La Catastrophe de la Martinique: thirty-eight
Interview with M. Peyrouton
The Treasury. The Bank.
Our former colleague, Peyrouton, who was director of l’Estafette, is treasurer of Saint-Pierre. Returning from leave, on the Canada, he was to have arrived, by schedule, at Saint-Pierre on the 8th, on the day. But a delay would not put the steamer at Saint-Pierre ahead of the 9th.
Saint-Pierre no longer existed.
M. Peyrouton was charged by the governor to go forward, with counting such valuables and cash as could be recovered under the rubble of the Treasury and the Bank.
He went to Saint-Pierre on the 11th, with the public prosecutor, Captain Evanno, and a detachment of forty soldiers.
The “chore” lasted from noon to 11 o’clock in the evening.
The Treasury had been pillaged. In the gutted safe, they found an account-register, indicating the count of assets at the time this had been stopped, the evening of the 7th, was 103,000 francs. The “private mission” in operation there, of search and excavation, had not failed to seize the day.
From the two vaults of the bank, they pulled out notes, gold, and silver, worth two million and a few hundred-thousand francs. There were 1500 bags containing each 200 five-franc pieces; the gunners carried these, two on each shoulder, from the bank to the shore. Captain Evanno, who commanded the detachment, found six looters. He arrested and set them to work at the carrying. No small thing, this employment of thieves in salvaging the money they’d coveted. The captain wanted them transported to Fort-de-France, but the prosecutor declared that they must “let go” these voters.
The observations of M. Peyrouton, on the disaster, on the ruins, on the corpses, etc., are the same as those of other witnesses cited elsewhere. But, in a few neat words, precise, as must be from the mouth of an eminent journalist, M. Peyrouton characterized the catastrophe:
“The great disaster” (according to him) “is less of material losses, and the mourned, than of the disappearance of the more intelligent and more active part of the population. Martinique is decapitated. Those gone are those who produced. Dead, are more than three thousand whites, all the important trade of the island, the heads of households, their sons, their families, those who would carry on the tradition, have the financial means…
“The old and fair race of the colonial gentleman, the white creole of Martinique, is stricken at the head and the heart. Though sacrificed long since to the colored population by the law of numbers, it was this race of creoles, this race who possessed the soil, this race that kept the commerce, the bank, etc., etc. It is they who nourished the island.
“Certainly, it is to be feared this disappearance must be as fatal to their enemies as to their friends…”
M. Peyrouton is too “Parisien” to enter into the battles that desolate this unhappy country. He does not yield, either, in this prejudice of color. But the fault does not prevent him from noting, and seeing, and saying, that if the whites had no love for the mulatto and the negro; they, for once able to return this payment, will render it well.
M. Peyrouton has noted also the progressive victories of the man of color over the white…if he must he call these victories. And M. Peyrouton told me of the hold taken on the bank by the blacks. It is a negro, by order of the interior [ministry], who will be head of the bank, to replace its director, dead at Saint-Pierre. A black who has, himself, his prejudices of color.*
“And, however” (M. Peyrouton said to me) “the Bank of Martinique is legally the property of the whites. When the government suppressed slavery in the colony, it compensated the white property owners. A part of the indemnity, a sum amounting to three million francs, under the law of 1849, put into effect in 1851, was for the founding of a bank, truly the property of the former owners of slaves, who remained owners of the land…a bank intended to promote, to facilitate, their culture and commerce.”
It must further be added, that all the whites of Fort-de-France complain bitterly of the bank operating under the administration of the “negro from the interior”—thus have they designated the unlucky officer called by the ministry to direct the business of a financial establishment—in a country where for such work it is necessary to have a gift, tact, and a particular competence, as not generally acquired in the offices of the interior.
*Translator’s note: The varying terms, “man of color”, “negro”, “black”, used in this paragraph, are taken as they appear in the original text.
La Catastrophe de la Martinque
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)