La Catastrophe de la Martinique: fifty-two

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique










I have had the pleasure of seeing him several times.

And I have reckoned the crushing labor that was his to accomplish, since as we say in the navy [Hess was a Navy medic], first things first.*

It is at the town hall of Fort-de-France, that the organization of relief is centralized. Two lines, two pieces of information, suffice to give an idea of what is conveyed by this word, relief.

It was necessary to resupply, first, the inhabitants of the northern communities; then, going step-by-step with the “evacuations”, to receive these at Fort-de-France, to feed and to lodge them while they waited to be relocated, following a survey of possibilities in the southern communities, where they must continue to be fed.

A number. There are ten thousand refugees.

Then, as Saint-Pierre was the storehouse of the colony, the shopkeepers of the island not having great provisions of foodstuffs, the mayor of Fort-de-France had to make every withdrawal reimbursable, taking from the relief stocks that arrived very quickly after the catastrophe, from the Antilles and America.

Two services, one can see, an improvisation that was at no point effortless. Under the energetic direction of Sévère, these had been created, and they functioned. That they were not perfect, that it is easy to find more than one thing to criticize…agreed.

But the notable fact, and I note it—this that we must keep in mind—is that these ten thousand refugees have lived…

Sévère has the courage and youth that permits envisioning the future with confidence. He hopes Martinique will not be beaten by the crisis she weathers. And as he is the mayor of Fort-de-France, his desire for this city is that it must replace Saint-Pierre, become the commercial capital of the island, as it is already the administrative capital.


In the organization of the relief mission, in this spirit of human solidarity and compassionate charity that has moved all civilized nations, the Americans of the United States distinguish themselves particularly.

Their ships laden with food were behind only those of Trinidad and Saint-Thomas. And they sent food in quantity…in the way of Americans. They subscribed also…royally. When the cable from the Colonial Minister announced a mission carrying, with sympathies and testimonials of sorrow from the French government, a sum of 500,000 francs, the noise spread in Martinique of a monster subscription from the people and government of the Americans…

They spoke of millions of dollars.




*Actually, parer au plus pressé, something near “deal with the most urgent”, which is a French axiom; in English, translated more or less literally, it isn’t, and so I’ve chosen the closest match—SF


Then came the American consul, M. Aimé, from Guadeloupe, and at once it was known that this official, for the sake of landing soonest at Martinique, to inform his government as quickly as possible, did not hesitate to charter a little steamer and to pay 10,000 francs for the voyage of a day! (M. Aimé recounts this, as well, to whoever wants to hear it, at least ten times a day.)

And it was known equally, that to tell his government of the situation, all the situation, and relay all the miseries, all the distresses, wanting relief, he cabled a few hours after his arrival a telegram at 45,000 francs. (And this also M. Aimé repeats a few times a day.)

Then, the boats of food.

They say President Roosevelt [Teddy] summoned the captain of the first loaded boat departing for the Antilles, and that he had purchased by authority…by immediate requisition, Monsieur!…all its cargo… It was for a million, Monsieur! And that he had ordered this carried under full steam to the victims of Martinique. And this, Monsieur, was done in the half-hour after receiving the dispatch announcing the catastrophe…

For us, Monsieur, it would need three commissions, months, ten deliberations and fifteen kilograms of paperwork. Tell me about America…. When a thing needs done, they don’t worry about paperwork… But in America, Monsieur, they act, and then, if they need to, they regulate the action.

This, a rendering of how they speak now in Martinique.

And among the blacks, they add: “The Americans know how to feed their citizens in distress; it is their bread we eat. If we had waited for flour from France, we would have ashes to ‘swallow’…”

Among the whites they think, not without bitterness, that the Americans know how to “put the negro in his place”, that, “when a gentleman goes to a hotel, a restaurant, a theater, on a bus, etc., he is not exposed to degrading contact with the dirty negro.”

And whites and blacks, both, admire the Americans.

Oh! What the Americans have said, and have made to be said, in bringing their aid, has been thoroughly said.

I talked to a factory owner who was still under the charm: “Here” (he tells me) “we have not the aid of a centime. They took the Bank, which was legally, after the law that created it, the property of the whites. They want us to choke, they want us to move the earth… They do everything to prevent us from cultivating, from manufacturing; it is odious. What a difference with the American islands, what happens, in Puerto Rico*, especially! There, ready money for property owners, and they give them bonuses… The gold flows to Puerto Rico… One can work there and survive… Yet, they are truly Americans. Not to mention that there, they are protected against the rabble.”

I affirm I have heard much of this.

I affirm I have found among many persons of both parties, among the blacks of the people, and the whites of the aristocratic factory-owning creoles, an admiration for the Americans, an admiration nuanced with regrets that I fear to analyze.




*I passed through Puerto Rico in going to Martinique. And I have also spoken with a few people… Well! The American politics are not everything believed by my factory-owning Martiniquais. They favor the proprietor’s land, perhaps… But later, when he becomes Yankee… At today’s owner, they “stick out their tongue”, so that he will sell and take himself off—JH

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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















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



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