La Catastrophe de la Martinique: fifty-eight

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique








And I come again to M. le sénateur Knight.

He has lost one hundred and four members of his family, and all his belongings, all his fortune (save the 125,000 francs given him by the Bank), but, he says, this personal ruin does not preoccupy him. It is nothing. He thinks of the citizens.

In quitting Martinique he made for them, through the channel of the journal l’Opinion, his adieus, which are worth preserving.

See them here:


“On the eve of leaving Martinique in mourning, I send to my fellow citizens in brotherly salute, not a goodbye, but a brotherly until we meet again. Evils without precedent have stricken our dear country. The catastrophe of the 8th of May weighs as an anguished memory on our hearts forever wounded.

“Saint-Pierre, the soul of our colony, the hub of activity and intellect, and of all aspiration, was annihilated in a few minutes, burned, wrenched, crushed by the devouring flames of the volcano, and the ruins still smoking cover thirty-five thousand of our fellow citizens, at rest in the eternal sleep. Death has mown harshly: old men, women, adults, children, the past, the present, the future, all have perished. What family does not weep over the loss of a dear one!

“What misery for the lucky survivors for whom the brutal eruption has consummated their ruin!

“What can I say of the environs of the great city? The Prêcheur, Grande-Rivière, Macouba, all the places, yesterday so animated, now to stunned eyes a heartbreaking tableau of abominable destruction?

“The populations of Prêcheur, Grande-Rivière, Macouba, of Basse-Point, of Ajoupa-Bouillon, of Morne-Rouge, and all these twenty-five thousand inhabitants, have of necessity, to escape death, abandoned the places they were attached to by so many ties, and sought refuge in others less threatened.

“Everywhere the worry and the anxiety are great, and yet you do not despair, for you believe with me that the evil volcano has finished its work of desolation; and again, with courage, energy, and the patriotism also that you have never abandoned, you envision the possibility of reconstructing what has been made to disappear, by the pitiless forces of nature. Moreover, are we not fortified in our hope by great universal demonstrations of pity, by those spontaneous acts of human solidarity, of which we have received so many comforting testimonies?





“Thank you to all the peoples who have sorrowfully taken in the news of our disasters!

“France, like a mother bereaved, who has lost her beloved children, sends us the cry of her poignant distress. It has been my part to assist through trials without name, to have shared with you the same joys, and to have known with you all the mourning. I remained in the midst of you, to lend without striking bargains, my contribution to all those who, in a magnificent outpouring of generosity, have exerted themselves to organize the relief.

“We must give homage to the unflagging activity, the devotion, the total competence of our acting governor, M. Lhurre, to whose responsibility fell, in these tragic circumstances, the heavy burden of facing every difficulty.

“You have seen Sévère, the mayor of Fort-de-France, make his deployments with a zeal that touches upon his great qualities as leader, aiding the governor in warding off the miseries that threaten us.

“We hold them in our gratitude, as well as all who were employed by him, among others, those under the direction of M. Cappa, who have ceaselessly risked their lives in the dangerous work of incinerating the corpses of Saint-Pierre.

“You do not forget the admirable contributions of the Danish cruiser Valkyrien, the Pouyer-Quertier, and the cruiser Suchet, whose commander Le Bris, his officers, and all his crew, helped to rescue the menaced inhabitants with a spirit of abnegation above all praise, and tireless good will.

“We hold a sentiment of gratitude for the valiant soldiers of the garrison who, under the direction of Colonel Dain, have rendered invaluable services, risking at times the greatest dangers.

“You will remember the outpouring of charity which animated the neighboring republic. [A reference to the United States.]

“We hold the comforting memory of the beautiful characters revealed in the course of these trials. We have seen Grelet, the mayor of Prêcheur, remain for twelve days under the rain of ashes, in the midst of his charges, at prey to the worst sufferings, the worst pains, assisted, up to the last moment, by the curé of his parish, l’abbé Després, who did not leave the community until after the last inhabitant had been placed in safety.

“The mayor of Grande-Rivière, Emile Théophile, that of Macouba, Marelo, the deputy mayor of Morne-Rouge, and the mayor of Fond-Saint-Denis had each, in his moment, a heroic attitude.





“Finally, you will give homage to the officials of Basse-Pointe who are named: de Montaigne, conductor of the bridges and causeways; Lodi, receiver of records; Mamor, of contributions. Under the direction of de Montaigne, these devoted citizens, without an instant of repose, have insured the resupply of the population and the police, after seeing to the rescue of families threatened to be carried away by the flooding rivers.

“With you, I send a salute filled with emotion to the memories of Governor Mouttet and Mme Mouttet, of Colonel Gerbaut and of Mme Gerbaut, and of so many others who have found death in following the idea of duty. Before all the bereaved families, I bow with sorrow and respect.

“I join with you in saluting the memory of all our cherished dead.

“And now, my task is complete; I separate from you, having other duties to accomplish in France. These duties you know. There is nothing more imperative to me, than to prescribe safeguards for the interests of our unfortunate country.

“I will put into the accomplishment of my mandate, all my energy, all my heart.”


M. le sénateur Knight is in fact preoccupied with filling his mandate to the best interests of his voters. Here are the statements Figaro accorded him on 13 July:


I intend to ask that the Minister of the Colonies demand of the chief of the scientific mission what is the exact situation of Martinique vis-à-vis the volcano. I want him to tell me what steps he will take for placing the population in safety.

As to the inhabitants of Fort-de-France, who are in full prosperity, and believe themselves in safety; is it necessary to introduce doubt in their minds? These people are relatively happy. Must they be frightened by being told they are presently in danger? For my part, I would not attempt it.

Before embarking on this question, it is necessary that we have ascertained the imminence of danger. If the danger persists, evacuation of the whole island is imposed within forty-eight hours. If Martinique is still habitable, I ask the government then for 40 millions that I will distribute; fifteen millions for public works, and 25 millions for permitting the inhabitants to repair their fortunes.

When I think of what England did for the island of Maurice [Mauritius], during a cyclone of 1889, I am truly saddened. At the news of the catastrophe, which was nothing compared to ours, the English Parliament convened at once, and voted to send 25 millions to the island of Maurice. Compare. Finally, in 1891, when an eruption came upon Martinique, and which destroyed vast properties, the metropolis—I said that they have never done anything for us; it is an error—we had at our disposal 3 millions—without interest, true—payable in ten annuities. We have already reimbursed 1.5 million francs.

The foreigner, notably the Americans, who have sent us 3 millions, must smile with contempt, seeing the small enthusiasm of France for the rescue of her children!




In 1891, Martinique was badly damaged by a hurricane, which also damaged a stretch of the Caribbean, and reached Florida. Senator Knight uses the word “eruption”, but the event was weather, in that case. 

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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















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



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