La Catastrophe de la Martinique: seventy-four

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique











The rest of the night passed in great anxiety. We saw flames coursing over the hills, illumination enough to see the flight of numerous persons, while others were passing on the main road, announcing they would go to the churches in the city, to beg divine mercy, all without knowing any more than ourselves, and answering our questions with these mournful words: “The soufrière is boiling!”

We finished the night at the foot of one of those mission crosses that, for a long time, have been planted at the entry of nearly all the houses of the Prêcheur.

Came the dawn, and we learned that Saint-Pierre was no less frightened than we were; the noise had been heard by everyone, and waking they’d found on all the roofs of the houses, the pavements of the streets, and the leaves of the trees, a light layer of greyish ash, which gave the aspect of a European city covered in frost in the first days of autumn. This ash covered all the fields located between the city and Mount Pelée, and the Morne-Rouge, stretching all the way, they said, to the Carbet.

The river called Rivière-Blanche for its waters, no longer merited the name. Its waters rolled black, seemingly a solution of ash and slate, the trace of which, at the mouth of the river, could be seen far into the sea, as after a great flood.


These lines were written by M. Leprieur, in collaboration with MM. Rufz and Peyraud, the first, pharmacist-in-chief at the hospital of Fort-de-France, the second doctor, and the third ex-pharmacist of the navy, all three on this subject charged by the governor with a mission.

Mount Pelée, at 1350 meters, is the highest of the island; at its summit is found a lake, as report the palm-kernel harvesters, and which is the crater spoken of in the preceding notes. This lake measures 150 meters in circumference. It is the only one known in Martinique.








The Seismic and Volcanic Movements in the Zone of Least Resistance



It was Humboldt, I believe, who qualified the zone of least resistance to the expanding mass of a liquid core, in Central America, and the Antilles, where he’d calculated that the Earth’s crust is thinnest.

The eruption of Mount Pelée has not been an isolated phenomenon. It makes part of a series of manifestations that have agitated all the zone of “least resistance”. There were earthquakes and volcanic eruptions successively at Guatemala, at Martinique, and at Saint-Vincent.

The eruption of Mount Pelée commenced in April, just at the time of eruptions and earthquakes at Guatemala, which were announced as follows, by Reuter and Havas:


New York, 21 April: A dispatch from Guatemala to the Herald announces that three earth tremors took place Friday evening, destroying the city of Quesaltenago, and shaking Amatitlan to its foundations.

Five hundred people have been killed at Quesaltenago, but the number of victims cannot be precisely determined at the present hour. (Reuter)


New York, 23 April: The Herald publishes a telegram from Guatemala, saying that the greater part of the cities, villages and plantations situated in the western part of the Republic have been destroyed. The volcanoes of Chingo, San Salvador, and Santa Maria, are in eruption.

The center of recent earthquakes seems to have been in these last-named volcanoes.


The island of Saint-Vincent was also very cruelly tested.

Two thousand five hundred victims and all the northern part of the island ravaged by the volcano, whose eruptions seems to have been of the same nature and producing the same effects as that of Mount Pelée.

A friend, who came from Saint-Vincent, and whom I met in Fort-de-France, said to me that this was the same volcano, the same eruption. Here are some details, according to the Tidende:*





The eruption began on the 7th, at 9:00 in the morning. The Soufrière thundered and launched bolts of lightning. At one thirty in the afternoon, there were powerful grinding noises and enormous columns of smoke. At 2:40, a hail of pebbles and a rain of fine dust. The ashes fell at Kingston. The earth shook. Many plantations were destroyed.

At 4:00, complete darkness.

On the 8th, the dead, and the damage.

On the 9th, the Soufrière in full eruption.

On the 10th, all the island is covered in a particular fog, and the inhalation of noxious vapors spreads illness.

On the 16th, there are 5000 persons in misery, and 2000 dead.


New craters were formed at the Soufrière of Saint-Vincent.


A Wesleyan minister, who made an excursion to within 8 miles of the crater, on the Wednesday, saw rising a 13 kilometer (?) column of smoke, then a huge cloud descending on the road, forbidding any further advance. The bank of smoke and sulphurous vapors had the form of a gigantic promontory, that transformed into a collection of clouds turning rapidly, culminating in efflorescences of admiral form, lit brilliantly by reflections of electricity.

The official information says that one could not approach further than 5 miles of the volcano, due to the intense heat. The lake at the summit seems to have disappeared. All the Caribbean country is covered by a volcanic landscape.


On the 7th, until 7:00 in the evening at Barbados there had been lightning in the northwest. After 9:00, the darkness became heavy. The tramways suspended their service at 8:00. The next day the dawn arrived sad and grey. The surface of the earth was covered in a fine greyish-brown dust. The roofs and the trees all were laden with it.

“A gentleman calculated that 2,252,120 tons of dust had fallen in 12 hours, which came to 50 tons per hectare.” (!)

This dust came from Saint-Vincent.











*There was an American Norwegian newspaper named Tidende (Nordisk Tidende), and there was a small number of Norwegian coffee planters living in Guatemala. Why this paper would be a source for Hess, is a question that raises the possibility the name given is a typo. In Spanish, the word tienda means store or shop, which is conceivably the name of a Caribbean newspaper of 1902.




Photo of San Salvador volcanic lake 1914

The lake on the San Salvador volcano, 1914.




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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















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



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