La Catastrophe de la Martinique: fifty-nine

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique











The scientific mission spoken of by M. Knight has sent, by a letter of 8 July to the Minister of the Colonies—a letter received the 20th of July—its advice on the situation of Martinique vis-à-vis the volcano. This letter, communicated to the newspapers, said there is nothing more to fear from the volcano. It conducts itself well. It keeps quiet. It has allowed the members of the commission to make the ascent of the mountain. There is no further danger…none.

It would not take much for them to entice the speculators to hurry in, not to miss this opportunity of acquiring, at a good price, excellent land on the flank of the volcano.

These excellent, good, brave, worthy savants of officialdom… However, they did not have time on their side, as by force M. Decrais demanded the optimistic note… At least the smile of M. Lhurre they had not engaged to show optimism, still following the old tradition…

But look at the indiscipline!

The day of the 9th having barely sped this reassuring letter, the volcano set itself again to throwing ash, stone, smoke, vapor, and fire, on the unlucky country.

No lava, no. These perfections of official wisdom have written that there will no longer be lava.

It was the dew, the beneficial dew, that once again, on the 9th of July, covered the island with an atmosphere of death…

I propose that they create a new and special decoration for these good experts who, on the 8th of July write that all danger has disappeared, and on the 9th the volcano inflicts this burning denial…

The adventures of others, the unfortunate Mouttet, who died…with the forty thousand…for wanting to certify what no man can know…

But it must be they have learned humility.


It came from official experts on an official mission…












The Official History of Martinique During and After the Eruption



It is in the telegrams sent by the government, first by M. Mouttet, afterwards by M. Lhurre. These telegrams, communicated by the press service of the ministry, have been published.

I will not revisit them.

But as today we discuss this question, of knowing whether the administration could be reassured to the point of maintaining…as they had done…by force, these officials at Saint-Pierre, and by this, the inhabitants…

As we pretend that all the public knew it was natural, asking them to stay under a volcano, the menaces of which could not be taken seriously…

Without searching for proofs to the contrary, in information received, in conversations which can be denied, I reproduce simply the dispatches, as posted on the door of the French cable bureau at Fort-de-France, then printed by the Journal officiel of the colony:


Fort-de-France, 3 [May]: Last night, the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée took on great proportions. The city of Saint-Pierre and the surrounding fields were covered by a thick bed of greyish ash. Numerous detonations were heard, and they saw the summit of the mountain rent by lightning.

Finally, towards two in the morning, the volcano vomited flames and projected stones of heavy enough volume that some fell on the district called “Montagne d’Irlande”, near the Prêcheur, situated as the crow flies more than 2 kilometers from the crater.

This morning, the road to Prêcheur is nearly cut off by thick smoke and very strong odor of sulphur.

At Saint-Pierre, an intense fog prevents circulation of the tramway at Fonds-Coré. A strong panic reigns, and the districts of the Prêcheur, Morne-Rouge, Saint-Philomene, are deserted by the inhabitants.

At Fort-de-France, the roofs of the houses and the streets are covered in a light bed of ashes.

Saint-Pierre, 8 o’clock this morning. New information furnished by M. Sully: At Prêcheur, they report tremors well defined, and underground rumblings.





At Saint-Pierre the rain of ashes, which stopped for an instant, came back with greater intensity. It is probable the eruption will increase in violence.

The thickness of the ash fall this night is 1 millimeter at the Mouillage, and more than 2 millimeters at the Prêcheur. The population is very disturbed.

Fort-de-France, 4 [May]. The volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée continues. Yesterday, near 6 o’clock in the evening a breeze carried the rain of ashes towards the west, forming a black cloud very opaque that extended to the horizon. From 6:30 to nine o’clock in the evening, this rain of ashes fell on Saint-Pierre and environs, and a thudding was heard all night.

This morning the rain of ashes continues, but falls no longer on Saint-Pierre.

Saint-Pierre, 9 o’clock a.m. New information furnished by M. Sully: The eruption continues with the same intensity, the ashes continue to fall in abundance downwind of the crater. A new crater has opened to the north of those already existing.

At Saint-Pierre have fallen 2 millimeters of ashes, at Fonds-Coré 12, at the Prêcheur very great quantities.

The Rivère-Blanche, whose run had increased considerably has completely dried up.

Saint-Pierre, 5 [May]. Information furnished by M. Sully on the volcanic eruption: This morning, a period of calm; ash continuing to fall on the Prêcheur and other places downwind of the crater. Ash fall this night at Saint-Pierre, 3 tenths of a millimeter. They count today 4 millimeters of ashes at Saint-Pierre, 5 centimeters at the Prêcheur, and 25 to 30 centimeters on the middle slopes of the mountain. Fields abandoned by the population, complete shortage of food and water; animals dying of starvation and thirst; tree branches breaking under the weight of ashes. Last night, intensity of the eruption, with deployment of considerable atmospheric electricity, lightning, thunder, tongues of flame. The inhabitants of Fonds-Coré have deserted the place.

Last night, ashes fell in equal abundance on Macouba.

In the past hour, they have announced that the Rivière-Blanche is overflowing in an extraordinary manner that threatens the Guérin factory. M. Guérin has left his home and reached the city with all his family.

Saint-Pierre, 5th May, last hour.

12:35. Rivière-Blanche becomes a furious torrent rolling with muddy lava. “Rivière-Sèche”, which had been dry these past days, rolls with a small quantity of blackish water.

1:22. At present, a very powerful eruption, the sea rises, a shop has, they say, been flooded, the boats are on the shore. They have closed all the stores; a tidal wave has broken the wharf. The Rubis is on the shore, this is no doubt due to an underground tremor. Information very grave; terrible panic.




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique dead

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



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