated the earth, and came out on the shoal.


















This story has been communicated to me by a friend at Fort-de-France, and I publish it as it is:


Saturday, 3 May. The volcano of Mount Pelée, which for four days has smoked, has littered all the ground and the roofs of the houses, with a greyish dust, a sort of cement which is silver in the rays of the sun. At six in the morning, a light rain of it explained this phenomenon in the night. Soon this rain, still of dust, was growing and covering passersby, and the travelers—of whom women, old men, children tumbling with their oxen, horses, and the rest, from the heights of the Soufrière, from the hill of Saint-Martin, and of the Prêcheur—are all grey from head to foot. Saint-Pierre believes itself a fair enough distance from the volcano, not having to move, and receives placidly these bewildered visitors.

At eight in the morning, I go to the heights, from the lowland of Saint-Denis to the hill of the Cadets (Chabert settlement), and during my climb the volcano does not cease to detonate and to throw a smoke and dust that the wind blows from east to west on Saint-Pierre and its environs.

The hill of the Cadets is 4 or 5 kilometers, as the bird flies, from the volcano, but faces it. All the ground is littered with ashes as in town. However, it is not raining them at the moment as on Saint-Pierre. There, the phenomena of the Soufrière are easy to consider. The crater is immersed in a thick cloud.





Otherwise, the day carries on in detonations, and Saint-Pierre receives all the vomitus of the crater.

At six in the evening, the sun disappears in a night of dust that covers the horizon. The onshore wind begins, and the mountain Pelée seems to take on gigantic proportions in a dusty envelope, which goes up to the sky, and stretches itself like a phantom on the hill of the Cadets, the green hill, in full detonation.

Sunday, the 4th.  This morning, the dust has thickened, but Saint-Pierre and its environs show quite clearly under their blanket of whitish grey. It is seven, no breeze, the Soufrière throws a thick smoke that rises to the clouds. The animals can then graze. This day passes without further incident. The detonations continue regularly, lasting a minute, and repeat at intervals. An east-west wind sweeps the grey dust to the sea. Many people gather this dust, believing they can sell it for cement. In the night, from the 4th to the 5th, the detonations continue. But there is no more rain of dust after this night.



1902 photo of destruction rue Victor Hugo Saint-Pierre, Martinique





Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe (thirty-two)











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



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