La Catastrophe de la Martinique: fifty-one

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique
















 At the Transatlantic


An observation of M. Vié.



M. Vié is the very amiable and very obliging general agent of the Compagnie Transatlantique at Fort-de-France. In the course of the interview I had with him, the day after the eruption of the 26th—which threw on the capital a cloud of fiery electricity and gained us a panic alike to that of the 20th—M. Vié imparted to me an interesting observation.

To the clouds of smoke coming out of the volcano, in the form of straight, ascending columns expanding into mushrooms, the Martiniquais have assigned the most unbelievable heights. I have heard a gentleman, who occupied a pretty enough position, give to these smokes 80 kilometers in height. You have read correctly: 80 kilometers. The estimations of others, serious people, vary from six to twelve kilometers.

M. Vié himself has calculated this precisely, using as a known datum for constructing his triangles, the peak of the Carbet; its height, behind which rose the volcanic column, and then the distance from Fort-de-France of this peak. He has thus found 2200 meters, which is already a good height.

M. Vié, who lived at Guatemala (from where dispatches are coming to report two cities destroyed by a volcanic tremor*) had heard of subterranean noises at Martinique, in nature like those Central Americans are accustomed to. He compared them to steam-hammers, striking from below.

Moreover, his comparisons are truly of a type and nature for the better grasping of diverse phenomena of the May eruptions.

“In the boiler rooms, and also in great fires, one sees the flaring of flame; the fire rises, then fades abruptly and snakes along the ground. Imagine that by a lateral fissure, heavy gasses in huge quantities come flowing, following this way to Saint-Pierre; then, following that, from the summit a return of flames…”

And when I talked with M. Vié about the new condition of life in Martinique, the constant threat of new eruptions from Mount Pelée, and the catastrophes that could result…

“But, they do it to perfection,” he answers. “I have seen this in Guatemala. In the neighborhood of even the most dangerous volcano, they habituate themselves, and forget, finally, until the day…”

“When it kills them…”

“Just that. Then they are definitely and forever habituated to it.”


Needless to add, M. Vié and the personnel placed under his orders, those on the ships, and those at their desks, have given the local administration their all in organizing the relief, and that beyond their dedication, they have put at the disposition of the governor every means of action.

And, that these means were effective…

Today, various questions call attention to our officers of the merchant marine. I eagerly seize on this, an actuality from Martinique, to say, in thinking of these “fine people”, all the appropriate good ; always, and on every occasion, doing their duty, and more than their duty.






The Mayor of Fort-de-France


M. Sévère and his 10,000 victims. The American relief.



I do not have to repeat here what has been said in the public dispatches, and the information published by the dailies… I do not have, either, to reissue what has been said in the Chamber of Deputies, as to the question of Gérault-Richard, [in 1902, deputy for Guadeloupe], who, having demanded of the Colonial Minister what economic measures would be taken in the future, complained bitterly of the past.

But, I have to say what I have seen… And that to relieve all those injured, all the victims, was a very difficult task. The mayor of Fort-de-France acquitted himself as well as was possible. Because, for the most part, it was not the government that had the labor, it was the mayor of Fort-de-France.

The mayor of the capital is M. Sévère.

A lad very sympathetic. A youth. Energetic. Intelligent. He has in his eyes a fire…interesting. There are in his party many charlatans and a few repugnant individuals. I believe him, that he is sincere.

Now, you know, this is a matter of impression. And if you are current with the new theories of the psycho-physiological (which rest on facts and indisputable observations), I will add: a matter of “fluid judgment”.

In any case, I repeat, he is a youngster absolutely sympathetic, of a physiognomy frank and open. And smiling. I do not love the sad. True, there are smiles that raise your hackles, when they speak only to the adeptness of that gentleman who wears the mask…

The smile of Sévère is that of an intelligence and a force.


1902 photo of victims removed from Mount Pelee Martinique explosion





*Hess’s remark is contemporaneous with the preparation of his work for publication. As shown below, the eruption in Guatemala took place in November of 1902, while Mount Pelée began erupting in May of that year.



Newspaper clipping 1902 Santa Maria Guatemala volcano explosion

The 1902 eruption of the Santa Maria volcano, in Guatemala. LOC




Hess refers to what was in the early 1900s a newly discussed (in the public arena) academic pursuit: the study of human psychology, with a view towards developing effective therapeutic cures; thus, in terms of identifying commonalities among illness types, and attempting to determine common origins. Below, three practitioners mentioned in a 1904 Figaro article (12 November) “La Vie de Paris, Psychologie physiologique”, about the new science.
Alfred Binet (1857-1911) Studied human intelligence; co-invented Binet-Simon scale to measure IQ.
Pierre Janet (1859-1947) Considered a founder of modern psychology. Feuded with Freud over ownership of concepts concerning neurosis and trauma-reaction.
Edgar Bérillon (1859-1948) Medical doctor and professor, École de Psychologie; pioneer of hypnosis therapy.



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


















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



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