La Catastrophe de la Martinique: fifty-seven
Senator Knight Again
I made the return crossing in the company of M. le sénateur Knight. I have mentioned already, in the course of this volume, some of the “political views” of the senator, and how, violently attacked by his enemies, he defends himself no less violently.
But he has spoken to me also of many other things…not of the eruption of the 8th, because he had not seen it, but on the state of the ruins.
His observations accord closely with those I have recorded and published. One, however, seems to me strange.
The senator did not see any ashes at Saint-Pierre. And this should be noted, only to show how in these sorts of inquiries the truth is difficult to disengage, how at times the most perspicacious are able to not see…the same evidence. Saint-Pierre was covered in ashes. Everyone saw them. I saw them. The moist ashes made a thick carpet. All the photographs show ashes.
And that does not prevent M. Knight, important personage, big businessman, chief of a political party, senator, perhaps tomorrow statesman, from often, very often, repeating to me that there were no ashes at Saint-Pierre!
It is not, however, a question of political interest. There is no advantage to anyone to deny or to affirm that there were ashes at Saint-Pierre; it is a simple question of fact…and we do not yet agree on this question.
And I have observed, as long as I have been reporting, that never, on the facts, on the evidences, can one find agreement among witnesses.
Judge what this can do when any interest is in play.
Thus, M. Knight, elected by the majority of color, has an interest in presenting his electors as a people of superior humanity. He has always been very annoyed when I’ve spoken to him of pillages, when I’ve spoken to him of distributions of relief, etc. The panics he does not remember either. He knows only one thing. He is the senator of a population heroic…and even so, if you push him a little, without reticence he will tell you amiably that he has himself, like others elsewhere, accomplished a few heroic actions.
He recounts, for example, that passing with the Suchet before the communities of the North, a town threatened, so that no one on the Suchet dared risk a landing, the state of the sea breaking terribly, he went there himself, for the sake of reassuring the population with a few good speeches. That, I will remember he told this us, Marcel Hutin and myself, when on the day of our arrival at Bordeaux we dined at his side.
Marcel Hutin has not published it in his interview with the senator. But he has published this [Senator Knight, speaking of himself]:
I have the advantage of enjoying a certain reputation on the island; I had arrived a few days previously, to add my influence to the Republican candidates. Already the volcanic phenomena were in process, though no one could foresee the danger this threatened.
If I wanted to recount to you all that has passed, I could not. I have assisted at heroic scenes, because, it must be said, all the population of Martinique have done their duty admirably. The mayor of Prêcheur, the brave M. Grelet, a man of color, has given the example of self-abnegation, remaining among his charges throughout all the times of danger; he was the last to save himself. The first day, when I went to Prêcheur to bring aid, no one wanted aid; what they wanted was to flee before the peril, for the flames were everywhere.
When I came from the Suchet, I said that I could bring back only about 250 people; tomorrow, I told them, I will come to save you all; and I then had taken back to the Suchet, by canoers of remarkable skill and disinterest, that have no equal in history, I am sure, all the women, all the children of young age; the others remained, asking that the next day we come back for them again. God wanted us to find them, happily, for these brave people would have perished from a death most terrible.
Now, see what I have read on the people of Prêcheur, in the journal Les Colonies, on the 7th of May.
The state of mind of the unhappy population of Prêcheur is deplorable. The morale has very much collapsed, and the mayor, M. Grelet, despite all his efforts, has not managed to raise it. Yesterday, on the order of the governor, a new convoy of food was brought to Prêcheur under care of M. Pignier, local service agent at Saint-Pierre (6000 kilograms of salted meat, beans, cod). The representatives of the administration met to effect the distribution of the food, the greatest of their difficulties. Barely arrived on the shore, the barge was overrun by the crowd, and the official assigned to that service had all the pains in the world to make the unfortunate inhabitants understand that it was necessary for them to show vouchers with the mayor’s stamp, acquired beforehand.
“M. Grelet, the mayor of Prêcheur, for all his activity, is overwhelmed and overworked. The steamer sent by the administration has brought to Saint-Pierre a great number of families of Prêcheur, who do not want to stay longer in this locality. Many others could not find a place on board, the boat needing to take to sea suddenly, not to be exposed to sinking with all its passengers.
This occurred on the 6th, after the small eruption of the 5th. Imagine the state of mind of the unfortunate people having to strengthen itself after the terrible eruption of the 8th. Heroes are not persons who run on the streets, no more in Martinique than elsewhere. Men are the same all over, whatever their race. But one does not see, in this, reproach to M. le sénateur Knight. He is within his role presenting his voters as heroes. And I am in my role also, my role of reporter, in putting forth again what exceeds a little too much the permitted measure.
There are in our French character some disconcerting aspects. We have, for a few years, lost the sense of measure. In matters of heroism especially. It must be heroes for us, always and everywhere. A gentleman is attacked on any point of our colonial domain…and defends his skin. He is a hero. In this present case of Martinique, people go by boat in search of others…they are heroes. But if one reflects a little, the feeling goes off. Truly, this is an exaggeration…
Note that I do not particularly look to quibble with anyone. But assigning blame for exaggeration and bluff on the Americans, it is right that I do not keep silent about our own.
Of information available, the National Library of France has:
Born in 1869, died in the 1940s.
Editor-in-chief of l’Echo de Paris.
Est arrêté le 10 juillet 1942 à Paris (10e arrondissement) pour “refus de porter l’insigne juif.”
Arrested on July 10, 1942 (10th Arrondissement) for “refusing to wear the Jewish insignia”.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)