La Catastrophe de la Martinique: thirty-six

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique











The chiefs carried big sticks. The priest, who had seen this, and who heard the gendarme tell his story, added:

“What was most amusing were the wives of the thieves, who prepared their meals.”

The father did not pardon the looters for profaning the tabernacle of the cathedral while stealing those sacred vessels spared by the flames, and spreading the host in the ashes. The ciborium [container to hold the Eucharist] had been brokered at Saint-Lucie, where it was repurchased by a priest.

It was not the Martiniquais alone who came to “prospect” the ruins. They came from all the neighboring Antilles. And, as by day they were exposed to unlucky meetings with the gendarmerie, many amateurs worked by night. There were gendarmes posted to guard the land routes, but the great route of the sea was open to all. And they profited.

There were “crows” of every condition. A scandalous story ran in Fort-de-France…underground. On a day of high seas and contrary winds, a canoe mounted by several young men found itself in distress on open water off Saint-Pierre. An American ship collected these young men. But their attitude and their answers looked suspicious to the captain, who passed them to the Suchet.

There, they recognized among these the senator of the colony’s nephew, the young Godissart, and the affair was suppressed.

From another quarter, the journal l’Opinion had published an article entitled: “Crows of High Flight” where very clearly, the Martiniquais saw that the people of Senator Knight’s party accused the people of M. Clerc’s party of stealing the safes from houses of commerce where they had debts, to make these disappear.

Such stories of ruins gutted, pillaged, have given the parties new weapons in their political struggles…

They do not dare to write still more, but they make up for it in conversations.

That is what I’ve heard!


It is difficult to conceive just where the hatreds of race, the political struggles and the conflicts of interest can carry men…

To have an idea, you must have been in Martinique in these days of mourning. Friends have said to me that I was wrong to write this. I ought to hide this facet of human misery, and that in my book I would be generous to speak only of misfortune, of these unhappy Martiniquais, to make everyone pity them and help them.





Certainly, I have the greatest pity for all who suffer, and I appeal to all human compassion for their aid… But, I am a reporter, and I must give to my readers the truth, all that I have seen, all that I have heard, all that I have noted down.

I cannot worry myself as to what follows my reportage.

If it plunge a minister into shame, as at one time M. Lebon, when I had published his useless barbarisms of Cayenne—

If it afflict today M. Decrais, in revealing his acts upon the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre, restrained under the volcano unto their deaths, by his order—

This cannot, must not, influence anything in the work of a reporter, which must be a work of truth, truth in its entirety.

It is for this that I owe to the public, at the same time, the most complete notes on the eruption of the volcano, the ravages of the volcano, and complete information also on the people who still live near the volcano.

And then, we have there such beautiful documentation of humanity, such noble indications of the psychology of our human species…truly it would be a crime to shut this away.

And so, read what I have read, in l’Opinion:


Like a lion couched at the foot of its tamer, that rises in sudden repressed ferocity, and eats his master, the mountain Pelée, whose terraces lay for centuries above Saint-Pierre, their verdure smiling upon its plateaus, awoke itself one day, growling and terrible.

And with a brutality reborn of former ages, the volcano—quiescent, domesticated—whose fertile flanks were laden with abundant crops, opened upon that city, confident and sweetly reposing, which stretched itself at sunrise, a horrible maw. The frightful and enormous volcano engulfed everything under its flow of lava, sulphur and fire…

We can only weep, bowed by the wind of this formidable phenomenon. Whereas, for a child who dies, our oppressed throats throw to heaven the revolt of their blood, today we bow, reluctant before a discussion of eternal justice. The child of the cradle and the adolescent in flower, the modesty of virgins and the grace of young mothers, all that smiles, all that is radiant, all that disarms, the gluttonous Moloch has taken all.

It may have been necessary…



1902 photo of Saint-Pierre waterfront destruction






Qui sait si l’onde qui tressaille,

Si le cri des gouffres amers,

Si la trombe aux ardentes serres,

Si les éclairs et les tonnerres

Seigneur, ne sont pas nécessaires

A la perle que font les mers.


(lines from “Napoléon II”, Victor Hugo)



Who knows if the waves that shiver

If the wail of chasms bitter

If the tumult’s talons afire

If the lightning and the thunder

Lord, are not of need

To make pearls from the sea



All this literature tells you nothing. You believe it engenders itself merely from tropical rhetoric…

Well, this little phrase: It may have been necessary, and the couplet that follows: Who knows if…


…ne sont pas nécessaires

A la perle que font les mers


…has caused a great, very great emotion in the “whites”, who remain at Martinique, the Europeans and the Creoles. It is the whole battle of the races, black and white, that the whites saw within this…

The battle signalled by a victory hosanna, after the catastrophe had killed at one blow the majority, nearly the entire white population of Martinique.

It is appalling, to employ in my turn a robust adjective, that men could have supposed such an idea had occurred to other men. Ah, well! Sad as it is, so it is.




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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












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



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