Catastrophe (part four)
At Basse-Terre, we were reassured. At Pointe we found a thousand Martiniquais refugees, of whom around five hundred had come not wanting to stay at Fort-de-France, for being told it was rendered uninhabitable by the previous day’s eruption.
On the 22nd, I was at Fort-de-France. I stayed there until the first of June. This allowed me to go to Saint-Pierre, to explore the ruins, to study the volcano as closely as possible…but at a respectable distance. I was not like the American reporters, true salamanders, who disport themselves in the hot flows and burning vapors that rake and constantly hide in smoke all the slopes of the mountain, claiming they have climbed where one can measure the crater exactly.
I looked from farther off, yet I believe I have seen better, for the good telescopes are not made for dogs…
I have seen three eruptions: those of the 26th, the 28th, and June 1st.
I have interviewed all the people capable of furnishing useful information; all those who had seen something of interest.
My excellent colleagues of the Opinion, the journal of Fort-de-France, were to me particularly valued for their articles; while their hints allowed me to work rapidly, with no loss of time. Permit me to thank them here.
On the first of June, after an investigation conducted to the best of my ability, I embarked aboard the packet-boat Canada, of the Transatlantic Company. The obligingness of M. Vié, company agent to Martinique, and the amiability of M. Geffroy, commander of the Canada, made it possible for me to work shipboard. On the fourteenth of June, I arrived at Bordeaux with the manuscript of this book.
Book is without doubt a large word to designate a collection of notes, no less hastily gathered than rapidly collated and composed. Some day will be written, I hope, a work that is mature, careful, and reflective, on this catastrophe of Saint-Pierre, unique in the annals of the world. And that will be a book. Mine is not, truth to tell, more than a pile of information. These are my notebooks; this is the work of a reporter, his notes and documents.
What I Saw
Approaching the Volcano
(On the way to Pointe-à-Pitre, at dawn)
The agent who came aboard showed us a dispatch from Fort-de-France, saying the city was uninhabitable, that its people had almost died, and that everything was full of ashes.
The Salvador conducted here [Fort-de-France] five hundred refugees. These unfortunates had departed five hundred, but arrived five hundred and one. A woman, from fear, had given birth. I saw many of these refugees put ashore. The mayor of Point-à-Pitre had not enough time to house them all. Some waited, bleak, stupefied, under the awnings of the market.
I spoke with them and found that they were still more bleak, more stupefied, than they appeared. Why had they gone? They had foreseen the fire of the volcano on their heads. They had received its stone and ash. They were afraid; they had stormed the Salvador. And when the ship was crowded to capacity, they were sent to Guadeloupe. They were there, and they were still afraid…the fear of hysteria. When they spoke of the volcano, they looked up in the air, to see if the menace was not again on their heads. And their eyes were round, fixed.
A man who knew scripture said to me, “Monsieur, the Lord has sent us a cloud. He has spared us this time. But…”
I spoke of the Soufrière of Guadeloupe, whether one did not see it smoke more than was customary?
“Quiet, monsieur, quiet. We must not summon evil. And above all, we must not joke about misfortune.”
The people had completely lost their heads.
Some, however, returned with us to Fort-de-France. Notably, an old gentleman, the doctor Guérin, whose factory carried away three days before the catastrophe of the 8th, marked the first ravages of the volcano; and a young woman, a laundress who answered to the sweet name of Zulima. She told us that Fort-de-France was empty, dead, sad, the Zulimas had all filed off, for they did not want to die. And also they could no longer practice their profession of laundress. There was no water in the channels of the fountains; they had needed to use the gutters of the street, and those were muddy and full of ash.
Zulima told us afterwards that all this “was not good begaye”. I believe she also spoke politically. She said that it was “no good either” that they had not reelected M. Duquesnay. That it was the fault of the governor…
“And the volcano?”
I dare not add that she answered: “That is the fault of the administration.” But she thought it. She said to me, as well: “The Americans are very good people…yes, very good… Monsieur…”
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
Translator’s note: The salamander reference is to an old myth that salamanders can survive fire.
Bèl begay is Haitian creole, meaning today awesome or wonderful! The quote of Zulima’s Hess uses is “c’etait begaye pas bien”, italics his, indicating a non-French expression.
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)