La Catastrophe de la Martinique: forty-six
Letters, carried by boat, which left Saint-Pierre at six in the morning, and were received at Fort-de-France, prove that in other quarters, in houses other than of this street, of Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, many women had not slept during the night, and were afraid. They must still have been afraid at 7:50. There is nothing extraordinary in this “pile” in question. It does not prove the unfortunates had sensed approaching death…
Another group seen by M. Rozé is…most impressive. Two bodies, on the threshold of a house; the one fallen in front, face to the ground. Between his spread legs, knelt the other, upper chest thrown back, head upright. This head was scalped, burned, it had no eyes, and lips without form around a black thing which was the carbonized tongue… And yet this, which had been the face of a woman, perhaps lovely, which had become a thing undefinable, nameless…this figure expressed a terror horrible to see.
The fate typified by the horse and the car observed by M. Muller, demonstrating the rapidity, the instantness, of the death of all who lived in Saint-Pierre, M. Rozé had seen also.
I asked M. Rozé what he thought of the story of Vaillant, and of the prisoner.
“Not possible,” he told me. “And for Vaillant, I have something more than speculation. The quarter of the street of Petit-Versailles, where the gunner pretended to have left the survivors, where would had been, in a house nearly intact, a family of eight persons—
“This quarter…I was with them, who had explored it minutely… There was nothing, nothing that resembled the descriptions of Vaillant, nothing.”
M. Rozé had seen no corpses with their bellies burst.
They were all scalped, without beard, without shoes, and despoiled of their clothing. They were seen completely naked, all… What power and what type of action of the cataclysm could produce in an instant this result? A power unimaginable in all the quarter of the Fort, that had covered the hill between the Rivière des Pères, and the Rivière Roxelane. The upper part of this hill was razed, swept clear. There was nothing, not a corpse, not any object, and the houses become as dust mixed with cinders.
Like any self-respecting phenomenon, this of Saint-Pierre has its contradictions. Thus, while all the other corpses were naked, and all observers had seen them so, M. Rozé saw the body of a woman on whose torso remained a bodice of muslin. Near the town hall three corpses had, fastened to the bottoms of their feet, the soles of their shoes—soles relatively well-preserved.
All the corpses showed the same uniformly black color.
We note that this was seen on the 9th. In days to come, if viewed by other observers, this uniform hue seen by M. Rozé, and by M. Clerc, would have disappeared.
Among the greater part of the corpses of the 9th, viewed by M. Rozé, the charring had been enough advanced to destroy the hands. The forearms were black stumps, with at the ends coming out clearly, the radius and ulna. On the 9th, M. Rozé did not see the burst abdomens with the intestines protruding reddened, bulging, swollen, as were noted by other witnesses. And this observation of M. Rozé accords with that of M. Clerc, who told me the corpses did not have their bellies open, except those who had been projected against obstacles and torn, such as those on the Place Bertin amid the debris of the trees.
This permits the supposition that it was the formation of putrid intestinal gasses which burst the carbonized abdominal walls, thinned, and made the bellies open, around the 11th. Under certain masses of rubble, the corpses were not much burned.
The corpses of men were in erection. The breasts of women, pointed. All the legs were spread. At times, one would see half-corpses. (The 26th, I found the half of a man on the Savane.)
Try to picture to yourself the horror of this immense charnel-house of the first days, when seen by M. Rozé, when seen by other people whose observations have been communicated to me! When they had not yet buried or burned any bodies…!
And the smells…!
On the 9th, it was an acrid odor, complex and indefinable, of the volcano and of the rotisserie, of powder-works and greasy food, a smell that stung the throat. There wasn’t yet the reek of putrefaction.
It is true that later…
The 11th, M. Rozé went to the Carbet, to the little cove. Near the shore, there was a burned house. Many corpses. They were lightly roasted, their eyes puffed, their tongues out of their mouths.
A dog had not been burned at all, nor even scorched. Its tongue drooped. And there was at its side, a pool of black blood.
Along the length of the coast, they noticed a decreasing intensity of the phenomenon. The trees were whole, the leaves barely singed. They found corpses wholly clothed and without burns. They had their tongues out and spatters of black blood beside them. In the house were found four victims, seized by death in their occupations of the moment, and whose attitudes marked no anguish. There were four beings alive…dogs and cats. A female dog was lightly burned on the teats. She stared at them, her eyes dull. She did not stir. When they took her, she made no movement, she did not bark. A little Japanese dog was unmarred. Equally, two little cats, which the search team carried away, and who now live in the barracks.
In another house, an old man was dead in his chair, before his table with a bowl of coffee.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)