La Catastrophe de la Martinique: seventy-five

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique













Readers, this post ends the book (!), and so next week a new Translation Thursday project begins. This time, stories from the Golden Age of mystery, by Frédéric Boutet.




Fear of the Corpses



It was not only fear of eruptions like those of Mount Pelée that affected the neighboring islands; it was also the terror of contagion that might be carried by corpses taken up in the currents…

Read this proclamation posted by the Mayor of Grand Bourg following the beaching of corpses at Marie-Galante:


Residents and Dear Citizens


The corpses of the unfortunate victims, of the terrible and inexpressible catastrophe of our sister Martinique, which have come to beach on our shores, and which I have had the satisfaction of giving a place in our cemetery, among our own dead, have for good reason thrown fear into your hearts.

In this punishing circumstance, you have shown the extent to which you understand and bear the highest sentiments of human solidarity; each of you has done his duty, and on this occasion I send to you the grateful expression of my heartfelt recognition.

The history of the Antilles since time immemorial has never yet recorded such sorrowful events.

And despite that, the state of the atmosphere, the considerable elevation in temperature, the appearance of powerful pressure that exerts itself on the waves, all seem to indicate that the Antilles are not yet finished with the cosmic phenomena which have come to our sister island, and which, perhaps, wait for us, if not with these consequences, at least those of an epidemic.

Consider that numerous corpses, such as those of yesterday, may still be found in the waters of Martinique, to be transported here by currents, and may be of a nature to give rise in our poor island to calamitous diseases.

However, we must not be alarmed; to danger we must know how to oppose courage, and I have full confidence in yours.

It is incumbent upon, in the grave circumstance of the moment, a foresighted administration, careful of its responsibilities, to take urgent measures for the safeguarding of public security.





In consequence, I have the honor of bringing to your awareness the decision that disinfectants, which are: tar, phenic acid, ice pellets, or others, are to be burnt every day in the four corners of the town.

I am grateful to you for doing the same around your houses, but taking all necessary precautions to avoid accidents.

The courts and outbuildings of houses, the stables and other establishments, must be maintained in a perfect state of cleanliness, and the waste thrown in that part of the Fort downwind of the town.

Cruises will be organized for the surveillance of our coasts; thus, we may, perhaps, avoid this danger that threatens us.


Mayor’s House, 5 May 1902














Marie-Galante is a tiny French island in the Antilles chain 145 kilometers roughly north of Martinique. The date almost certainly is a typesetting error, as May 5th was the day of the Guérin factory disaster, but May 8th was the day of the catastrophic eruption, and so by the 14th (or some later date), the bodies from Saint-Pierre might have been carried to Marie-Galante.


English Amenities



It is written that the English let no chance escape of demonstrating their sentiments regarding France in general, and Paris in particular.

This is what I extract from the dispatches addressed to the English Antilles via the telegraph company, “West India”; dispatches published by the Tidende of Saint-Vincent, and reproduced by the Courrier of Guadeloupe, number 23, May 1902.

It is under the rubric:


The emotion of the civilized world before the catastrophe of Martinique.


Telegrams from Paris say that the people of this city alone remain indifferent. The flags are at half-staff, but otherwise the populace go freely about their ordinary Sunday pleasures. The Times explains that this is for the reason that the news is too much to be appreciated.


See now the following:


On the dates of May 12-13, the emotion of all the world ran high, and ships under every flag rushed to carry aid to Martinique.


But this is the last; here we scent the bouquet.


Dispatches of the 16th say that the provinces interest themselves in succor more than Paris, and the journals give more space to the accident of M. Sévero [an aeronaut who died while experimenting with a dirigible], and to a trial on charges of fraud, than to the catastrophe.


And they operate the same way in Trinidad; witness this snipping entitled: “As to the stupid and criminal”, which I have taken from l’Opinion:







We thank from the bottoms of our hearts the people of Trinidad, who have truly surpassed themselves in providing some comfort to our brothers, whom the painful circumstances of the moment have brought to our hospitable land.

On the initiative of our compatriot, the sympathetic Dr. Lotat, a steamboat has collected aboard from a mailboat the carriages of Port-of-Spain that have been graciously put at our disposal, so as to be conducted to the places where in advance they have been assigned.

The spirit of charity has been admirable; in a moment the subscription lists were filled, donations in kind were offered—and discreetly, with all the wanted tact, that great suffering might be made bearable…

For breaking this spirit, for stopping this magnificent movement of solidarity, it needs only a stupid and criminal proposal from a miserable Englishman, who declares to his compatriots that:

“…the people for whom they have pledged it, are not worthy of any interest; he had witnessed the election of May 11th, which was simply sickening, for it was by shouts of joy that the success of a candidate was tallied. Music was paraded through the whole city and was played on the Savane until quite a late hour of the night…”

And this in the aftermath of the catastrophe of May 8th, at the time when all our hearts were broken!

Oh, the wretch!

If this villainous person was really in Fort-de-France on the 11th, unless he is an alcoholic, or a lunatic, he would not have even noticed that there was an election, as it passed with all the calm appropriate to a time of sorrow.

If he takes from interested parties this rascality that he echoes, we declare that we cannot understand it, for it is repugnant to us to admit there being people who still have mud in the place of their hearts.











Finally, what is quite well-bred; what could even be called cute, is this chicken that follows:


The Negroes of Martinique
(Dispatch from our correspondent)
London, 9 June


A traveler just arrived in the West Indies tells that the negroes of Martinique demonstrate loudly their joy that the whites perished in the catastrophe. They believed for a while that all the white race had been exterminated and they considered themselves masters of their country. They have even elected a negro governor.

The crews of two ships embarked a short time after the catastrophe found the blacks singing and dancing to their tamborines.


This was published at the head of the first column on the sixth page of the Petit Journal, foreign edition, which carried a date of June 10, and which I bought at Santander [Spain], on my return, the 13th of June.

Past comment, isn’t it? Except that the people of Marinoni have their critical sense well-developed when they reproduce the dispatches of London!




Hippolyte Marinoni (1823-1904) was the founder of an eponymous printing house, Maison de la Marinoni. 

The “chicken” above was once a commonplace political catch-word, referencing “chickens coming home to roost”, and the idea that a particular behavior, or statement, had exposed someone’s true colors.



Last week, I speculated on the likelihood of the Tidende newspaper; this week, more research has produced this snippet, extracted on the fair use principle.

Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Volume 33, CRC Press, 1982.

[This book is sold by Barnes and Noble for 164.95.]




Printing seems to have been introduced during the British occupation of the island, by James Hatchett, printer of the Saint Thomas Gazette and the St. Thomas Monday’s Advertiser in Charlotte-Amalie, in 1810. After the Dutch administration was resumed, the Saint Thomas Tidende was published regularly. In both Saint Croix and Saint Thomas, the printing industry seems to have been dominated by British or American printers.









La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page















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