La Catastrophe de la Martinique: sixty-eight

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique











The bishop had spoken of Sodom. One of his priests, the curé of Point-de-Pitre, pronouncing a sermon on the 10th of May, dared only make allusion to the cursed cities…

But what allusion.

Here is the sermon, taken from the Courier de Guadeloupe:


Neither faith, nor religion forbids us tears… This alone is the reality for us below… Nor does mourning, that divine and secret religion of the heart!

Ah! Before such a disaster we should make excuse for the human being, the being of reason and feeling, who with a dry eye can contemplate a spectacle of desolation and death; such as that we will listen to the telling of for a few hours, and of which we will ignore long afterwards, by the grace of God, the horrible reality in its atrocious details. Does it seem to you, as you read again the 29th chapter of Genesis, after the fire from the sky has destroyed down to their last foundations, I know not what cities guilty of such monstrous disorders, that these appear to us legendary? Far from us be the thought of a similarity all here reject; but how striking the coincidence, in its terrible results!

From the place that yesterday still occupied green fields, rich of habitations, the cities peopled, Abraham saw ash rise from the earth, as smoke that escapes a furnace. (Verse 27.)


And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace. KJV 19:28. The numbers given above are from the text, and may be due to numbering differences between the KJV and the Catholic Bible used in 1902.


The mourning!  But those engulfed alive in the burning flames of this furnace, they who, still in the fullness of life, of youth, of health, were smothered in the whirlwinds of the ashes, they were our brothers! Your sons, your children, and your wives, the blood of your blood! The heart of your heart!

And then, had you dreamed of it? All have perished to the height of the fiery lava…all!

Did they deserve this horrible agony? Was there not one in this crowd, I ask of you…known to you, esteemed, loved, was there not one righteous man? Not one innocent?

Oh! Certainly not! And God has struck them down. Ah! Our days are short and evil. Our good works falter; our will is unsure. The future escapes us; but little does the past instruct us. The present disconcerts us, and nature guards her secrets well. Despite our science, she obeys no one but God!





God alone! For it is always to Him we must return; to Him who is never cruel, never unjust! Listen to the words of Jeremiah:


They will come to me in their tears; and I will take them back in my mercy.


Let us remember these words.

To the cries of sorrow, to the tears of our eyes, to the mourning for our brother souls add, for those who are no more, prayer. For they who survive, alas! In such distress, compassion, the general relief of charity, in all its forms, but let us engrave deep in our bleeding hearts this lesson that God gives us:


Watch! Pray! You do not know the hour or the day!




There were to be, in the host of victims of Saint-Pierre, people who “had deserved this horrible agony”. There you see the terrifying menace the ministers of the God of Abundance and Forgiveness allow to fall from their high seat onto the Antilles…

For not much, I would be tempted to write in French as bad as the Bishop of Guadeloupe’s, and repeat his phrase:


The pen falls from Our hands, N. T. C. F., and We ask ourselves if We should not break it, after such an account.


So far, they fall short of blaming the gods for devils or zombies…!

But they go further. What attracted to Saint-Pierre, what attracted to Fort-de-France, the fires of the volcano, and of the heavens? We do not know. The populace has found the answer. It is the electricity. It is the electric lighting. The good people of Martinique have always believed and always will believe, that there can be nothing but sorcery in this inconceivable thing, of iron threads…some of which are in the air and carry nothing, others which are in glass and burn, making light…

It is not possible that this can be a human thing, a Christian thing; it is diabolical, it is of another world.





I made a visit to the home of a good person, where the daughters of Béhanzin come at times, whom I wanted to greet. This confidante, an all-around friend of his Ex-Highness, was disappointed and spread bitter complaints against the white government, that exposed poor blacks to such a catastrophe… Without a doubt, they had brought on this loss…

“How, or why so?”

“For having their electricity, of course…!”

And I don’t think she was teasing me. During my stay Fort-de-France went many nights without electricity.

The mayor had to obey the demands of the population… Moreover, even at the town hall, I heard from serious people who told me the electric lights had brought on the volcano.



That people had this belief should not seem so strange. In 1902, electricity was new within the lifetimes of many adults, who were finished with whatever education they had once received. It was an initiative of the government. A day came when poles began to be raised, wires strung…and the new marvel had arrived, whether or not people felt they’d had much say in it, wanted it, or understood it well. And, notably, the state of the art was not perfected. Computers didn’t exist to regulate flow. Lights dimmed and burned brighter.

Imagine the psychological effect, just when you’d said some negative thing about the government, if the lights suddenly went out. Already you are suspicious, and these suspicions seem sinisterly to have confirmed themselves. The authorities have some means of monitoring and constraining the public. And again, early lightbulbs often exploded. That people intuited some dire power underlying this phenomenon of electricity, something connected to the shocks of the volcano, in not altogether nonsensical.



Photo of ruined Bishop's house in Martinique






La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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















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



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