La Catastrophe de la Martinque: thirty-two

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique








Monday, 5th. This morning, flat calm, detonations rare. The top of the mountain is covered in a clear, blue cloud. The neighboring houses appear all white. We hear noises like a lava that boils and overflows. Towards one o’clock, louder detonations. The Rivière-Blanche and the Guérin factory seem in the midst of a white rocket-blast, then we see no more but part of the smokestack; the rest has disappeared in a deluge of mud. At five o’clock, the remains of the factory show nested in white vapor. In the night between five and six, the growling rises to the point that, taking a lantern, I venture out under the mangoes. What can be the state of things? Nothing has changed.

Tuesday, 6th. This morning, we learn that the detonations of yesterday have been followed by an inundation of mud that has engulfed all of the Guérin factory and its people, so that the curious come from Saint-Pierre. The mud is above the factory to the height of around 10 meters, and took barely one or two minutes to make its way to the sea. The boats of the factory (tugs) have sunk in open water; they are called Carbet and Prêcheur. M. Eugene Guérin and his wife, and M. du Quesne, the foreman, have perished, overtaken by the mud flow while running to reach the boats. These were under steam since the morning.

The day of the 6th passes in a long trembling of the mountain, which, at 11 o’clock, appears without a cloud; this permits discovering the place of the crater. Until evening, it booms. Today, many people in a panic have left the city, fleeing at random.

Wednesday, 7th. The volcano smokes with greater abandon, and the detonations resound here until evening. At midnight, thick clouds in the direction of the west bury all in shadow to the sea.

Thursday, 8th. During the night from the 7th to the 8th, the rain has entirely washed the fields, and their greenness has reappeared; one believes in a lull, for the noise of the volcano is heard no more.

Towards 8 o’clock, a horrible detonation, following a discharge of thick clouds and water vapor. It directs itself north to south, through the riverway that leads to Saint-Pierre. I throw myself into my house with my wife and children; we close everything. By a little opening, I look for death to come. All seems finished, when a breeze from the east, a true cyclone wind, rises, fights against the cloud, and pushes it back, dispersing the whole. We are saved. I look. Saint-Pierre is in flames. There is nothing left; the population has disappeared in less than thirty seconds. The rest of the day passes in a flat calm.

The ninth, we take the determination to reach Fort-de-France; we go down on the Carbet, where we are collected on a barge, with the Manavit, our country neighbors.


Odilon Darsières


(Proprietor of the Chabert farm, on the hill of Cadet, face-to-face with the mountain, six or seven kilometers as the bird flies, from the crater.)






Interview with M. Cappa, Chief of the Incineration Mission


M. Cappa is the municipal architect of Fort-de-France. He has been charged with searching for and burying, or burning, the corpses. They had first given this mission to the soldiers. But duties more imperative and more professional do not permit the military commander to withdraw from the garrison of Fort-de-France, relatively weak in numbers, that needed for the chore of burial in Saint-Pierre.

The municipality of Fort-de-France gathers volunteer workers for this special task, giving the direction of it to M. Cappa. I have accompanied M. Cappa on one of these funeral expeditions, and he has served me as guide, in crossing the ruins of Saint-Pierre. In the course of the voyage, while the dredging-boat conducted us to the dead city, M. Cappa told me his memories of the terrible fortnight. They are precise memories, neat, the memories of an architect. I transcribe them as I have them in my notes.

It is as a little diary, a memento:


“On April 23, vents opened on the southeast face of the mountain. They smoked. 30 April, the 1, 2, 3, 4, of May, the overflowing of the rivers Blanche, and Pères. The Blanche ceased to flow after a day, then ran with a fury. The curious came out in great number.

“In Fort-de-France, in the night of the 2nd to the 3rd, the wind from the north brought a rain of ashes.

“The 5th of May, at noon, the Guérin factory was carried away.

“Wednesday the 7th, at Fort-de-France, from two and a half to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we hear strong growlings, then a prolonged rumbling. There is a phenomenon of ebb and flow, to a height of around 30 centimeters.

“The 8th, at five in the morning, from Fort-de-France we still see the smoke from the crater. It has rained, around two in the morning. At six, the curious depart for Saint-Pierre, on the Diamant. At 7:45, many people arrive from Saint-Pierre.

“At 8:20, a rain of stones, following a rain of ashes.

The steamers Rubis and Topaze try to reach Saint-Pierre. They cannot approach, and return saying the city is on fire.

“They believe the inhabitants had been able to save themselves; that they will arrive by land, and they make the first preparations for receiving them. The population waits on the shore; it is dismayed. Only that evening can the Rubis, the Topaze, the Pouyer-Quertier approach Saint-Pierre, and take stock of the catastrophe.





“The boats bring back wounded, from the harbor and environs of Saint-Pierre. The victims of the neighboring communities arrive. At eleven o’clock in the evening, we give them food at the town hall, and lodgings in the school.

“On the 9th begins the rescue-mission of Saint-Pierre. We fear scenes of disorder at Fort-de-France; we put sentries in front of the bakeries.

“On the 11th, the soldiers began incinerating corpses at Carbet. They did not return. The colonel commanding the troops needs all the soldiers at Fort-de-France.

“They put together a civil mission, which works the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th. On the 17th, the disembarkment cannot work, because the rain of ash is truly too strong.

“On the 19th, the mission is at work. Towards 11 o’clock, the mountain abruptly covers itself in a black cloud, very intense, shot through with lightning. Powerful detonations, prolonged, come from the crater. Rain of ash. The dredging-boat whistles the rallying signal. They re-embark.

“The 20th, the mountain smoked as usual. The mission set off from Fort-de-France; then around 5:20, a black cloud covered the mountain. It also was shot through with lightning. Huge masses of smoke formed with a great speed of ascension. Climbing to a certain height, these clouds lit by the rising sun took on the hue of fire. The mission took ship.

“The city is in panic. They cry, ‘The fire is in the sky?’ The cloud covers Fort-de-France in a few minutes. The population is terrorized. They flee in their night-dress. The women have no clothes on, but a flannel shift. A man was naked, wearing a top-hat. The screams…those fleeing want to reach the shore. Many at the church. Rain of stones and ashes.


1902 photo of corpse-disposal pyre




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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












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



%d bloggers like this: