Catastrophe (part two)

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadJean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Preface continued









The fifth of May, when the volcano had ravaged the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and the approaches to the Prêcheur, he [Mouttet] alerted Paris. The sixth of May, when the volcano, in devastating the valley of the Rivière des Pères, poured its mud and its hot waters into the Roxelane, extending its activity as far as the city of Saint-Pierre, M. Mouttet again alerted Paris. He sought at the same time aid for the victims.

The response of the minister, on which they waited was, to be precise: As soon as the Ministry of Agriculture had given him the money, he would send 5000 francs.

The official charities ordinarily fund themselves through levies dependent on sums engaged in racecourse betting. When the cocottes have had generous clients; when the speculators have swindled a moneylender; when the cashiers have made a forced loan to their boss; when the coin of vice “rolls” in quantity to the bookmakers, all the better for a hundred levies by the Agriculture, permitting the ministers to practice the virtues of charity.

Wait, cabled M. Decrais to the unlucky Mouttet.

The volcano must wait. What mattered was the election—we vote first; we occupy ourselves afterwards with measures for public safety.

But the volcano did not wait. The volcano jeered the election of the eleventh; its overfilled subterranean boiler must vomit. It vomited on the eighth, producing forty thousand dead. Forty thousand dead, account for which, public opinion [since the law does not provide penal sanction for this sort of crime (1)] has the right to demand of His Excellence M. Albert Decrais. Although he is an old enough politician, M. Albert Decrais has still, I believe, a conscience.

The wait is on, for the ghosts of forty thousand of Saint-Pierre to come brighten the last moments of M. Albert Decrais, when on his deathbed; when, in that rapid review of their lives the camarde grants to those in the throes, he will see all the unfortunates of Saint-Pierre, and all the others who fell sacrificed by his incapacity, in the countries where “the colonial” operates—


The wait is on, for this hour of supreme justice. It must be. I want it, and it will be—it must.

He will carry this upon his retiring, as the irons of the galley-slaves in their prisons; it is necessary he carry these forty thousand dead.

And that he feels remorse.

And that he feels anguish.

And that he feels shame.


Truly, this must be so. Too many political crimes are above the law. We are a people without courage. We bear everything. We do not know how to feel indignant of anything. We do not know; we have no more will to punish, and the crimes are renewed. Under the pretext that M. Decrais certainly could not have wanted to kill forty thousand people—that he is an honest man; that he cannot be considered an assassin—the majority of those who believe themselves intelligent, and call themselves serious, clamor that it is madness to reproach an ex-minister of the Colonies with these forty thousand dead of Saint-Pierre…


I do not have to search for the intentions of M. Decrais.

I do not have to argue whether he is an honest man—for this case, at least.

I do not have to say now whether he can be considered an assassin.

I have only to research and to say: These are the facts.








Author’s footnote: (1) There are many articles of law relating to homicide by imprudence; but, as ministerial responsibility is with us but a myth… We will not think about it.
Translator’s note: I could not find English words that gave a clearer sense to “cocotte” (in context, a sort of escort, paid in favors) and “camarde” (an allegorical figure of death). I offer illustrations below.



La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Plate illustrating French racetrack syndicate women and men

From Figaro, 12 June 1881, an illustration of the racecourse culture of the era.



Plate illustrating allegorical figure of death

A medieval woodcut, showing the figure of death: the definition of the term “camarde”.





Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadCatastrophe (part three)














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




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