La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty-four
And so the people were afraid. They felt the danger. They had a presentiment of something which would overwhelm them. People with scientific pretensions spoke of the collapse of the mountain, of an earthquake. Others did not speak of the dreaded catastrophe’s nature. They thought quite simply there would be one, and they were afraid. And they wanted to flee.
This is indicated in the notice the mayor of Saint-Pierre had posted on the 6th, of which here is a copy, the original being lent to me by an inhabitant of Fort-de-France, M. Josa, who had received an example in Saint-Pierre.
Dear Fellow Citizens:
A new calamity comes to strike our unlucky country, already so tried.
The community of Saint-Pierre, and that of the Prêcheur are most affected by the eruption of the mountain Pelée. This event has brought consternation to the whole island.
The inhabitants of the heights of Saint-Pierre, neighboring the mountain; those of the quarter of the Rivière-Blanche and Sainte-Philomène are without shelter, and without bread.
Aided by the top-level intervention of M. le Gouverneur, and of the highest authority, the municipal administration has provided, as they were able, first aid and food. Lodgings are furnished for those emigrants of interest, those workers of the soil whose products feed Saint-Pierre, and who, in one night have seen the fruits of their punishing labor buried in ashes.
It is your part, dear fellow citizens, in these painful circumstances, to show that your hearts hold generosity and solicitude for these victims.
May these evils not leave you indifferent, and may your well known solidarity find, in this moment, an occasion to manifest itself.
The calm and wisdom you have shown in these few days of anguish make us hope that you will not remain deaf to our appeal.
In accord with M. le Gouverneur, whose dedication always rises to the challenge, and whom we yesterday accompanied to Sainte-Philomène, and to the Prêcheur, we believe we can assure you that, in view of the immense valleys that separate us from the crater, we have no fear of immediate danger, and that the lava will not come as far as the city; the events are localized to the places already proved.
You must not allow yourselves to break into panics without foundation. Do not be discouraged, and let us advise you to redouble your ardor, as in 1890 and 1891, and to take up again your usual occupations, so as to give the necessary courage and strength to the people, so impressionable, of Saint-Pierre and its environs, during this hour of public calamity.
The mayor, R. Fouché
At the same time as this notice, Mme Josa received a letter from the sister of the mayor, her relative. This unfortunate woman who died on the 8th, waited for death on the 6th.
Saint-Pierre, 6 May, 1902
My dear Marguerite,
We thank you very much for your gracious offer, but cannot abandon the house. We await with resignation and submission to the will of God, premature death. We embrace you all, perhaps for the last time.
Your devoted cousin,
Signed: H. Brindis de Salas, née Fouché
And from this date, the women had fear, terrible fear. On the morning of the 8th, their fear had reached its paroxysm. Fear of what…they did not know exactly…but they were afraid, the unfortunates, they sensed death.
Aboard the Canada, which returned us to France, had taken passage two nuns from the hospital of Fort-de-France. One told me that on the 8th, in the morning, their superior received a letter from Sister Providence, superior at the high school of Saint-Pierre. This nun had written her letter at 5:30 and carried it to the 6:00 boat.
I repeat the words of the sister of Fort-de-France.
“Our mother read the letter in the refectory. It was a letter of agony. She said:
“Terrible night. We could not go to bed. We walked all night in our dormitory. We hardly dared look at the sky on the side of the mountain. Thunder, lightning, detonations and fire in the volcano. A great storm. We are dying of fear.
“Pray God for us. How will this day pass… Pray for us.
“At the moment Mother showed us this letter of anguish written, or rather, scribbled, in pencil…writing that trembled, writing of terror that in turn filled us with terror…at this moment we had already received the fall of pebbles, the rain of ashes still was falling, and we prayed, and we wept also, for feeling, for knowing, that the prayers were for the dead.”
Aboard the Canada were found also three little girls; their father, a teacher at Saint-Pierre, and their mother, had perished in the catastrophe. They were going to live in France at the house of their grandparents.
The eldest, twelve years old, told me all there had been of anguish and fear in Saint-Pierre, “in the days before”.
“The volcano, at night, I saw it was making fire. And everyone in Saint-Pierre was afraid, in our quarter. The people slept at least fifty in the same house, all the neighbors came together, to be less afraid. And they prayed God through the whole night. But that could not stop the fear. Some were crying.
“Now it was the common people, because the school was in a quarter of the common people. Other places, I don’t know. But Madame X… Madame Y… And others…friends of my mother whose homes we visited when we went to the Savanne to see the volcano, all those ladies also were very afraid.
“And papa too. He said that it was stupid being obstinate against a volcano, that there would surely come evil. He wanted to go with us. Other colleagues of his as well. But they did not want it. They only allowed him to escort us to Fort-de-France, and he must return at once. He had brought maman with us… But when he was leaving, because he was sad, and maman did not like to see him sad, she went with him. We were left all alone. And they were both sad. They did not come back.”
And when this child dressed in black told me this on the deck of the mailboat that made its way merrily to Europe, she was sad.
One of these little sisters, very small, who did not know, and did not understand, but who saw herself in black, and did not like this black, and who remembered the tears, and I do not know what terrors, and perhaps also what sights…one little one played with my beard and called me Ogre.
No darling. The Ogre is the other. It is the other.
La Catastrophe de la Martinque
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)