La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty-six
I heard a woman say that at the time of the two eruptions she had seen devils in the clouds of smoke, and that these devils were given liberty by the Lord to punish the sinners of Martinique. And the poor hallucinator added that her confessor had told her this was true. People who take themselves seriously have told me without laughter that the clouds from the second eruption took the forms of infernal demons.
A teacher told me the priests in all the communities of Martinique knew well the arts of profiting from the terror caused by the annihilation of Saint-Pierre, stoking the religious zealotry of their flocks.
“It is in punishment for the faults of the island, and the faults of France, where evil-mindedness triumphs, that God in vengeance has stricken Saint-Pierre.”
And for softening the legitimate anger of the Lord, to implore him not to choose Martinique again for His expiating sacrifices, the priests prescribe not only prayers and offerings, but also penances, at times very strong. Notably, that they must remain on their knees in the sun, for an hour or more.
A legend also creates itself, and perhaps tomorrow will be spoken of as a miracle…
A plaster virgin had been marvelously transported by the fall of fire to a shelter, without being damaged.
Here now, two documents, most typical of the mentality of the clergy, regarding this occurrence.
The priests of Martinique were officially very reserved. Those of Guadeloupe were less so. It was among them we found the reminder of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities destroyed by the anger of the Lord.
First, the pastoral letter from the bishop of Guadeloupe. This is interesting enough that I publish it nearly in its entirety.
Our very dear brothers,
We do not have to inform you of the horrible catastrophe that has overthrown the city once so flourishing, of Saint-Pierre (Martinique). The hundred voices of fame have already brought the sad news to the ends of the world, and We are convinced that an immense cry of sorrow and pity lifts itself at this moment from all shores, on behalf of the victims consumed, on behalf of their relatives and friends who survive. We abide utterly appalled and devastated in the presence of a seeming calamity, and we come to ask at the same time, whether we are not played upon by some frightful nightmare? But no: the reality confirms itself implacable and terrifying!
Yesterday, the great commercial city of the French Antilles, was standing and full of animation; today, it is no more than smoking ruins and a vast cemetery! All is fallen, cathedral, parish churches, public establishments, colleges, boarding schools, hospitals, dwellings particularly, without any exception, and all who breathe are dead; not one person able to escape!
What is it thus brought forth, Great God! And what gigantic destruction has passed there, preceded by terror and followed by mourning!
You know, N. T. C. F., that above what was the city of Saint-Pierre, standing nearly equal to our own Soufrière, is a high mountain, strongly buttressed, designated by the name of Mount Pelée, no doubt because no vegetation grows on its flanks. Well! It is from the deep entrails of this boiling monster that the plague escaped its long prison. We believed the volcano extinct, as for 50 years it had given no sign of activity. But barely heard, it prepared, in the mysterious work of an irresistible and unconscionable force, the great blow it came to strike.
In fact, after a few isolated tremors that marked the first of these months, after a timid essay which had consisted of detonations more or less loud, and intermittent vomitings which, despite their lamentable ravages, had divided the population between fear and hope; the flaming furnace suddenly enlarged itself, the earth shook violently, and a storm of fire was launched with a mighty noise, following a precise direction; with an incredible fury falling upon the defenseless city and its surrounding districts.
Indescribable moment! To crush from above, to change for ashes all of a green region, to ruin in flames all the ships moored in the harbor, to lay in death more than thirty-five thousand human victims, fifteen minutes sufficient ! ! !
Oh, dear Martinique, the morning of the 8th, May 1902, remains forever indelible in the annals of your misfortunes!
They even say that the homicidal mountain, as if she were ashamed of her terrible victory, has sunken on her foundations, and lost two-thirds of her proud altitude!
The pen falls from our hands, N. T. C. F., and we ask ourselves if we should not break it, after such an account.
Ah! It will need another Jeremiah, to depict this disaster without precedent, which cannot be compared to the ruin of Sodom, except that it have the same determining causes.
“I have seen the mountains, and they trembled; I have seen the hills, and they were all shaken; I looked around me and nowhere were found men; and all the birds from the very heavens had withdrawn; I saw the most fertile fields become desert; and all the cities destroyed before the face of the Lord.”
“How is this city so full of people now empty and desolate?”
“Oh, you who pass on the road, stop, and see if your affliction seems as mine!”
“Remember, it is by the Lord that this arrives upon us.”
“We have purchased water at the price of silver.”
“We have sought bread at the house of a stranger, and our skin burns at the touch of fire.”
N. T. C. F. stands for nos très chers frères. The Bishop’s exclamation that “fifteen minutes was sufficient” seems an arbitrary conclusion. The pyroclastic cloud traveled in about a minute from the mountain to the city; whereas the fires that burned Saint-Pierre afterwards kept rescuers away until the 9th.
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)