La Catastrophe de la Martinique: seventy

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique















The Crater Before the Catastrophe



In the course of various interviews I have published, various information has been noted, on the state of the crater of Mount Pelée, between the days where it began to manifest its activity, and the 5th to 8th of May.

In the last number (7th May), of the journal the Colonies, which was published in Saint-Pierre, I have read an interesting account by MM. Boulin, Waddy, Décord, Bouteuil, Ange, and Berte, of the 27th of April.

It was published under the title of:


Notes, in the service of history, of the eruption of 1902.


Here it is:


Coming to the place called the Petite-Savane, or Morne-Paillaise, the tortuous road that conducts one to the summit of the mountain divides. From here there are two paths: one goes to the lake situated on the mountain of Morne Lacroix, the other to the Dry Pond. The path to the Dry Pond is not frequented; only those individuals who harvest palm kernels sometimes go that way, but not so far as the Dry Pond, where there is nothing to see. The tourists, conducted by numerous guides, graciously put at their disposal by M. Emm. Isnard, were directed to this former pond. They had to spend more than an hour climbing down, to arrive there.

The path was encumbered by tangled trees, absolutely barring passage. With hands aiding feet, they were able to cross on bridges of branches, rotting trunks in bizarre heaps; here they breathed air tainted by a nauseating gas. Suddenly, after an hour of walking, a clearing appeared before their eyes. A spectacle unlooked for stopped them cold, mute with admiration. They gathered instinctively before the magnificence of the scene offered to their view. They were in the presence of an immense lake, and an active volcano.

Before 1852, the Dry Pond, as the elders tell it, was filled with water. Following the eruption of this period, the pond had been desiccated; yet by a few fissures in the soil, fissures that could barely be seen until the current eruption, emanations of sulphur made themselves detectible at this time or that. It was all that remained of the pond, and so not long afterwards the place had been designated, “La Soufrière”.





From 1852, no one went any nearer, apart from a few hunters and a few farmers; the road leading there was abandoned. Grasses had replaced the water in the pond; even trees of the upper forest encroached in certain places. When the tourists found themselves before the crater, they were literally stunned with surprise. Imagine a giant basin that measures approximately 300 meters in diameter at its base, 800 meters at the top.

Along the walls of this excavation, were trees uniformly covered in a black coating, with a metallic reflection; a lake 200 meters in diameter at the bottom, lapping the walls—and towards the east, a cone, ten meters in height, fifteen meters in diameter at the summit, somewhat overhanging the lake! It was then eleven o’clock in the morning. The sun struck the circle perpendicularly; all was strangely illuminated. The lake, swept by a strong wind, black ash floating on its surface, had the appearance of molten lead or quicksilver. The trees sparkled with the dust that covered them.

The tourists stood at a point facing the crater. They could hear distinctly a tumultuous movement, the sound of boiling liquid. Fat puffs of smoke flew from the mouth of the volcano; water rushed in cascades down the sides of the crater, spreading itself from the base into the lake.


The water of the lake is at body temperature. Plunging a hand into the water, one feels no sensation other than of liquid itself. It is in the environment of 37 degrees. There is reason to believe it boils coming out of the crater, but the surface of the new lake meeting the violence of the wind accelerates cooling. Elsewhere, at a point lower than that of the lake, one finds hot water. One could suppose that the center of the crater communicates by a conduit passing under the lake, and at a great depth in the soil, with this source of hot water.

The water of the lake is grey. Captured in a bottle well stoppered and kept from all agitation, it leaves a fine powder and becomes clear. This delicate powder is slate-grey; it resembles a compound of lead, or manganese dioxide. This is what floats on the surface of the lake, on the trees of the circle, and that lightens the ground, producing the strange illumination spoken of earlier.

This water contains also a great quantity of gasses, among which seem to dominate the sulphurous [sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide]. The stopper is expelled with force when we uncap the bottle. Silver buttons are blackened under the influence of this gas which comes from the crater of the lake.






Pencil drawing of volcanic cone


 The above is a speculative drawing, that may have not much to do with the real-life appearance of the crater lake, as seen by  the tourists, but because the figures given are a little difficult to picture, I offer what I think may be the answer (measurements not proportionate): that the 200 meter measure is considered the bottom of the lake, the 300, the surface level, and the 800, the top of the crater. 





The above is a photograph of author Jean Hess, (born at Courtavon, Alsace region, March 16, 1862; 40 years old during the events of this story), which I tracked down once I thought of asking Google the right question.



La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe: seventy-one















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



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