La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty-three

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique












I read in the last number of the Colonies, this of the 7th:


The panic at Saint-Pierre


The migration from Saint-Pierre continues to be more and more intense. From the morning to the evening, and all through the night there is nothing but a rush of people, carrying packages, trunks, children, making for Fonds-Saint-Denis, the Morne d’Orange, Carbet, etc, etc. While the steamers of the Compagnie Girard could not be fuller.


And the paper calls it a “movement of fear”.

I have published in other chapters, the declarations of M. Clerc, and the letter of M. Riffard, on the apprehensions of M. Landes. Here is an interview with the professor in the paper of the 7th.


The morning of the 5th, M. Landes saw torrents of smoke escape the upper part of the mountain, at the place called, “Terre Fendue”. He noted that the Rivière-Blanche swelled periodically and produced a volume of water five times above the normal volume of the largest flows. It carried blocks of rock that might have weighed up to fifty tons. M. Landes was at the Perinelle settlement, and looked at 12:50 at the dry pond; he saw a whitish mass descend the slope of the mountain with the speed of an express train, to push into the valley of the river, marking its passage with a thick white smoke. It is this mass of mud and not of lava that submerged the factory. Later, at the base of the Morne-Lénard, it seemed to M. Landes that a new branch existed, and that it could be filled by lava. The valley received the contents of the dry pond, which broke its dam, allowing the muddy waters to fall from a height of 700 meters. If, a surprising thing, there was no earthquake engendered by this enormous fall, it is because the sea acted as a buffer.

It can be taken from the observations of M. Landes, that yesterday morning the central mouth of the volcano, situated at the upper vents, vomited more than ever, but intermittently, pulverized yellow and black material.

It is necessary to flee from the valleys, and live at a certain height, to avoid being submerged, as were Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Vesuvius, added M. Landes, had but rarely produced victims. Pompeii was evacuated in time and they found only a few corpses buried in the city.

Conclusion: Mount Pelée does not offer more danger to the people of Saint-Pierre, than Vesuvius to those of Naples.





But the journal adds:


However, this morning, the mountain is uncovered. The Morne Lacroix shows now at its base, at the side of the full pond, a notch of 100 meters long, at 40 meters high, making possible the partial collapse of this imminence, that could lead to an earthquake.


And I take again from this same number, this account of the phenomena of the 6th:


The 6th, around 7 o’clock, the outflow of the Rivière des Pères swelled. The river rolled with black water. They believe it was a simple increase in volume caused by the rains. Suddenly, a torrent arrived carrying a very great quantity of bamboo; then afterwards trees, and enormous rocks, that one can still see in the bed of the river. The bridge at the Perinelle settlement has disappeared, so they say, under these blocks of rock. If not for a wall of the property strong enough not to give way, the stables would have been carried off by the torrent.

This first overflow lasted until ten o’clock, diminished little by little, and began again around 2 o’clock in the morning. The Roxelane overflowed in its turn, around 7 o’clock in the evening. The water carried ash. At the mouth of the river floated dead fish.


Would it not be normal that such phenomena give rise to “panic”?

On the 6th, the north quarter of Saint-Pierre was threatened…

On this same day of the 6th, a resident of Saint-Pierre, M. Berte, wrote to his son the two letters that follow:


Saint-Pierre, Tuesday, 6 May, 3 o’clock in the morning


Joseph comes to wake me, and I learn that a great part of the population has carried itself onto the boulevards, going in the direction of Fonds-Saint-Denis. It seems that the Rivière des Pères is invaded by a flow of mud. I distinctly perceive an odor of swamp. The sky is clear, however. Before making a decision, I consult upon the following: It has rained in the night, which explains the sickly odor that pervades the city; the detonations have not grown in intensity, they are more frequent and call to mind thunder. The mists of the mountain have disappeared, which allows me to observe well that the crater has above it neither ash nor flame.





The weather to the east is rainy.

Rue Castelneau is in a stir. It is a dance of lanterns quite original; many people carry bundles on their heads, and walk quickly. The electric lights haven’t worked since yesterday, the machinery was stuffed full of ashes. For all this weight, I do not believe that the moment has come to follow my affrighted fellow citizens…and I remain, despite Joseph Claude, and Pauline.

Yesterday, a 1:30, the Guérin factory was engulfed; a wave 2 meters high overtook the Roxelane, mounting along the river and stopping at the Pont de Pierre. The tide pushed itself as far as Carbet. Some time after the morning, the Rivière-Blanche rolled with a great mass of boiling mud. Two mounted patrolmen leaving Saint-Pierre for Prêcheur around 6 a.m. were easily able to cross this river; around nine, they were stopped by the violence of the overflow, and returned to Prêcheur. As of now, the current rises before the eyes, and on the boulevards one could follow, by the steam it releases, the avalanche of mud hurled in prodigious leaps onto the factory… The factory has been completely covered. All this part of Saint-Pierre is no more than a plain, a horrid, stinking, hot plain, fuming abundantly. From a distance, you would say that a crater is forming itself in this place.


[then, bad explanations of the phenomenon]


It is 4 o’clock, my dear Émile. I dress myself and run to post this note. Keep this. Needless to say to you that I have not yet lost my sangfroid. When I can no longer take notes, I will know that the danger is imminent.




6 May, 11 o’clock in the morning


I went to visit the place of yesterday’s disaster. The factory is buried under a mountain of mud. From where the factory had been, up to the settlement of Neuilly, it is a plain of black mud. The houses that border the road on the right have disappeared. Mud from side to side. I made my way to M. Isnard’s, and I was able to witness the fall of mud. We hear a detonation in the mountains, then a trail of white vapors run with dizzying speed from the place where the explosion is produced. For a half-minute, we track these vapors, then they are lost to our view, and abruptly you see surge before you a sea of smoking mud merge into the sea. This happening with a formidable rumbling, perceptible as far as Saint-Pierre. The bed of the Rivière-Blanche, since the gorge that flowed into this river has been filled, it is to be presumed the mud will invade the Rivière-Sèche.





Where does this mud come from? It is the Morne Lacroix, and all the parts of it rising to the mountain that, when the boiling water and the gas of the crater come out, are flung into the new lake. The volcano shrugs off all this mass of earth by its quakings. The result is a new configuration of the mountain. The ridge will be divided into two parts at the summit: on the one side, the Prêcheur; the other overlooking Saint-Pierre.

The volcano is still in full activity; I believe there is even a strengthening. The columns of smoke grow gigantic from the crater; they are more and more compressed, and lighted freely by the fire of the interior. Never have I seen them rise so high and in such mass. The effect is riveting and puts you in a trance, despite yourself. If I had no children, I would have been in Dos-de-Mulet, in the company of some friends, standing watch at the marvelous spectacle that must be cooking in the oven of the furnace! I can unluckily see only from a distance.

The wave, that has made itself felt in Saint-Pierre and its environs, has reached the road at Fonds-Coré. It damaged all the houses in this village; now the appearance is the same as what a tidal wave leaves in its passage. The sea of mud is a thing hideous to see. Phlegmatic as one is, it provokes a certain emotion when seen. The sinister noise that surrounds you, and spreads through the earth, these naked testimonies that offer themselves to one’s sight, the absolute change in things, yesterday so alive, all this throws you into a deep reflection.

One returns from these desolated places, in soul, or spirit, I don’t know, preoccupied. The phenomenon is beautiful, sublime, because so great, but how sad as well! I cannot compare it to a typhoon, for I have never seen one; it must be more grandiose, and more horrible, at the same time.

The population is frantic, the women above all. There are prostitutes who have, in their youth, burned bamboo and reeds, who will accost you without a stitch or reason. They cry in your face, without knowing you, “Oh, well, there is no God.” They see everywhere the work of the occult. If their daughters find a man, thank God! If the volcano goes into eruption, thank God! If they break their leg, thank God! Curses on the men, then, who exploit the ignorant credulity of the crowd.



Photo of tidal wave at Saint-PIerre, Martinique 1902





M. Landes, in 1902, had the idea of the death toll at Pompeii that the state of excavations had led the world to assume. It is now estimated to have been in the thousands.

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe: sixty-four














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



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