La Catastrophe de la Martinique: seventy-three

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique








Among the establishments worth calling attention to, we cite again the Government House, the Town Hall, the Bank, the Bishop’s Palace, certain rum factories, the Perinelle sugar refinery, the Bethlehem Asylum, the Customs Warehouse, the Navy Barracks, and the Colonial Hospital that normally takes in 150 psychiatric patients.

Saint Pierre is crossed by four bridges; it counts three cemeteries, two savannas*, two covered walkways, of which one is entirely under iron; a slaughterhouse, four public plazas.

The oldest bridge in the city is of stone. One can read there today, on the side facing the sea, the following inscription, graven on a plaque of marble.


In the year MDCCLXVI [1766], of the reign of Louis XV, this bridge was constructed under the generalship of the Count d’Ennery, and the superintendence of Thomassin de Peynier, by the care and under the direction of Brother Cleophas Danton, monk of the Order of Charity, who rendered this service to the public, paid for by the parishes of the Fort, of the Mouillage, and the Prêcheur.


At the right and left of this inscription, are graven the arms of the Count d’Ennery, and of President Thomassin de Peynier.

The area of the city is around 75 hectares. It counts 103 streets, squares, courts and lanes, of which the total distance represented is 19 kilometers. The number of houses comes to 2985.

The principle altitudes surrounding Saint-Pierre are: the Morne-d’Orange, 124 meters; the Morne-Abeille, 140 meters; the plateau of the former seminary (Trouvaillant), 153 meters; the plateau of the Tricolor habitation, 195 meters. The parapet of the battery of Saint-Marthe is at 43 meters; the end of the Pecoul alley, facing the Chapel of Consolation, is 45 meters in altitude.

Saint-Pierre, with its “habitations”, the factories and the plantations on the outskirts, the rum distilleries and the industrial suburbs, has contributed the greater part of the commercial advances of the colony. The Annual of 1902 gives only the complete statistics for commercial activities of the year 1901.

And here are the numbers most significant, relative to exportations of “the latest vintage”:




*In Martinique they call promenades and boulevards planted with trees, savannas. [JH]


488,000 kilograms of cocoa, valued at 880,000 francs.

39,748,590 kilograms of sugar, valued at 15,723,410 francs.

14,447,964 liters of rum, valued at 4,229,973 francs.


Add to this coffee, campêche (1), casse (2), molasses, sugared fruits, rawhides, ambrettes (medicinal mallows), liqueurs, vanilla…

To obtain an exportation of 26,973,431 kilograms of products, valued at 24,016,649 francs.

Nearly all of this, one could even say all, is processed through Saint-Pierre. All importation equally comes through Saint-Pierre, where are found the great consignment houses of the island.

















The First Public Notice of the Eruption’s Beginnings



In the journal les Colonies of the 26 of April, this article said, under the title:


The smokes of Mount Pelée



For a few weeks, the inhabitants of the Prêcheur district have been constantly inconvenienced by a strong and disagreeable odor of sulphur, which comes from the crater of the extinct volcano. The odor is so strong at times that the horses passing on the coastal roadway balk at it.

Since this night, a white smoke, very thick, has come from the crater. From all sides, this attracts curiosity seekers. In the heights of Point Lamarre the ground is thickly covered with ash. From time to time the smoke stops, to be followed by the expulsion of an enormous mass.

Without doubt that is when the solid matter ejects, which apparently they can make out with the telescope from the Chamber of Commerce.

Are we expecting an earthquake? A catastrophe?

So, with anxiety, some people are asking.

The weather is heavy, lowering; we breathe with difficulty, and by noon the temperature has not passed 28 degrees. [82.4 Fahrenheit.]

















The Eruption of Mount Pelée in 1851



In the course of this volume, I have had occasion to speak of the eruption of 1851, which was benign, and constituted for a number of persons a precedent, “optimistic”; a precedent which made them deny the danger, however evident, of the present eruption.

Here, the eruption of 1851, the account of it published in the Bulletin officiel, of 1852:


A tradition, without historical foundation it is true, since it grew before the establishment of Europeans in these islands, recounts that Mount Pelée is the seat of a volcano. The conical form of this mountain, peculiar to all those at which great phenomena manifest themselves, the epithet of Pelée [bald], the existence within this peak of a lake that could pass for a crater, the sandy nature of the terrain that radiates for several leagues, all come to the aid of this tradition and surround the mountain with that respect men pay to things they fear. It is also known that in the gorges of this mountain, there is a place where sulphur was found, and for this is called by the inhabitants la soufrière.

From the 10th of May, 1851, Martinique was not shaken by the earthquakes, but learned Guadeloupe had not ceased to be, and lived in continual fear. Si mens non laeva fuisset [if our minds were not deceived], if human foresight was not very limited, we must then ourselves await some great cosmic phenomenon, and were seeing the infancy of something extraordinary.

However, on the 5th of August, Saint-Pierre slumbered peacefully. The city was in its first sleep, calm and deep, that assured by daily labors and the monotony of a life of habit. If anyone dreamt of a volcano, it was certainly not the volcano of Mount Pelée!

Towards eleven in the evening, a loud noise, distant and sinister, began to be heard. In its first moments, the noise was confounded by each hearer with the familiar; one with the sound of thunder, another with the roar of steam when the valve of an engine is opened, and still others with the rolling of a river that overflows. But the noise did not stop; on the contrary, it grew louder. Many were roused and started to worry.

I was on my plantation of Fonds-Canonville, which of all the sugar mills is, from the bird’s eye view, nearest the source of the noise. For a few moments, half-awake, I also took what I heard for thunder, but I found its continuation very strange, when I heard my cultivators call from outside.

“Do you hear that noise?” they yelled to me.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s thunder.”

“No, it’s the soufrière that boils…”

I studied the sky, the mountain, the earth, and saw nothing, but continued to hear what everyone heard.





1 Campêche is a shrub or small tree that grows in sunny dry places, not native to, but common in the Antilles. It has been used historically for furniture making, and to produce a red dye.


2 Casse, so far as my research shows, is a local shortening of the name canéficier, a tree or shrub that looks like Laburnum. Laburnum is a member of the Fabaceae (legume) family, and produces a seedpod that looks a little like a vanilla bean; the seeds are poisonous, but have been used in the production of medicine and pesticides.


La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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
















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



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