Catastrophe (part three)
Now, the fact, at Saint-Pierre, is that these inhabitants wanted to go. And if these seems to you too general, absolutely, take that portion of the inhabitants whose example had the chance of being followed, and the fact that M. Decrais had ordered M. Mouttet to keep them at Saint-Pierre until the eleventh. And the fact that it was also these inhabitants, which the officials had retained by force at Saint-Pierre, whom the volcano killed on the eighth…there were forty thousand victims. And for these deaths, it is upon M. Decrais, with no possible discussion, and entirely obvious, that responsibility falls.
I am exposed to a danger against which no courage, no human force, can prevail. I know it, and I want to go. But I am a civil servant and you prevent me going; you menace me with the revocation of my post if I go. I stay, to wager my life; and I lose it. The volcano kills me…it is true…it is not the minister. But they who weep over me, have they not the right to say the minister is my assassin!
There, is the striking fact of my enquiry at Martinique.
When the catastrophe occurred, I was traveling in the Greater Antilles. Returning from Saint-Domingue, I arrived at Port-au-Prince on the eleventh of May. When the agent of the Transatlantic Company came aboard, M. Dardignac, he said to us: “Saint-Pierre is destroyed by the volcano. The whole of Martinique is threatened. Already forty thousand are dead!”
The first boat leaving Port-au-Prince, destined for Saint-Thomas, from where these “opportunities” are frequent for Martinique, was the Olinde-Rodrigues, of the Transatlantic Company, a regular mail from France, which was meant to raise anchor on the thirteenth. I immediately took passage. The Haitians had the preposterous idea of beginning, on the next day, a revolution, fighting in the streets by day, by night…
An interesting adventure, true, for anyone who would like to see all the spectacles close up.
But a hitch delayed our departure.
As there was no other foreign ship in port, M. Desprès, the minister for France, requisitioned the Olinde-Rodrigues, in order to have at his disposal a large vessel where, in case of danger too grave, foreigners could take refuge. He kept us until the sixteenth. That day an English boat arrived, which the British consul requisitioned, while waiting until another arrived to guarantee the new service required by circumstance.
When I arrived at Saint-Thomas, I found the Saint-Domingue, belonging to the Transatlantic Company, ready to sail for Martinique.
(And of this I sincerely rejoiced. To travel aboard the English boats, the American, the Dutch, the German…in the Antilles above all…it has always seemed to me excessively disagreeable. A thousand times, I prefer the French, especially to cross the Atlantic. Patriotism? No. Simply a question of comfort. I like a good berth, good food, and good service. But these I have never found to my taste except on our own. And if you ask me why this digression, I reply that I love my fellow man, that I never let escape an opportunity of being useful to him, and thus, I deem it necessary to always fight the absurd legend people with bad stomachs propagate, wanting to make believe it better worth traveling on a foreign ship than a French ship…
I embarked from Saint-Thomas on the Saint-Domingue… But a new setback was caused this time by the volcano. Rather than make directly for Guadalupe, the packet-boat must go to Puerto Rico for the loading of sixty tons of food that the American generosity had sent to the victims of the distressed island. We were in Puerto Rico* on the twentieth. At five o’clock in the evening, we had a new emotion. The hawkers cried a broadsheet edition by the principle journal of the place, the Times of Puerto Rico, I believe…or something similar. This broadsheet contained a terrible dispatch, announcing that an eruption far more grave than the first had come to the place, that the ruins of the northern island were consumed, that Dominique, however distant, had been covered in ashes and debris…not to speak of Fort-de-France, but one could assume everything to fear… (1)
This tells you in what state of mind we arrived on the twenty-first at Guadaloupe.
(1)These Americans have the secret of sensational and alarming information. The reporters and the experts who were at Fort-de-France have literally panicked the population by their representations and their pessimistic predictions.
*Translator’s note: This was the 20th of May, 1902; the disaster occurred on the 8th of May, and by the 20th, the relief shipment had already arrived at Puerto Rico. Theodore Roosevelt was president.
But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand. Ezekial, 33:6 KJV.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinque; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)