La Catastrophe de la Martinique: seventy-one

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique













Despite all their efforts, the tourists could not approach the crater. For that, they would have needed to cross the lake at one of its widest points, 300 meters. They thought they had found a ford, and would cross it, when the voices of the guards warned them. Here and there, in the middle of the lake and on its perimeter, even in the water, could be seen floating leaves, still and green. The tourists believed they could go by foot at these places. But, pointing to one such tiny islet, the guides suggested this was simply a case of a tree, twenty meters or so in height; the top barely emerging as a tuft of leaves.

Had the volcanic cone existed before the eruption? The tourists did not think so. It seemed to them of the same material as the cinders. These, coming out of the crater, suspended on the water, and accumulating around the opening, formed a mound around 10 meters high. The cone will probably collapse, as the material inside diminishes.

The lake has no visible outlet, and though they stayed an hour along its shores, they did not see the level rise. However, the flow of the Rivière-Blanche having increased, one can suppose there are fissures at the bottom. The tourists did not find lava or stones in the surrounding area. The black cinders are everywhere.

In the night of Friday, the 2nd of May, the eruption was made palpable by all the ashes that spread over Saint-Pierre and environs, ashes that were absolutely different in their exterior aspect, than those found by the tourists at the very place.

Wednesday, the 30th of April, there were three earthquakes; the first shock at 3:40, the second at 5:05, the third at 6:10. These shocks were not perceived by everyone, and moved horizontally.

From Saturday morning, MM. Boutin and Berté noted all the while that the column of ash, and flames rising above the mountain, were produced just at the point where the new crater had formed.


From the same issue, I clipped another curious piece, entitled, “Towards the crater”, and signed E. G.


The phenomenon produced Saturday at 1:00 in the morning, enveloping Saint-Pierre under a great, thick mantle of ash, was at the time too attractive, too interesting to the curiosity of the individual, not to excite a climb to the place, and the approaching as near as possible to the explosive cauldron.





At six in the morning, we departed in a car, leaving Saint-Pierre in a mad agitation, and in the midst of a rain of ash, dense and incessant. Before the Ex Voto, the horses stopped, the rain redoubling in thickness and violence, penetrating into our eyes and our lungs, despite the handkerchiefs masking every face. The coachman, in terror, declared he could not go on, and would return to Saint-Pierre. We continued on foot, up to the property called Le Pommier, where we began to suffocate, our clothes dusted in a thick layer, transformed where the arms and legs bend, into black mud, from the effect of sweating.

The atmosphere is grey and the view goes no further than 10 meters; intermittent winds whistle violently and cause solid beads of black to fall from the trees; this resembling the first drops of an indecisive rain. The lowing of abandoned cattle, the cries of distress of birds fluttering blindly, are mixed among low groans and terrible detonations from the volcano in eruption.

At 7:30 our walk began again. We follow the road to the dike, along the course of which great numbers of laborers are grouped around their shed, unmoving, frozen with fear. We predict certain failure in this business of our climb. The growling stops momentarily, but the rain of ash is no less abundant. We follow a road that leads to l’Habitation Isnard, and find that their outbuildings are completely abandoned. The flight must have been precipitate, as the doors of the cabins on the left side of the settlement all stand open. Only an old woman, distraught and shrinking, is before the door of one of these cabins, and points us the route to follow, to reach the mountain.

The cane fields covered in ash unfold before our eyes; but the saturation is less intense and the range of view longer. The mountain is invisible, as it projects now and again a column of thick black ash that rises vertically and conceals everything from sight. The ash falls continually, but in lesser quantity; what comes to us now is from the trees and neighboring fields, and peaks still invisible at the higher elevations, ash which the wind sweeps and carries in a westerly direction, that is to say, from Saint-Pierre. The immensity of shadow and ash clears itself little by little as we measure our approach. The wind whistles and buffets from time to time, and we receive a fine dust. The thickness on the soil and foliage is one-and-a-half centimeters; the walk is punishing, but at last we reach the summit of Morne Saint-Martin. It is 10 o’clock.

Everywhere there is ash. The Morne-Bardury on our left is covered; the trees are very tall, and their branches curve down to the ground.





Suddenly a detonation is heard, accompanied by rumblings, subdued and prolonged; then a second, then four others at different intervals. The sky is obscured all at once and the crater, which is not far from us…in the area of 800 meters…throws out a thick black dust in the direction of the Prêcheur. Distant lowings come to our ears, the cries of frightened animals rising in the midst of a profound silence that follows the detonations. There are cows fleeing in all directions; they are covered in ash and dust, these moaning sufferers. The little water pipes are dry; the water is absorbed and replaced by a bed of ash 2 centimeters thick. A number of small birds lie on the soil, grey; not a drop of water to revive them. The summit of the mountain is clear. To the right, the sun’s timid rays grow stronger, showing the piercing whiteness of the ash against the green of the trees and the peaks.

Nature is sad and monotonous, no birdsong, no sound but the lowings of wild cattle, and the subterranean rumblings of the mountain.

A curious phenomenon which will not fail to surprise those of our readers who haven’t been to this place, is that the access becomes easier the nearer one approaches the crater. The ash at the foot of the mountain is found only on the trees and the ground, and we believe the organizers of this excursion to Mount Pelée are wrong, to think we must return now.

The mountain is absolutely accessible; we propose to come back soon and offer to our readers an account more interesting and more complete, upon a new ascent.












Ex voto means a thing done to fulfill a religious vow. The context here suggests a roadside shrine where offerings are made by passing travelers.

Hess ended this chapter on the word “ascension”. (Shortening this to ascent is more in keeping with English usage.) A conscious choice by Hess and his editor, no doubt, as the volcano exploded on Ascension Day, and as the tourist/reporters in this story died before they could fulfill that last promise.


La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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
















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



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