La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty-two
The Life in Saint-Pierre Under the Menace of the Volcano
Documents and interviews
Of what life was in Saint-Pierre, during the days leading up to the catastrophe, one can form some idea by reading the previous articles of my reporting. However, still, a few more documents are needed.
At first, we take the eruption of Mount Pelée for an amusing curiosity. We imagine a vaudevilliste who makes one of his characters say: “What! These imbeciles had a volcano and they let it die down!”
The volcano flares up, the volcano smokes. Much better. This gives a new attraction to the mountain Pelée. The crater becomes a goal of “sensational” excursioning. As often as they’ve gone there, and always the same thing, they begin to be bored. The smokes of the volcano give, at length, occasion for the organizing of lovely tourist parties, and they insert in the number of the Colonies dated 2 May, the following notice:
We remind you that on the coming Sunday, 4 May, will take place the great outing to Mount Pelée, organized by members of the Gymnastics and Shooting Society.
Those who have never had the enjoyment of the magnificent panorama that offers to the eye of the spectator astonishment, at an altitude of 1300 meters; those who wish a nearer view of the hole still gaping, by which these recent days escape the thick smokes so frightening to the hearts of inhabitants on the heights of the Prêcheur, and of Sainte-Philomène, must make profit of this fine opportunity and come to register at the Society’s headquarters, rue Longchamps, no later than this evening.
The meeting of excursionists will be at 3:15 in the morning on the Marché du Fort, and depart at 3:30 precisely. On reaching the Rivière-Blanche, settlement of Isnard, they will find their drivers.
Those who do not want to occupy themselves with food, will need to pay a fee of 3 francs; they will not regret being unencumbered by the care of procuring their meals.
According to our information, the company will be very numerous. If the weather is beautiful, the excursionists will pass a day long to be held as a pleasant memory.
It is understood that this day there will not be shooting at the botanical garden.
The worry did not appear until rather late. They busied themselves preserving the gaiety, the insouciance with which they’d welcomed the first smokes, the first ashes. Had they made levity enough of them, these first warnings of the volcano! Yet on this, the creole mind found refinements that are worth preserving.
Such as the end of this unsigned chronicle that appeared in the Colonies, 30 April:
For us islanders of Martinique, April, if it has not been comic, will be tragic, doubly tragic. We will have seen here two eruptions, the one in spirit, the other in Mount Pelée; the one electoral, the other physical; the one of speeches, of propaganda, of rum, of money and ballots, the other of smoke and ashes. The one is not finished, for the electoral volcano fumes yet and will not extinguish itself for twelve days; the other continues, for our Pelée is still active and extinguishes her fires we know not when. Neither of the one, nor the other, do we know what will result. We hope it will be nothing evil.
Yes, in truth, memorable it will be, our April 1902, above all from the point of view of the physical or volcanic eruption, of which one shall speak as one speaks of the 5th of August, 1851, date of the last before this. When we heard talk of that one, we would have liked to be there; this one appears an extraordinary phenomenon, and so much the more piquant that, having believed our Pelée extinguished, we had never hoped to see an event of this type. Why, what was not our surprise, when they came to tell us the mountain Pelée smoked! We took it at first for an April Fool’s prank, and had not believed until we had seen.
Great masses, sometimes blackish, sometimes white, coming out of the earth and mounting rapidly and vertically in the air, turning about themselves. Afterwards, a lull comes on, then the same merry-go-round recommences. If we live for another hundred years, we will keep this memory intact. As a precious thing, we keep also this mysterious ash, issue of mystery and the flaming entrails of the globe, vomited to kilometers of distance by the mouth of our volcano.
No doubt, it is ash much like any other, but unless deprived of all imagination, one will swear this ash takes from the nature of the phenomenon, something of particular interest. We will keep it as a relic. It is fine, light, minute as cement, of a color resembling that of cement, but a little more bluish. This ash is for us a poem. It is done already, in imagination, and if we write it, we will entitle it: The Ash of the Volcano!
And what flames, friends, we would make to fountain from this ash!
We will not omit, for example, to celebrate the beneficial virtue for the cultivation of cocoa and coffee. The inhabitants of the Prêcheur claim that it destroys the microbes on their plantations, and favor it for this. They attest that the sulphurous exhalations which for some time have escaped the mountain, have hastened the flowering of their cocoa plants, and that they have never seen so many early flowers!
Perfect. Provided that it stops there, and that the mountain contents herself with smokes and showings of ash.
But for God! That she does not quake! For at this outburst hearts will quake and dance also! But we do not ourselves expect this evil outburst on her part. Mount Pelée, seeing that the good customs were leaving us, wanted simply to make us eat an April fish. Amiable April! So long as you go to bed, sleep well! And you, May, greetings!
These lines were no doubt a great pleasure to the clowns, the author certainly winning compliments when it appeared before the artistic circle… Read after the cataclysm, it appears to us macabre.
And the anxiety came all the same.
The 1851 eruption of Mount Pelée produced ash and vapors, and no fatalities. The poisson d’avril, the April fish, is an April 1 tradition in France, involving now for some time the sticking of a paper fish on an unsuspecting person’s back.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)