La Catastrophe de la Martinique: thirty-three

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique








“The 21st, the crater still smoked a great deal.

“The 22nd, the mission left and worked as usual. We recognized, as had been announced by the Suchet, that the city had changed in aspect. This time, the ruin is consumed. Everything above 3 meters in height is razed. All the walls east-west, in the Ford district, and north-south, in the district of the Mouillage, razed. Those that remain barely stand. The second tower of the cathedral has fallen. The Eiffel bridge, on the Roxelane, is carried away. The ashes and mud have leveled the districts… etc., etc.

“A search done before the old barracks indicates a height of 30 centimeters of ash. Though the rain fell in quantity, this up to 3 centimeters is still hot. We had left in the streets of Longchamp, Amité, etc., 800 corpses that needed incinerating. We can no longer find them. The have been buried in ash.

“The crater smokes a little.”


(This was in the morning, for in the evening from five to six o’clock, arriving on the Saint-Domingue, I had seen from the sea an eruption of the crater with immense glowing smoke—Hess.)


“We saw with the naked eye a great rent, which cut the mountain in the direction of the southwest; a rent that had not existed on the 19th. The shaking of the twentieth has all-in-all modified the form of the mountain. It is entirely split.

“The 24th, the mission continued its work.”


Thus said M. Cappa, who, to the date of 30 May, when I met him for the last time, had noted in his book 3678 corpses incinerated. M. Cappa told me a thousand interesting things. I have noted the summary of his observations on the appearance of the corpses:







“Nearly all are lying on their stomachs. Barely a proportion of 1 in 100 are lying on their backs. So it can be said all fell with their heads to the south. The eyes were burned. The orbit is a black hole. There is a foam at the mouth. The tongue is out. We saw that many men had died in a fit of excitement. All the corpses were naked. They had no hair nor beard. The flesh was either carbonized or reddened and peeling. The fat had melted. The bowels of many had burst. The breasts of the women were bloated and punctured. The remains seemed in pieces…

“The medical instructions given to the mission,” continued M. Cappa, “prescribed burying the bodies in accord with scientifically established rules… A load of precautions, very good when we can conform to these… But, here, it was impossible. When we found a body, or a pile of bodies—before one house in the hospital district there were twenty-three—we covered them with pieces of wood, tree branches, we sprinkled them with petrol, we lit it, and the next day, went back to see. Generally, we found a pile of ashes. All were calcined.”


(This is astonishing enough, for incineration of corpses demands a great amount of heat, as results from a serious piling of wood. What served, I think, to make all these corpses disappear, is the ash from the eruption of the 20th.)


“My mission,” continued M. Cappa, “comprises 200 men, who operate in teams of ten. We have already used 180 cans of petrol… The winds from the south have allowed us to work methodically.”


You see all the horror contained within these cold lines? I have lived this horror…a day, in the broken city, in the city of corpses…


1902 photo of corpse in ruins of Saint-Pierre, Martinique




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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












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



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