La Catastrophe de la Martinique: forty-four

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique










The 18th, there was one more powerful, with detonations at the summit of the mountain, and quakings in the ground of the village. They collected ash and sent this to Fort-de-France, where it was analyzed by M. Mirville. And they warned the governor that an eruption, one signaling its gravity, had begun.

While M. le Dr Saint-Maurice fluttered his pocketbook, to give me the exact foretelling dates, M. Muller, former cabinet chief of M. Mouttet, added:

“Yes, it was a dispatch of M. Sully that advised the governor. And M. Mouttet seemed very annoyed. Good, he said, a volcano before the market…as if we havn’t enough with the elections. There is a volcano that would do well to wait.

“This did not prevent M. Mouttet from convening at once the ‘scientific personalities’ of Fort-de-France, the chief of the sanitation service, the doctors, the artillerymen, etc., etc., and asking their advice, counsel. The conclusion of all was that it would not wait.”

Another passenger who joined the conversation, Dr. Lherminier, said also:

“The artillerymen above all could not, did not, want to suppose the volcano one day could become dangerous.

“A captain among others, M. de Kerraoul, who had possessed himself of the topography, and “had an ear” for volcanoes, claimed that never had Mount Pelée worried anyone. When the Guérin factory was destroyed, he said, ‘It is curious. It is against all theory. But this is all the volcano can do.’

“Then, when on the afternoon of the 8th I learned of the destruction of Saint-Pierre, and I had informed him, he answered me: ‘It is not possible. It is a bad joke. It is not true.’ And now that he knows what’s true, he says, ‘Inconceivable. Extraordinary.’”


But, returning to Dr. Saint-Maurice, and his observations:


“Towards the end of April, one smelled the sulphur and there was ash in the air.

“I was at Saint-Pierre at the beginning of May. The night of the 2nd to the 3rd seemed to me particularly worrisome. At 2:00 in the morning, I went out to the boulevard, where one could see the summit of the mountain. We were receiving ashes. There was a constant shaking and unequal intervals between detonations. From time to time, on the flank of the mountain, lightning zigzagged. At the crater, it was like will-o-the-wisps, tiny flames that repeated again and again rapidly, until converging at length into one great flame that lasted one or two minutes.

“And then followed the smoke, the mountain remained covered…





“But many people did not want to hear anything, see anything, understand anything. Even after the Guérin factory was destroyed, the reassuring advice of the mayor made more than one person suppose the lava would always take the valley of the Rivière-Blanche. They did not consider that the valleys of the Rivière des Pères and the Roxelane began also on the flank of Mount Pelée. Me, I thought of it. I said it. And I left Saint-Pierre. It is not courage to fight against a volcano. It is folly!

“How much they were fooled! Alas!

“And what sorrow for my own. When the day after the catastrophe I explored the smoking ruins that were the tomb of my fellow citizens, my friends, my parents…!

“The mayor of Fort-de-France, M. Sévère, charged me with studying the best conditions for burying or burning the corpses. For this, I went many times to Saint-Pierre.”

In discussion with Dr. Saint-Maurice, who, when he speaks of corpses, speaks of the bodies of his parents, I was conscious that all these interviews offered some cruelty…and what painful memories they revived in the heart of the unfortunate man… But he had seen. He had seen well. He was one of those whose testimony, made in faith, gives faith…he spoke. And here is the page of my book where I have noted:


“All the corpses were still in place when I went to Saint-Pierre on the 10th. None had yet been touched. There were still…to estimate…around three thousand in the streets. We saw but rarely, exceptionally, those in houses. They were covered by rubble.

“Those in the street presented, nearly all, forgive me the medical term, the same “exterior habit”, black from carbonization, and also a type of coating, which studded them with black in the places spared by the flames. Naked. Scalped. The limbs flexed. Some had the intestines out, and also, among many, herniation of the thigh muscles. The rigidity of the organs, not with all. It seemed to me also, that the signs of asphyxiation, the tongue out, etc., did not mark themselves as clearly with all, because of the fire, perhaps, that came after. Many of the corpses had the extremities curtailed, mostly the hands, the feet….the fire.

“The attitude of all the corpses showed that the people of Saint-Pierre were surprised by death, that they had been killed instantaneously…”


But Dr. Saint-Maurice collects himself in a moment, searches in his memory, and adds:





“One can believe, however, that nature always wants to hamper our judgments, render punishing our search for the truth…we defend general assertions, yet beside innumerable facts, where we detach the one unique rule, absolute, the rule that pleases our minds, avid for simple cause, clarity, for the one cause, she places the fact that deranges the others, all the others, and is enough to plunge our minds into troubles…

“The general rule that comes from the observation of two thousand nine hundred and a few out of the three thousand seen, is that asphyxiation or stupefaction, perhaps the two at once, brought death as lightning, and the action of the fire came after. It was death without struggle. Oh, well…here against this quasi-unanimity, are facts which I have seen.

“I saw, on the door-stone of a house, the corpse of a man. The chest emerged from the rubble. The head was raised, set back. The hands were supported on the palms against the ground, clenched, arms stiff. An attitude of struggle against being crushed…

“I saw, fallen on her back, a woman, naked, but very little carbonized, barely licked, blackened by the flames. She did not present any sign of asphyxiation. She had a hand on her chest over the heart, her fingers on her breast, tearing the flesh. The other hand was flexed on an arm that seemed to defend her face. An attitude of fighting against the flames.

“I saw the corpse of a man in a shirt. The shirt was intact, not burned, only dirty, spotted with mud and ash, but the cloth whole. Under the shirt, within the shirt, the man was burned, carbonized… I have seen this…

“I saw the corpse of a woman… I saw the corpse of a man who had fine boots, and unmarred…it was by this same detail of the fine boots that we recognized the corpse as one of our friends, before whose house we were… He had always had pride in his shoes.

“These boots, thus, were intact. We removed them. They came away with the soles of the feet…cooked.

“I saw bodies completely carbonized beside thin boards intact. At the administration buildings, where the largest had disappeared, I saw a few pieces of planking. In a store crushed and burned, I saw a package of eyeglasses brand new. In the Caminade house, next to iron columns, melted, were two large books without damage…





Dr. Saint-Maurice also recounted to me the horror of bodies that came to pieces when they had wanted to pile them for burning. “The workers gathered them with shovels.” One does not insist on this scene. It is a type of reporting to me inappropriate. But however, I have seen, myself as well, these doleful pieces…I saw that the explosion had separated them, by the head, by the spine, by the limbs…very far, one from another…on the Savane. At the foot of torn trees.

But I note a forgotten detail of my walk in the ruins. All the debris of trees, all the pieces of trees were molded with a sort of red powder, of clear vermillion, and of very tragic effect. In the white, in the grey, and the black of the ruins, this was like a dew, like a rain of blood… I had brought away a few pieces. I had packed a little case with these, and the pebbles and ash of the volcano. In the disarray of departure from Fort-de-France, the little case disappeared. If these lines fall under the eyes of those who have “saved” said little case, I will be much obliged if you return it to me…at least half. This red mold on the trees did not exist the day after the catastrophe, for it did not strike Dr. Saint-Maurice.

Another detail he told me at the end of the interview. They had not found but one corpse of a cat in the streets of Saint-Pierre.

And this again: On the plaza of the Mouillage, where there had been great slabs of stone, there was a block measuring nearly three meters square, of a material whose nature he did not know. It was something hard. The consistence and the aspect of a cake of melted sulphur. Of color yellowish-grey. But cracked and raised, blistered in places, a hole at the top of each blister. Dr. Saint-Maurice had a piece cut with a pickaxe, and reported it to the town hall of Fort-de-France, that M. Sévère send it to the hospital laboratory for the purpose of analysis. It was taken to the government. And I believe M. Lheurre has made himself a paperweight.




That artillery officers were considered experts to consult on the dangers of a volcano, is not incongruous given what was understood in 1902, the local certainty that earthquakes and flows of lava were a volcano’s true perils; otherwise the flinging of ash and rock.

Near the end of the 19th century, and produced by such arms manufacturers as Germany’s Krupp, and England’s Armstrong, long-range cannons required a new science of trajectories, velocities, weights and resistances, etc., which meant, as to how far a volcano could throw its projectiles, the gunners could make fair calculations.

Below is an image from a 1936 article (click for link) on the state of volcanology, near the brink of WWII. Though the world had long been fascinated by Pompeii, the disaster in Martinique woke the science up to the threat of the nuée ardente, the pyroclastic flow. Had the real danger of Mount Pelée been grasped, politics would presumably not have held sway over sound emergency management.



Newspaper clipping 1930s volcanic science





La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe (forty-five)














(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)



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