La Catastrophe de la Martinique: seventy-two

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique
















That Which Was Saint-Pierre



In the course of this volume, I have given a few brief indications of what Saint-Pierre had been, before the catastrophe. There is also a very beautiful photograph by M. Sully that shows the splendor so animated, so lively.

Some additional details will not be out of place.

On the first of January, 1902, the city counted 26,011 inhabitants, of which 6164 were voters. The suburbs and outlying towns had a population equal in number. The business directory published annually by M. Hurard, described this city disappeared:


The city is built on the seaside, along a beach of sand, and its elevation on the terrain of the hillsides, in the way of an amphitheater, is a little steep. The streets are regular enough, but not as large as those in the capital. A river, the Roxelane, crosses the city and divides it in two parts: making the one, the Fort district, in memory of the fort that was raised by Esnambuc on his arrival, and the other, the district of the Mouillage. Today, the city is divided, from the religious point of view, into three parishes, that of the Fort, the Centre, and the Mouillage, to which they have added a very narrow parish, called the Consolation. The river is the limit of the Centre parish, on the north side, and the rue du Petit-Versailles, even numbers, the limit on the south. The houses of Saint-Pierre are nearly all built in stone. A municipal order forbids construction in wood. The houses are beautiful and the greater part of them enjoy the precious advantage of fountains in the interior apartments. These particular fountains, and those of the city, are fed by the waters of the Roxelane, and one of its tributaries, augmented with the waters of the spring called Morestin, captured around seven kilometers from the city. Three canals distribute this water, namely: the canal of the Fort, that pumps 300 liters per second; that of the Mouillage, which pumps 400, and the water-pipe of the Morestin, which furnishes 100; total, 800. These lively and abundant waters temper the heat, and purify the air.

The topographical position of the two districts of Saint-Pierre has the greatest influence on their greater or lesser salubrity. In the district of the Mouillage, the winds from the east are intercepted by the neighboring hills, which results in a heat increased still more by the rays of the sun reflecting from the escarpments onto this part of the city, where the population is the most dense, and where are clustered the commercial establishments.





The other district, on the contrary, is not dominated by neighboring heights on the east side; the winds from this direction blow over them freely, and tend constantly to refresh the atmosphere.

The topographical situation, the harborage, does not permit Saint-Pierre to be a fortified city. Thus there are found only three batteries or forts: the battery of Sainte-Marthe, the battery Villaret, and the battery Saint-Louis.

On disembarking at Saint-Pierre, one finds oneself on a vast, paved plaza, called the Place Bertin, on one side of which rises a round tower. This is the semaphore; and there is a fountain that plays continually. On the other side is a square structure in the form of a chalet, with galleries all around the walkways, and on the pediment is found a clock that gives the hour to the boats; this is the chamber of commerce building of Saint-Pierre.

The Chamber succeeded, on the 17th of March, 1855, under the government of Commodore de Gueydon, to the Bureau of Commerce, which was instituted July 17, 1820 under the administration of M. le lieutenant-général comte Donzelot. The first president was M. Paul Rufz (April 9, 1855). M. Gustave Borde succeeded him April 25, 1860.

Let us say in passing that this city so important for its commerce is not the home of the Court of Commerce. The Court is the first venue of commercial judgments.

Two semaphore posts situated, the one on the Morne-Folie, the other on the Place Bertin, signal to all the ships passing at sea, and correspond with them by means of commercial signal codes.

The bay of Saint-Pierre is illuminated at night by the lighthouse of the Place Bertin, a fixed red light of the fourth magnitude [a measure of brightness], which carries for nine miles.

The battery of Sainte-Marthe is situated at the extremity of the hill that dominates the Mouillage district, having a white light at the upper mast and a green light at the lower, which carry four miles. These lights are mounted and placed on a vertical plane. They indicate the direction to follow to reach the center of that place in the harbor called the Plateau.

The Plateau is so named because the depths, in this part of the harbor, are less sloping than the others, and form relative to those before the city, a raised area that permits dropping an anchor at 24 fathoms, and holding a position at two cables [a nautical measurement of distance] from the coast.

Saint-Pierre is the seat of the Court of First Instance [analogous to a Court of Common Pleas], the Court of Assize, and two justices of the peace; the Bank of Martinique, and the colonial Credit Bank. It is, since 1853, the residence of the Bishop of Martinique.





We note a certain number of establishments worthy of mention:


The Lycée colonial, established 1880-1881, and installed in the Mouillage since 1883, within the premises of the old convent of the Sisters of Saint-Joseph de Cluny.

The Séminaire collège diocésain is situated in the Fort district, above the Roxelane river and a great part of the city.

The Pensionnat colonial, located on the rue Victor Hugo, near the battery d’Esnotz, in the old Jacquin building, is bounded by the rue du Théâtre, the boulevard and the rue Pesset.

The Théâtre, as it presently exists, dates from 1831-1832. A decree inserted in the Bulletin de la Martinique, of the year 1831, authorized the acquisition of a building, to enclose a “Salle de Spectacle” at Saint-Pierre. But Moreau de Jonnès speaks of a “Salle de Spectacle” in Saint-Pierre, having been there since 1802. In that era, it would have contained around 200 people.

The military hospital, sited near the Place Bertin, was founded in 1685 by the brothers of Saint-Jean-de-Dieu. It contains 100 beds.

The civic hospital, which contains 200 beds, is in the Fort district. A decree of June 16,1854, ordered creation of a civil hospital in the colony. By the letter of December 16, 1854, the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies approved the provisional concession which had been made on the 11th of the preceding November, by the governor of the municipality of Saint-Pierre, that the old artillery barracks seated on the rue Hurtault, be transformed into a civic hospital.

The church of the Mouillage, was a provisionally instituted cathedral church, by a decree of April 29, 1851, of the Governor of Martinique. Additions were undertaken in 1853 to 1885, the period when the towers were constructed that compose the façade. The height of these towers is 42 meters.

The church of the Ursalines was erected in the church parish of the Centre, by a decree of the governor dating August 8, 1851. Closed in 1847 for a lack of sound construction, it was not opened for worship until 16 March 1852. It was enlarged in 1878-1879,

The church of the Fort seems to have been built in the 17th century. The first service in this parish would have been in 1640, if one is to believe certain documents, under Father Bouton of the Jesuits. The bell tower is of more modern construction. Its height is 30 meters.

The botanical garden is situated outside the city, at the place called Trois-Ponts. The various features of the terrain where the garden is located, the multitude of indigenous and exotic plants that are cultivated there, and the forested hills that rise above them, combine to give the most agreeable aspect, and the most picturesque. We note a very beautiful fountain. M. Garoud, in his work Trois ans à la Martinique, says that this, “…garden is one of the marvels of the world, but a marvel undiscovered.”





Photo of Martinique botanical garden 1899

Jardin des plantes, 1899; Source: Gallica/BNF




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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














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



%d bloggers like this: