La Catastrophe de la Martinique: fifty-three

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique















With Admiral Servan


An explanation of the phenomenon. The ideas of the admiral on the future of Martinique.
An order of the day. The army and the population.



Admiral Servan (or more properly, commodore, but it is shorter to say admiral*) commands the naval station of the Atlantic. I had met him and I had been presented to him at Port-au-Prince. At the moment of the catastrophe, he was aboard the Tage at New Orleans. Returning in all haste, he arrived at Fort-de-France the day before I was brought there on the Saint-Domingue.

He had not seen the catastrophe. But the observations, the notes and the reports of the officers, of the Jouffroy and the Suchet, he’d had communicated to him, and he has also, though they were not under his orders, obtained information from the officers and engineers of the Pouyer-Quertier, the factory ship of the Compagnie française, of the underwater telegraph. He could thus study the phenomenon, research the causes, and form a pertinent opinion.

It was to ask this opinion I boarded the Tage, where, to mention in passing, I did not find the same commander as at Port-au-Prince. M. Bary had in effect been killed the month before. And Fort-de-France (army, navy, and civilian) still with much to say, despite the volcano. But, let it go… It acts here, the volcano, and only the volcano.

Admiral Servan, himself, practicing in his capacity of old sailor, with a mind to which always, of phenomena sighted, an explanation is necessary, had immediately found this explanation. While an astronomer would search in the stars, an aeronaut in the clouds, an engineer in the mines, underground; he, a sailor, divines in, and searches the sea. At bottom. And this, he has found.

“My opinion on the eruption,” (he tells me) “it is uniquely a question of water.”

“Of water?”

“Yes, of water. All the phenomena reported explain themselves by the action of water.”

“All the smoke.”

“It is not smoke, it is water vapor. It is water passing over hot mud that makes the fumaroles at the base of the mountain. Although the ‘clouds’ that come out of the crater throw mud, stones, and ashes, these come from enormous quantities of water vaporized by contact with deep layers heated by the central fire.”





“And these enormous quantities of water?”

“They are caused by a fissure in the bottom of the sea. And what proves to me the existence of this fissure, indisputably, is the rupture of the cable off the shore of Saint-Pierre, and the marine phenomena observed by the officers of the Pouyer-Quertier. The action of the sea, in nature, is enormous.

“Now, in Algeria… See what occurs in the region of the high plain, after strong earthquakes and strikes of the sirocco, when the rains fall. The water infiltrates into the heated terrestrial layers, reducing itself to steam, that rises, shaking the earth… You follow my reasoning. You grasp my analogies…”

“Yes, admiral.”

“Well! The fissure which is produced a few days before the eruption in the great depths, those where the marine maps are labeled “bottomless”…an enormous quantity of water has penetrated into the terrestrial layers of high temperature. Formation of vapors. The vapors cannot rise again by the same route. You grasp this. The weight of the sea. Then, as they cannot remain there, as they need to come out, they search elsewhere. Now, note that we are under deep layers at Martinique, where there have been six volcanoes, where there are six underground chimneys more or less blocked. Which is the least obstructed? That of Mount Pelée, which smoked in 1851. It is this chimney that takes our water vapor. Out jumps the plug. And we have the mud of the Guérin factory. It is loaded with heavy gas, with ashes, and we have the whirlwind, which falls rolling towards the city of Saint-Pierre, and destroys it.

“I have designed a theoretical map of volcanoes of the Antilles that explains this.”


(And the admiral has me look at a schematic map, most amusing, of which he has sent me a tracing, for which I am most thankful to him, because he has given me the occasion of joining to my articles of a reporter, a document of a general officer of the Army of the Sea, a document which will be, I hope, most appreciated by the professionals in volcanoes, if one at any time gives to my notes of a reporter, the honor of reading them.)




1902 hand-drawn map of Admiral Servan on volcanic theory





*In English, not so much shorter, but the French term here is contre-amiral.


The matter of Barry [Hess spells the name with one “r”] obviously asks to be found out. Here is a paragraph from Figaro, that explains the scandal. As to Servan’s culpability, if any, for evidence we have the sympathetic editorialist’s concession, nonetheless, that Servan’s character was difficult. Then Hess, who gives us a sample of this personality, and records—a mild hint—that rumors were rife in the Antilles.



As to the first complaint invoked, we will hardly hear of it. We have said already that it was absolutely false, not to say ridiculous, to attribute the suicide of the unhappy commander Barry to the tense relationship he had with his admiral. First, the relations of the two officers were cordial, to which the last letter written by the commander to his parents, a letter that has been read to us, gives full witness. The truth is much more simple. The tragic death of commander Barry was due, in fact, to a crisis, sudden and precipitous, of a grave disease from which he had suffered a long time, that had previously forced him to disembark from a ship, to take a leave that had become imperative. It is therefore absurd and dishonest to all at once account to the difficult character of the admiral Servan, a suicide caused by a very deep and very great pain.


Figaro, 30 July 1902, Marc Landry



(The article, going on, ascribes to tropical conditions in the Antilles the epidemics of typhoid fever on French naval ships, the political necessity of having the naval division stationed in the Antilles during this history-packed summer of 1902, with the uprising in Haiti, and the disastrous volcanoes, both in Martinique and St. Vincent. The article describes the great misery, in tropical heat, for the sailors below-decks.

Camille Pelletan, a socialist, was Naval Minister during this period. In 1904, with his support, the sailors of the French navy went on strike.)



La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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















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



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