La Catastrophe de la Martinique: forty-nine

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique















The Observations of the Pouyer-Quertier
The exact unfolding of phenomena



Here now the observations most precise, the best and the clearest, that have been noted on the various eruptions of Mount Pelée and the events accompanying these.

They are the observations of the officers, the engineers, and the commander of the Pouyer-Quertier, the Company boat, of the French underwater telegraphic cable.

Many descriptions, many stories of things witnessed, if these have been witnessed “by eye”, can be legitimately suspected. I’ve had many I do not want to reproduce, which seem to me exaggerated. Not that I would accuse these people of lying. They were all of good faith, even those who made to me the most unbelievable representations, of that I concede.

But that does not prevent them from lying. In such circumstances, after such a catastrophe, which passes in horror all that we have ever seen, all we could even have imagined to this moment, is produced in our poor human brains such a commotion that the impressions become confused, diminished, augmented, memories distorted; and we lie, believing very sincerely that we tell the truth.

And then, there is the imagination…the terrible imagination. I do not speak of alcoholics, or of madmen. The imagination itself is enough. It is not necessary to be southern, or creole, or negro… Thing dreamed, thing believed, thing seen. And there it is. People are killed because these insane shadows become realities. They tell you absurdities against all the laws of nature, all the laws against which can prevail no saints, no gods, no volcanoes…

You speak to them gently of hallucination, and they knit their brows, they cannot comprehend that you doubt their assertions. You say to them kindly that unless it had been a salamander (and still), no being of flesh and bones, no being that has lungs and breathes, none could remain in the flaming furnace that was Saint-Pierre on the 8th—and they persist no less in swearing that the two gunners promenaded there, that the prisoner lived, and that they brought out an old woman.

After these great volcanic spasms, accompanied by all sorts of electricity, it must be believed that in certain minds the lid on the critical sense pops off.

None such to fear with the scientists and the sailors of the Pouyer-Quertier.





The cable was broken on the 5th, nine miles at sea from Saint-Pierre, and seventeen miles from Fort-de-France, at a depth of 2620 meters.

The 7th, the Pouyer-Quertier went to look for the rupture. We recorded the position and marked the place with a dead buoy, set afloat at 2 hrs. 15 mins. There was a current of three knots. For the stretch we went at half-speed.

The buoy did not float well. At 5 hrs. 30 mins., we replaced it with one we thought better. Barely wet, the new one was taken by a turbulence, sucked into a sort of gulf, and sunk. It had been in a very good state, perfectly waterproof. It was the best on the ship.

The night came; we could not take up our work. It must wait until the next day.

We did not approach Saint-Pierre, because the wind dashed upon the sea a rain of ashes very bothersome. We heard detonations. We made our route towards the south, to the seafront of Fort-de-France. By morning, the currents had diverted us to the canal of Dominique.

At 8 precisely, by the clock of the Pouyer-Quertier, the eruption occurred. We were at seven miles, making straight for the Cape of Saint-Martin, whose bearing we had taken.

We saw the black smoke coming out of the volcano enfold itself on the flanks of the mountain and on Saint-Pierre. Two vertical bluish flashes, one succeeding the other by a short interval, went from the height of the mountain, down to the water’s edge. Following these flashes, sooty flames cut the black cloud in a few places. Then, there was an encompassing general fire. All the coast on fire. We heard no noise. The phenomenon lasted thirty seconds.

We set course for land. A rain of ash chased us. And it was all black. There was no more to be seen.

Over deep ocean at 9;30, we made out before Saint-Pierre what appeared a line of breakers, a mile in length, whose roll seemed directed towards the sea.

We headed south. We recognized Cape Salomon. We saw a steamer coming from the south. In two hours, we were at Fort-de-France.

There, we offered our services and we received a requisition of aid. We left for Saint-Pierre. At 6:00 in the evening we were at the Carbet. The sea was covered in wreckage. The sky was clear. There were stars. The crater pulsed red like a chimney at the top of a furnace. We saw at the summit of the mountain seven points of fire. From time to time, the craters lit up the flanks of the mountain. One of the craters, on the southwest part, we saw again in eruption on the night of the 10th. The streams of lava which, by day, are white, appeared in the night phosphorescent. In the projected materials, we saw bits of lava like those of Vesuvius.

The burning wreckage prevented us from approaching Saint-Pierre, on the 8th. We brought back wounded from the Carbet.




1902 photo of Saint-Pierre after volcano

Saint-Pierre, as it appeared on the 9th of May, 1902.





La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe: fifty














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



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