La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty-one
The metropolis at once gave testimony to the lively interest she bears for Martinique, and how sorrowfully ring in France the echoes of the catastrophe where forty thousand Martiniquais, forty thousand French, found death.
M. Decrais, Colonial Minister, and official interpreter of French pain, addressed to the acting governor a whole series of telegrams, that l’Officiel de la Martinique has published. Here is the first:
Paris, 10 May, 1902
It is with the most poignant sorrow that the Government has learned of the catastrophe in which the population of the city of Saint-Pierre came to be the victims. I pray you will communicate to our unfortunate fellow citizens of Martinique the expression of profound sympathy felt for them in this great adversity, by the entire Nation.
Never has the Metropolis felt more strongly the powerful ties which have attached us through centuries to the old and faithful colonies of the Antilles. Tomorrow morning, the cruiser d’Assas departs on a mission charged by the Government, for the distribution, as you determine, of the sum of 500,000 francs she carries.
Then, after the telegrams, arrived the embodied mind of the minister, M. Maurice Bloch, the Chief Comptroller of the Pavillion de Flore. He brought 500,000 francs and some consolations aboard the cruiser d’Assas.
I stood by at his arrival. I did not see the 500,000 francs distributed. But I heard pour out the consolations.
It was to the mayor of Fort-de-France, before the Commission of Relief, and here, of what this speech consisted…as to consolation:
Gentlemen, (said the eloquent interpreter of thoughts ministerial) I come in the name of the government of the Republic to bring testimony of the heartfelt and profound sympathy of France.
At the news of the terrific catastrophe which, in falling on one of our oldest and most cherished colonies, annihilated a population of nearly thirty thousand souls, and erased a city great and prosperous from the map of the world, shock and anguish gripped the entire nation.
From the moment he learned of the destruction of Saint-Pierre, M. le ministre des Colonies, who was in the Gironde, returned precipitately to Paris, deciding to go himself to Martinique to distribute the relief and the necessary consolations; but the imperative duties of his charge, the very importance of the measures to be taken, which commanded his presence in the capital, triumphed over his ardent desire, and it fell to me, delegated the great honor of representing him; in me was confided the care of bringing some assuagement to the miseries. Nevertheless, as a clear indication of the personal part he takes in your sufferings, the minister has attached to me his own secretary, the depository of his thoughts, the intimate confidant of his painstaking care.
I have not the eloquence of M. Albert Decrais, I do not possess the inimitable charm of his speech. I do not know how to find the words that he would have said to you, but I will at least follow his instructions and give all my strength and all my soul to softening the misfortunes that have met you here. I will not fail, believe it, at this sacred duty.
Gentlemen, I have learned on this voyage that a superb movement of emotion and of confraternity has taken possession of nations, who run in crowds to your aid, and if it were possible to conceive today of any compensation to your sufferings, it must be found in this magnificent and powerful demonstration of human solidarity.
Before concluding, gentlemen, I give to you in the name of the government, and in my own name also, a last salute to those who are no more. I address a final goodbye to M. le gouverneur Mouttet, who died a victim of duty, to Mme Mouttet, that wife gracious and strong, that French wife who went into danger in all simplicity, to take with her husband the risks of his high mission, as she would have partaken in the honors.
I address a final goodbye to Colonel Gerbault, and to his wife, who, like Mme Mouttet, had not wanted, at the hour of combat against revolting nature, to separate herself from the companion of her life.
I bow before M. Michon, the director of the Bank, before the sisters of charity, the priests, the officers, the magistrates, the functionaries of all ranks, before the youth of our schools, today cut down, before the children and the women, before all our fellow citizens, before all the dear departed; I bow, and I weep, confounded before the magnitude of this disaster and by this desolation.
I have come here to present to you the heartfelt condolences of the government. All the nation felt a poignant sorrow at the news of this catastrophe, which, in a few moments, made the flourishing city of Saint-Pierre, the most important center of the colony, a mass of debris and ruins.
From my arrival, stories have been told to me of the devotion they have shown in carrying aid to the victims, in the rescue of these, the officers, their troops, the officials and municipal magistrates who, like soldiers on the attack, have been the first to place themselves in danger.
I have no need to recall the heroic conduct of the Suchet and of her admirable commander; the memory of all done in the circumstances by the crew of this ship is too present in our minds.
I have no need to insist upon the courageous attitude of your devoted senator, who, forgetting his family misfortunes, and his particular interests, gave himself immediately to the bringing of aid to his fellow citizens in distress.
Last, since the mayor of Fort-de-France is before me, may he permit me to pay homage to the activity, and to a spirit of sacrifice truly admirable, that he has shown in these sorrowful circumstances through which we pass. He has given the administration of the colony the most complete, the most absolute, support.
M. le Gouverneur, thanks to his brilliant qualities as administrator, his always vigilant solicitude, has found the resources necessary to answer the most urgent needs of the unlucky victims of the 8th of May. In the name of the government, I address to M. Lhuerre, who, abruptly deprived of his chief in a critical period without precedent, has ensured without faltering all the services of the colony; as well to the mayor of Fort-de-France, my most sincere felicitations.
For my part, I will strive to bring assuagement to all the unfortunates, and to all the pain that we have sadly witnessed. I am charged by the Ministry of the Colonies with the distribution, in the name of relief, of a sum of 500,000 francs. If the funds are insufficient, I will impart this to the Metropolis, and I am convinced that its heart will not rest insensible to my appeal.
I leave you, gentlemen, to your work. I will be happy to at times revisit your commission. Your unfortunate compatriots can count on all my devotion.
Is it beautiful!
The unfortunate Martiniquais can count on all the devotion of M. Maurice Bloch…
Which does not, otherwise, mandate anything. Anything but consolation.
Death freezes laughter. A decoration of tombs is not appropriate for satire.
But you will agree with me that for the macabre joke, the abovesaid Maurice Bloch and his lord our Ex-Excellence Albert Decrais hold the record…
I have a negro among my friends who jests on the verbal diarrhea that characterizes the people in the Antilles. I saw this negro again after the speech of Bloch.
“You don’t believe we are rehabilitated!”
Let it go. Let it go.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)