La Catastrophe de la Martinique: forty-eight

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique










M. Le Bris, commander of the Suchet, coordinated all the observations taken on board the warships that found themselves in waters belonging to Martinique, and brought them together in a report addressed to the Naval Minister, by the same mail-ship that returned me to France. It is to be presumed that the minister immediately published this report in the Revue maritime. I direct thereto those readers who will want to be given more precise observations, more extensive overall than my simple notes of a reporter.

The same for those who will want the complete works of M. Mirville; they will find them in the Journal officiel of Martinique.

I publish only a few statistics:


The minimum variation in temperature, before the eruption of the 8th, from 23.3 to 25 degrees; after the eruption, they go from 24.9 to 24.4. The maximum, before, from 30 to 31.8; after, from 31.2 to 33.1. [Mid 70s to low 90s, Fahrenheit.] On the 8th, there had been: minimum 22.1; maximum 29.3 degrees.

The barometric pressure noted on the 1st of May, at 6 o’clock, at 10 o’clock in the morning, and at 4 o’clock in the evening: 763 mm. 0 — 764.1 — 761.8, diminishing by stages, becoming, the 7th, from 760.7 — 761.9 — 760.1; the 8th, from 761.2 — 762.2 — 760.1, rising after, up to the 12th, where this was noted: 762.0 — 762.7 — 761.5. Following this, they fell again, then rose again, according to the caprices of the volcano.

The “special observations” that accompany the tables of M. Mirville are interesting to reproduce. They are:


Night, from the 2nd to the 3rd of May. Rain of very fine volcanic ash. The layer of it at Fort-de-France is around ½ millimeter. The state of the hygrometer is steady, during this night, at 10 p. 100 below the median.

Tuesday, the 5th of May. At fifteen minutes after midnight, the volcano threw an avalanche of mud that filled the valleys of the Rivière-Blanche and the Rivière-Sèche, engulfing the Guérin factory. At this moment a black disk, more dark at the edges, appears in the sky, covering the sun. [A solar eclipse, which occurred near the time of the Mount Pelée disaster.] Light depression of the barometer. The daytime oscillation today attains 2.8 millimeters.





Wednesday, May 7th. From the first hour and a half of afternoon, we heard at Fort-de-France low booms, followed by rumblings that seemed the noise of distant cannons. The blows were most violent from 2:00 to 2:30. The phenomenon continued less intensely into the evening. Between 2:00 and 3:00 pm the river Madame rose and fell every five minutes, a phenomenon produced by the sea, which lowered and rose regularly. The total difference in level is 25 centimeters. Sea calm.

Thursday, May 8th. Eruption of the volcano: a rain of agglomerated ash and siliceous rock. At the military hospital of Fort-de-France, one of the rocks that fell weighed 85 grams. All the city of Saint-Pierre is destroyed and burned. The destruction is complete in the quarters of the Center. The walls remain, generally, up to the first story, in the quarters of the Fort and the Mouillage. All the ships of the harbor are destroyed or burned. The catastrophe came at 7:50 in the morning, as testified to by the ambulance clock, which stopped at this hour. The layer of ash that fell today at Fort-de-France reached 6 millimeters.

17th May. Considerable mass of ashes, directing itself slowly towards the southeast, carried by upper air currents, and obscuring the entire sector of the sky between the north and southeast. In the afternoon the inferior winds returned from the northeast a portion of the ash. Height at Fort-de-France: 1 millimeter.

18th May. Very light rain of ashes towards 10:00 in the morning.

20th May. Great mass of dark clouds coming directly from the crater, going towards the southeast, apparently to Fort-de-France, at 5:30 in the morning, lightning and thunder in the cloudbank. The front of the mass lit by the rising sun, as from reflections of fire. Towards 5:45, a rain of black and angular stones, followed again by a rain of ash. Height: 2 millimeters. Tidal wave at the Carbet.

A note now, regarding M. Mirville:

This officer of the colonial health corps made part of the commission instituted by the government for the study of these phenomena, of this volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée. All the other members of the commission are dead, save him. Why? It is very simple. The commission was not to reconvene at Saint-Pierre but on the 8th. As all the members, saving M. Mirville were at Saint-Pierre on the 7th, and the governor, M. Mouttet, wished to have a communication* of a nature to reassure the public, the commission met on the 7th, in the evening. When this meeting was decided, it was too late, practically speaking, to warn M. Mirville, who was at Fort-de-France. The last boat for Saint-Pierre had gone.

The next day, the 8th, M. Mirville expected he would arrive in time, taking the boat at 8:00 o’clock, and not the one at 6:00. The passengers on the 6:00 boat perished, all of them. Those on the 8:00 boat, when they were passing the point of the Carbet, saw Saint-Pierre in flames and returned to Fort-de-France.




1902 stereoscope photo of boulders from Mount Pelee

Stereographic image from Mount Pelée disaster, source: United States Library of Congress





*This communication was even posted the next day at Fort-de-France, when Saint-Pierre had been destroyed already!

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe: forty-nine
















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



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