La Catastrophe de la Martinique: thirty-seven

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique









I’ve counted. Forty whites at least, of all classes and all ranks, creoles, officials, soldiers and officers, have affirmed to me with indignation, that in his writings (lines read between), the editor of l’Opinion had cleverly expressed what the blacks among the people cry brutally, to wit, that “the volcano has killed the béquets*, so the island becomes definitely the property of her natural masters, the brave blacks.”

One day, at the hotel café, many officers said this before M. Muller, the former cabinet chief of Governor Mouttet. M. Muller protested, insisting that this was not possible, that he knew of no such spirit in the black population of Martinique. The discussion grew lively. The officers maintained their own insistence. They had “heard”…

Elsewhere, there is an officer, who pointed out to me the l’Opinion article cited above, giving stress to the sensational passage…and explaining it to me.

I believe it needless to add that the men of the black party, to whom I’d spoken, have protested with an indignation just as violent as that of their accusers…

Sad, to see that despite the times, despite the new generations, the old hatreds of race and of color have not disappeared. What’s more, far from lessening, they are increasing. No one dares to say more in an official discourse, in a printed article, no one dares to flaunt in broad daylight the imbecility of which this prejudice of color is the mark…

And every day, in conversation, everyone breaks out with those hatreds due to this prejudice. I have heard the blacks hate the whites. I have heard the whites hate the blacks. The one cannot forget that he was once a slave. The other cannot be consoled that he is no longer to be master. And that is the constant clash. It is the war without truce. The parties are not disarmed even before the mournful work of the volcano!

One can write beautiful phrases of concord and of peace, of union and fraternity. Lies. I came to live for ten days in an atmosphere a thousand times more nauseating and more deadly than all the fumes of the volcano…

You would like to know the strength of this prejudice of color. The classic adventure of the white woman who cannot see a man in the negro, in the mulatto, and is no more modest before one of these beings than before an animal, is still contemporary. It is only yesterday. The mulatto employee of a tax-collector is called for some information by the wife of his boss. He arrives at the wrong time in her apartment and surprises her naked, absolutely naked. He spreads his hands, searches for an excuse, wants to leave.

“But no, stay as you are,” says the lady. “You know that for you this counts as nothing.”




*Béquet, also Béké, is a Creole term for white European settlers, of the French Antilles.


And as calm as if she had spoken to her dog, without looking to cover her nudity, the young woman asks this employee for the information she had needed!

And the creoles, the white women of Martinique, admire this trait. For them, the negro, the mulatto, has less humanity than a dog.

On the prejudice of color within another order of conjecture:

L’abbé Valadier, on a mission to Martinique, had imprudently said that the blacks are the children of God, entitled even as the whites. They no longer saw white women at his sermons…!


Again, a note on these politics, these hatreds that cannot be disarmed even in the face of mournings and afflictions. This note is from Dr. Guérin:


“Senator Knight,” (the doctor told me) “went to Saint-Pierre for his personal paraphernalia. He wanted to break open his safe. They had provided him a master locksmith. They had requisitioned a boat…M. Knight is person of importance…but not so much, however, as to occupy a boat alone… I wanted to take passage aboard this boat. M. Knight refused. Is he admiral…? No. Is this not an infamy…? Tell them this in France! Especially because I was going to resupply my people in Carbet. Tell it, monsieur…”

It was on the Savane the doctor confided to me, in this way, his anger. A moment after, on this same Savane, I met a man from the other side…

“How,” (he said to me) “you speak with that old…Dr. Guérin…(that, an expression which despite my reporter’s sincerity, my care to always repeat exactly what was said to me, I cannot decently publish…)

“…how you listen to the doctor…! But, he is a man of trumped-up noises, that’s all… Do you know what he is putting about now…? No. Well! Here is the latest… He peddles it everywhere that for the scandals of relief distribution, the Americans have been moved… That President Roosevelt has given orders to stop all new shipments, to close all subscriptions… That it seems the Americans had learned their aid profited none but the negroes… (He said it, the negroes, monsieur, this béquet!) …and had decided to send no more shipments. But it is this, perhaps, he was telling you earlier.”

“No, he told me only that Senator Knight is the tyrant of the colony, and that he abuses the authority which the government gives him too freely under the circumstances…”

“Wait…here comes the senator. Ask him what he thinks of Guérin’s complaints.”

And I tackle the senator. At the name of Guérin, he turns green:





“Ah! This gentleman complains of being bullied. He says we give everything to the negroes, for the sake of electoral politics. That we fix our agents, our voters, with this gift of American charity. That the whites are once again sacrificed, forsaken by the Capital, by our tyranny… We are perhaps the evil stepmother, as is said of France, of the homeland, Monsieur. But of what does he complain, personally…that he wants, would claim for himself? He has lost nothing, this gentleman, he is not a victim. His factory. It belongs to him no more. In three days, it would have been seized by the bank. He says he has nothing left, that he is poor. But he is rich. As long as he has worked, he has always placed his profits in the name of his wife… Ah! Monsieur, this party has no heart! But we recognize their maneuvers and we will outplay them!”


(Translator’s note: As to the charges, exchanged above, Hess’s conversations with Senator Knight and Dr. Guérin would have taken place between May 20 and June 1, by the timetable Hess gives of his visit. I haven’t so far found these stories in American newspapers, but here is a useful map, and a sampling of items that touch on the treatment of relief funds.)




1902 newspaper map of Caribbean volcanoes

The St. Louis Republic, 14 May 1902


Newspaper clipping on England's volcano charity

The St. Louis Republic, 14 May 1902


Newspaper clipping on American volcano relief

The St. Louis Republic, 14 May 1902


Newspaper clipping of headline on Servan advice

San Francisco Call, 25 May 1902


Newspaper clipping on Admiral Servan's advice for the future

San Francisco Call, 25 May 1902


Newspaper clipping on relief supplies for volcano victims

San Francisco Call, 25 May 1902


Newspaper clipping of misappropriated relief funds

New York Tribune, 30 September 1902





La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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













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



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