Catastrophe (part five)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part five)















Before the Volcano
(On the way to Saint-Pierre, at sunset)



The land! It is always there at the end of a voyage, an impatience, a quivering, when we approach land. The eyes scrutinize, the glasses scour the horizon, searching between the sky and the waves, for that place, in the uncertainty of the distance…that patch a little darker, which hour by hour, mile by mile, will come into focus, delineate itself, and mark the port.

With an anguish of impatience, in a confusion of sorrowful feeling, we searched the horizon for that dark little spot, which, emerging, growing, must bring into clarity the glow of the destructive volcano; show us, in lieu of that welcoming port of our rejoicing, a dead city, a cemetery of sadness.

Unforgettable spectacle!

At first it was very beautiful. The day fell away in a calm light of thin mist, the rain that casts itself like a muslin veil on the tropical seas, in the months of the high sun. The waves were a pale emerald, such as the poet saw like to the eyes of Minerva, the blue-green eyes of the goddess…this was a sea very wise.

The land. A mountain of rounded forms, harmonious; a purple mountain, light blue on light crimson, a mountain haloed in clouds of rose powdered with azure. An exquisite pastel of delicate grace…

This…the volcano? This lovely thing…?

But we approach. At the same time approaches the night.

In the night…

The tenderness coloring the countryside, from the details made precise by shadow, becomes a harsh anger. The sea plunges itself into mourning. The mountain grows large, black, tragic, a menace.

It is no longer veiled in pink and blue. It is helmeted, plumed in black smoke, with spots of red—with spots of blood. And this plume mounts to the sky, very high, launched by a powerful exhalation.

And we approach still. And there are, on the flanks of the mountain, wide lava-channels, white. And under the black again, a stain of white, large, long, at the bottom of the gulf…

But what blacks! What whites! I know of no words capable of rendering the livid filth, a thing never seen, beyond dreaming, and that you will not have imagined. No need to know that, in there, over there, are scattered forty thousand corpses, for this vision to seem frightening. No word, I tell you, to rehearse for you the horror…

White and black.

Never will a painter find on his palette such…so dismal, this black, this white; under the glow of the volcano, under the glow that, now yellow from the mudslides and the ashes they carried, greens the blue of night.

And we approach closer. We pass nearer, near to Saint-Pierre, this that was Saint-Pierre.

And then it was more than horror…

The white ruins under the night, ruins that seemed a city of tombs, and from the distance we ventured, the stench of ashes. This white, that covered the mountain; this white, that covered the ruins—an immense shroud, all white, a white our eyes had never seen. All this white that lay white in the night, it was ashes…

It was the ashes that had killed.

A nightmare vision. A terrible nightmare.

The hour after, we arrived at the harbor of Fort-de-France. There were ships. We heard, from a high deck, the Blue Waltz. The admiral was dining. We returned to reality.








Other Sights of the Volcano




The mountain emerges as a truncated cone, and the clouds are the truncated cone reversed. Cloud and mountain, two truncated cones, interpenetrated by the mountain’s summit, a gigantic X, a solid base, a loose belt fluttering, a floating cap. At five miles from the vent, we breathed the odor of sulphur and received the ashes. This powdery ash filters the light.

Each minute, thus to say, varies the aspect of the mountain…

The cone of the cloud is crumpled, the smoke tumbles low. It is now a reversed plume that spreads towards the North. Then the cloud rises wide, enormous, very high, cleanly cut on the clearer sky of the South coast, confounding itself with the black sky of the North coast. It is a dark, sooty mass that reflects reddish, yellowish, that expands into layers blackest at the heights. Is it the imagination, that all these lava flows, white on the mountain, have the air of an amphitheater’s stone slabs?

When we point South, and we ourselves are moving off, the mountain and clouds all resume the aspect of a pastel, of a dark indigo pastel; and there, where we divine the summit, the crater we see is a curved line, a very large U…five incandescent dots that must be huge. They seem to us, in the distance, in the somber blue of night, like five red balloons; you know, those of the engineer Beau, the balloons of celluloid in which the gay places of the cities enclose their electric lights and render them more pale, more lovely.








The impressive thing about this photo, taken from Hess’s book, is the hand on the rope. It gives a sense of immediacy to the moment depicted, the ship approaching the ruin of Saint-Pierre, the passengers not yet knowing how the horror will appear to them.



1902 photo of boat approaching smoking Mount Pelee





Translator’s notes: on page 8 of this translation, the Blue Waltz was heard from a “haut bord”. Because the next sentence is, “the admiral was dining” and because Hess is entering the harbor on a ship himself, I picture the music coming from the deck of another ship, a larger one with the admiral aboard, so I’ve chosen to state it this way.
On page 9, a puzzling phrase, “la joie des villes”, that in searching Gallica, I can’t find as a set expression; in context, it seems to refer to providers of conviviality generally.
These two instances may not be correct.





Homer’s Hymn to Minerva


I sing the glorious Power with azure eyes,

Athenian Pallas, tameless, chaste, and wise,

Tritogenia, town-preserving maid,

Revered and mighty; from his awful head

Whom Jove brought forth, in warlike armor dressed,

Golden, all radiant! wonder strange possessed

The everlasting Gods that shape to see,

Shaking a javelin keen, impetuously

Rush from the crest of Aegis-bearing Jove;

Fearfully Heaven was shaken, and did move

Beneath the might of the Cerulean-eyed;

Earth dreadfully resounded, far and wide;

And, lifted from its depths, the sea swelled high

In purple billows, the tide suddenly

Stood still, and great Hyperion’s son long time

Checked his swift steeds, till where she stood sublime,

Pallas from her immortal shoulders threw

The arms divine; wise Jove rejoiced to view.

Child of the Aegis-bearer, hail to thee,

Nor thine nor other’s praise shall unremembered be.



Percy Bysshe Shelley



Published by Mrs. Shelley, 1839, dated 1818 (public domain).

(Tritogeneia was another name for the goddess Athena.)




La Catastrophe de la Martinique
Public domain photo of candles for Martinique dead

La Catastrophe de la Martinique (part six)

















(1902, Jean Hess, La Castastrophe de la Martinique: 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)




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