La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty-five
I have still other letters, other notes, but those above, I believe, suffice to show in what terrors, in what fearfulness, perished Saint-Pierre… And above all, serve for proof that if they had let the people be free to obey their instinct, the number of victims would never have been counted in the thousands.
Before death, before the great menaces of nature, there is an instinct that warns its creatures, gives them a sense of fear.
The animals obey this instinct and flee.
The simple people listen to their fear, and want to flee.
The over-civilized people despise this fear, no longer understand it, and stay.
You must flee… All nature cried this out. The earth spoke it. The earth quivered under the bodies of the living. She shook them. She put into their legs a trembling as though forcing them to march, to take themselves off, to fly…
A teacher who arrived from Saint-Pierre, at Fort-de-France, on the 8th, by the 6 o’clock boat, Mlle D…, who could know nothing of the last menaces of the volcano, those between 6 and 7, said to a friend:
“It will come to something… for certain… I am in a state… The earth was shaking all night… No one could stay in place… My legs still shake… I couldn’t remain. Some power seemed to oblige me to go…and I went.”
Is this necessary?
Of all things seen, heard, noted, and that are there to be read, can there be a truth to bring out?
Ought one insist?
One point, however.
It has been said that since M. Clerc had the majority, in the first round, it was not in the interest of the government to have a vote by ballot, and that dispersing the population of Saint-Pierre would have worked for the administration, while keeping them under the menace of the volcano, worked for its adversary…
One of two competitors of M. Clerc, M. Lagrosilère, after having secured his official place, withdrew at once in favor of M. Percin, who, thanks to this appointment, held the majority.
Thus fell the only argument of the defenders of…the negligent homicide…of M. Decrais.
I would wish that this lesson of the volcano, which has killed blacks and whites without worrying about the color of their skin, would have taught to the irreconcilables of that place, that outside the republican law, to which they wish not to submit, there are other laws before which all men are equal—those of suffering and those of death.
Go recognize in the charnel house of Saint-Pierre, the blacks from the whites…
But the passions of men are more powerful than their reason.
The future now.
The future that the misery of the present shows so dark.
The recourse of charity?
One cannot admit charity. Nor indemnities. Nor does one beg. Nor degrade himself politically, followed by everyone.
The beggar who weeps, and whom they heed, that is not a remedy, that is not a solution.
The dead have no more need of anything.
Those who survive are owed the right to work.
It is the organization of work in Martinique that is necessary.
It is from the soil that these survivors must draw their subsistence, from the work of their hands, and not from charity.
The land is clement in the tropics.
One lives here without great effort.
The program is simple.
—Assure, by the repartition of free lands, and by advances of staples, and of seeds, the cultivation of the substance of life, which allows the man to live, on his land, from his land.
—As encouragement, as relief, lift the duties on importing into France the products of Martinique, actually restricted by laws.
And that’s all.
Illustration from The History of Vesuvius from AD 79 to 1907, T.A. Schneer
Notes and Documents
To complete my reportage
Catastrophe, Religion, and Superstition
All great catastrophes, the terrible mourning, the appalling fears that follow, provoke a reaction of religious faith among the survivors, whether the religion is of African fetishism, or of Roman Catholicism.
Here this phenomenon was not lacking.
A correspondent from Fort-de-France wrote the next day to the Courrier de la Guadeloupe:
It’s horrible! Imagination and human reason are confounded. Under the smoking ruins, in this silence of a necropolis, we do not believe the reality. I do not believe it, and I wept upon the ruins of a city so animated, so full of life… Yesterday I did not believe in God. Today I believe!
A consul general of Fort-de-France, his mind strong enough in ordinary times, affirmed to me in all seriousness that among the notable victims of the catastrophe were found three persons, highly placed as well, who had advertised their impiety by eating fat on Good Friday. And he concluded that their impiety had been punished by the Lord, who for this had drawn them from Fort-de-France to Saint-Pierre, on the very day of the catastrophe.
The laundresses of Fort-de-France soberly swore that the city of Saint-Pierre had been annihilated because they had danced there during Lent. And one of them, whom a soldier had invited to come out with him on a Friday, answered that this was not “a day for carousing” [jour à bêtiser]. The Lord would certainly punish them with a new rain of fire.
Others reported that in leaving for France, following “political persecutions”, Monseigneur de Cormont had hurled a malediction on the impious city, and that the volcano was fired by the sanctity of this malediction…
Pliny relates to us that the people of Pompeii heard and saw, in the mountain’s fire and smoke, infernal giants, which in the kindling air the priests showed to their faithful as vengeful demigods.
There was no shortage of this in Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)