La Catastrophe de la Martinique (one)

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique dead




Jean Hess

La Catastrophe

de la



(notes of a reporter)









To the lost souls of forty thousand
of Saint-Pierre
I dedicate this work of a reporter.









Forty thousand victims…

This statistic is not exact yet, and probably never will be. The number of forty thousand is that which was given at first. Afterwards, they tried to reduce it. First Lieutenant Fontaine, who with his commander on the Tage, Captain Le Bris, made of the question a profound study, had given me at Fort-de-France the number of thirty-seven thousand, five hundred. Now that the truth about the forced retention of the inhabitants at Saint-Pierre has seen the light of day, thanks to the publication of my articles in the Journal; now that we know, and are in no further doubt, that it was M. Decrais, minister of the colonies, who gave the ill-fated governor Mouttet the order to keep the voters at Saint-Pierre, to assure the election of 11 May—as if one could palliate that which is odious and horrible by making a gamble, for the sake of a ministerial voice in Parliament, of the lives of forty thousand human beings…and to have lost… They seek to diminish the number of victims of the carelessness, the stupidity, the madness of government—

It is a mere thirty thousand they admit. If this continues, soon there will be no more. And you will see that, in a while, they will pretend this horrible tragedy of Mt. Pelée is only a fable due to malevolence.

It is true that without any benevolence for our colonial administration, I relate these events that had preceded and followed the eruption of the volcano, Mt. Pelée.

Once more it was given to me to grapple with, from the first hour of the sinister actuality, the incapacity which characterized the people of the Pavillon de Flore in their misdeeds overseas.

Once more, in speaking only the truth, without even the obligation to comment, I have raised against these “minus habentes” an indictment which would condemn them forever, if we had in our country, in colonial matters, an opinion capable of enlightenment.








In Indochina [Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia], the people have killed the goose for the golden eggs. I have predicted, I have said and repeated…

Enough! They will begin to believe me when the revolt, which for a year has rumbled in the frontier provinces, has rendered the whole empire to fire and blood; when to political bankruptcy is joined economic bankruptcy.

In our old colonies, we have always said that the government, with the sole restriction of maintaining order, must not weigh on the will of universal suffrage. Yet it was that, by ministerial order, to obtain the constituency of which he was certain, to assure this for having applied all possible, and even impossible, pressures, M. Mouttet had forced the officials, he had enjoined the inhabitants, to keep at home in Saint-Pierre, despite the menaces of the volcano, despite the panics caused by these menaces. It was because of M. Mouttet taking an active part in the election, that the volcano of Mt. Pelée killed, on 8 May, forty thousand human beings.

The notes, the documents that I collected on the spot, and that I here publish, permit no doubt this is so. For the election of 11 May to be legal, that it could take place, needed the population of Saint-Pierre to not abandon the city. M. Decrais gave to M. Mouttet the order of maintaining, by all the means possible, the population in the city under the volcano, under the menace of the volcano…

I had the honor to know M. Mouttet. This unfortunate man was a disciplined official, who executed orders received, and was always careful to meet his responsibilities. He would never permit himself, in a grave circumstance, to take an important measure without referring it to his chief, the minister.











  • Hess’s dedication uses the term “mâne”, which seems to be the concept, contrasting with “âme”, of a soul belonging to one who died unshriven.
  • The Pavillon de Flore is a part of the Tuilleries complex in Paris, that at the time of this publication (1902), housed the offices of M. Decrais, the Colonial Minister.
  • Minus habentes, a Latin plural, the singular of which, minus habens, is used as a legal term to define a sub-standard intellect.





Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902 (Public Domain)

Translated by Stephanie Foster




Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

La Catastrophe de la Martinique: two


















(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)





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