La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique













1:27. Sea withdraws 25 to 30 meters before returning to shore passing the normal level by several meters; numerous formations of fumaroles and crevices in the valley of the Rivière-Blanche from the mouth to the volcanic crater. Situation very grave; terrible panic.

1:35. At ten minutes after 1:00 o’clock, a flow of lava escaped the dry pond with an enormous amount of smoke, and descended to the sea in less than three minutes by the valley of the Riviére-Blanche. There are very probably victims.

Saint-Pierre, 3:00 in the evening. Near 1:00 o’clock a flow of lava precipitated from the crater and directed itself towards the valley of the Rivière-Blanche. Guérin factory partly collapsed; under the ruins all the personnel of the factory.

Victims, in view of the suddenness of the disaster, would seem to be very numerous.

The lava, arriving at the sea, produced a retreating action much accentuated, the waves returning again to the shore produced a surge that engulfed the two steamboats of the factory. Terrible panic; inhabitants make for the heights.

Saint-Pierre, 3:29 in the evening. The volcano smokes strongly, the earth trembles lightly. The tidal wave has ended; it had not lasted longer than a quarter of an hour. The boats in the harbor did not suffer; the surge of the sea had simply brought them closer to the shore. At the moment, the boats appear ready to raise anchor.

5th May, 5:00 in the evening. The Guérin factory no longer exists. Along a course of over 600 meters, all has been covered to around 10 meters thickness of muddy lava. A huge trench has been opened by the passage of lava.

8:30. The route to the district of the Rivière-Blanche no longer exists; it is covered by a bed of mud around 28 meters.

9:30. They report from Fonds-Coré that the Isnard distillery, the hill of Saint-Martin, the factory of the Rivière-Blanche, and the stores of the Furnon distillery have completely disappeared. The Bernard distillery is greatly damaged. The mail carrier to Fonds-Coré, Sainte-Philomene, and the Prêcheur, could not continue and had to retrace his route.

The departure of the American steamer Korona has been set back to Thursday, the 8th.

Fort-de-France 6th [May]. Information furnished by M. Sully. Last night, eruption continued, very strong. Towards three in the morning, a loud rumbling, due probably to the overflowing of the crater, making itself heard for around twenty minutes. This morning, the overflow of mud is quite abundant.

Information furnished by M. Landes:





Mount Pelée was partially discernable this morning. The dam of the dry pond broken at the foot of the Petit-Bonhomme no longer exists. We saw roll from the heights, onto the side of Petit-Bonhomme that faces the Morne-la-Croix, blocks of incandescent lava. A few moments afterwards a fall of new lava and enormous blocks on Morne-la-Croix that mount to the wall of Petit-Bonhomme.


All this made a fair set of terrifying phenomena.

So terrifying they permitted no more of it on the 7th, of posting anything other than reassuring communications. This is proven; this is sworn to.

And they had it said by M. Landes:


“In my opinion, Mount Pelée presents no more danger to the city of Saint-Pierre than Vesuvius offers Naples.”


And, M. Sully:


“To go by outside appearances, the intensity of the eruption has decreased markedly. The height of the column of ash, which in the night from Sunday to Monday reached 5000 meters, went no further in the forenoon today than 2500 meters. The eruption of smoking mud in the valley of the Rivière-Blanche went no further into the sea. Many tourists have gone to the crater.”


Then, as these notes were not sufficient, as they were reminded that in 1851 the population had not been reassured, but for the declarations of experts convened in commission, on the 7th, they posted:


Fort-de-France, 7 [May], 10:00 a.m. The governor will name a commission to effect a study of the characteristics of the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée. This commission is composed of MM. Lieutenant Colonel Gerbault, director of artillery, president; Mirville, pharmacist-in-chief to the colonial troops; Léonce, sub-engineer, colonial, of Bridges and Roads; Doze and Landes, professors of sciences at the Lycée of Saint-Pierre. The results of the commission’s work will be made known to the public.


And then came the supreme irony of fate!

Two hours after the annihilation of Saint-Pierre, when they knew nothing of the catastrophe, they posted this at Fort-de-France:





The commission named by the administration of Martinique, to study the volcanic phenomena of Mount Pelée, convened the 7th of May at Saint-Pierre, at the Intendence building, under the honorary presidency of M. le Gouveneur. After reviewing the stated facts since the beginning of the eruption, it recognizes:


  1. That the phenomena produced up to now are nothing abnormal; and that to the contrary, they are identical to phenomena observed in other volcanoes;
  1. That the craters of the volcano have largely opened due to expansion of vapors, and that the muds shall continue as they are produced already, without provoking earth tremors, or projections of eruptive rock;
  1. That the numerous detonations which are heard frequently, are produced by the explosion of vapors, localized to the chimney, and which are in no way caused by collapses of the terrain;
  1. That the flows of mud and of hot water are localized to the valley of the Riviére-Blanche;*
  1. That the relative position of the craters and of the valleys, which empty themselves into the sea, allows assurance that the security of Saint-Pierre remains complete.
  1. That the blackish waters agitating the rivers Pères, Basse-Pointe, and Prêcheur, had kept their ordinary temperature, and their abnormal color was due to the ashes they carried.

The commission continues to follow attentively all the subsequent phenomena, and will keep the population current with the least observable occurrence.


Is there anything more tragic…and do you know of anything more macabre, than this official statement, of six official recitations of official encouragement, drafted by official experts, under the honorable presidency of the governor?

When those who had written it were themselves afraid.

When, while they swore the phenomena of the volcano were nothing abnormal, they felt themselves sinking into the unknown, and they were afraid…

And they lied…! !





*This was an official lie from the commission officially presided over by the governor. On the 6th (I cite a later article from the journal les Colonies and from private letters that say so) there had been a flow of hot mud in the Rivière des Pères, and the Roxelane, that is to say, in Saint-Pierre itself. The governor knew it, the mayor knew it, all the members of the commission knew it…and however, to keep the voters, they spoke to the contrary. Abominable lie! [JH]



The Korona was a ship of the Quebec Line, so American only in the broader sense. She was not harbored at Martinique, but as the article below tells, at Barbados, arriving at Saint-Pierre on the 9th, the day after the disaster.


Steamer Roraima’s Fate

The Korona arrived at New York with two survivors


(The Houston Daily Post, Thursday Morning, May 22, 1902)


New York, May 21—The steamer Korona has arrived from Fort-de-France, Martinique, having on board two survivors of the steamer Roraima, lost in the St. Pierre disaster. There are Ellery Scott, chief officer, and Charles Thompson (colored), assistant purser. Both decline to discuss their experiences. Neither show much evidence of hard usage.

G. Johnson of St. Louis was traveling in the West Indies, and was at Barbados when the eruption occurred. He also came up on the Korona and made this statement.

“About 4:30 in the afternoon of May 8th, in Barbados it suddenly became intensely dark. The people were panic stricken. All the lamps had been lighted in the houses. A shower of volcanic ashes covered the entire place to a depth of three inches or more. The noise of the eruption was plainly heard and sounded like cannonading. When the Korona arrived off St. Pierre on Friday morning, May 9th, the town was still afire. The place was a picture of absolute desolation. We went in until we were about 500 yards offshore and did not see a living thing. We could not see Pelée for the clouds of smoke that obscured it. The water was full of floating bodies.

Captain Jean W. Carey of the Korona related how he reached St. Pierre, and on learning of the destruction of the Roraima put back to Fort-de-France.

“On the way up,” said Captain Carey, “Scott told me the story of their terrible experience. He said the Roraima got into the harbor about [illegible] a.m. and about 8:00 or 8:30 a terrible explosion came from the mountain. In an instant it began to rain fire and mud over the harbor.


Here is a story from the same page of the Houston Daily Post, on the Goliad, Texas tornado of 1902, notable here for the example it gives of strict racial segregation, even in reporting of casualties, that some of the whites in Martinique admired about the United States.


Negroes Tenderly Cared For


A fact very noticeable is the kind care and attention given the colored people. Everything that can be done for them is being done. It is an object lesson for some of the critics of Southern people. Everything that skill and attention can do is being done to save both white and black as well as Mexicans who were injured in the storm.

Never before has this section been visited by a cyclone. Gulf storms have occurred occasionally which have resulted in the uprooting of trees or unroofing of houses, and Indianola and Galveston have suffered. But a dipping, whirling, forceful cyclone has made its first appearance in this section. Only one man was prepared, and taking his family into the cellar, witnessed the destruction of his home—not even the foundation was left.


No Additional Deaths Have Occurred


No additional deaths in the hospital wards of the whites in the last twenty-four hours and all the patients are considered on fair road to recovery with one or two exceptions. Among the negroes there are several who are in very serious condition. The Mexicans are all getting well. No sign of lockjaw or blood poison.







Bonus clippings, World of 1902: 



Newspaper clipping of freak corncob stuck in tree


An illustration from The Houston Daily Post (5/22/1902), showing an effect of the tornado.



Newspaper clipping of "tornado" in Indianola, Texas, really hurricane


The disaster (hurricane) of Indianola, Texas, referenced in the article above, showing that names for storms hadn’t been standardized in that era.



La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page














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



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