Catastrophe (part eight)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part eight)












A few Americans had planned to realize it, this classic ascent become obligatory. They were at Morne-Rouge. Fully equipped, they departed: wagons, horses, mules, guides, and provisions. They had dined, very calm, and happy in the beauty of the evening, in the night at its birth.

The volcano appears to them as an American painting, the backdrop of an American stage scene, from an American opera.

Then, all at once, a change in the view.

The mountain growls and smokes…otherwise, it is as usual. For it is very rare that it “rests” for more than an hour or two. But the Americans foresee the clouds of fire on them, and fly, abandoning the horses, the carriages, everything. In the night, without knowing where, without troubling themselves for the road, jumping across hedges, tumbling down ravines, crossing precipices, climbing banks, they go running, bounding…

They feel they are chased by the fire of the volcano, the fire at their rear, that makes beasts and men run…

They ran all night. At daybreak, they fell exhausted on the road. The first negro they encountered, they blanketed with promises of dollars, if he would point them the way to Fort-de-France.

I would not be astonished to read in their journals a different account of their climbing the volcano. But the truth is mine. I know, in fact, someone—in whom I place all confidence—who was staying that night at Morne-Rouge, and was there to see.


The French also showed beautiful examples of dementedness. A young functionary will remain famous in Martinique. During the panic of the 20th, he was seen to quickly exit his hotel, bareheaded, clad in underpants. He brandished an enormous cavalry revolver and cried: “Away, away…we are going to die…let’s go…if you don’t make way, I’ll kill you!”

The unfortunate boy was so much tried by fear, he could live no more, but with the idea of killing himself, if “the fire of heaven” fell on Fort-de-France. He asked me how it needed to be done, killing oneself with a shot.

“To the temple, monsieur, is it not? To the temple.”

“Well, but my dear monsieur, you must never tremble, for then you will miss. Like poor F——, who last month in a fit of fever fired badly, burning both eyes, and dying only after an agonizing fifteen days…”

“Then the heart…”

“This must equally be done with a firm hand…and I think that you tremble, monsieur.”

“And so we must allow ourselves to burn like that, without doing anything…”

“I believe so.”

“Ah, monsieur, you haven’t seen the martyrs that were landed here…burned…burned… You don’t know what this is! My God! My God!”

And the unfortunate goes off in the night…with these gestures and these “my Gods!” Fool.

I assure you the conversation was exactly such.

This man was one of those elite beings, to whom their knowledge and their impassivity, joined to a ministerial degree, give the right to judge the weaknesses of other men, and to condemn them.







The Topography
The Dates of the Volcano’s Ravages



Before going further, that it not be lost in the information and interviews to follow, I urge the reader to study the map of Martinique. You will see the northern part of the island drawn within a circumference, having at the center, and culminating in a point, the mountain, Pelée.



Map showing Mount Pelee volcano on island of Martinique

Map of Mt. Pelée, Hess, 1902



From this orthographic node goes out, radiating towards the sea, a series of ridges, limited by the valley escarpments, or the flowing of the rivers.

To the west, the valley of the river Prêcheur, ending at the town of the same name; then, the valley of the Riviére Blanche, the valley of the Riviére des Péres, and of the Roxelane, which flows through two northern districts of Saint-Pierre. The southern part of the city extends along the harborfront, at the foot of the low hills drawing into a long plateau; still farther south, lies the town of Carbet.


And now, “the dates of the volcano”—


In March, the crater begins to “vapor”.

It “smokes”, at the end of April.

On the fifth of May, it spits the mud that carries away the Guérin factory on the Riviére Blanche. On May 6, it causes a flow of mud in the Riviére des Péres and in the Roxelane.

On the 8th, it destroys Saint-Pierre and her suburbs, from Prêcheur to Carbet.

On the 20th of May, it covers Fort-de-France in ashes and pebbles.

On the 26th and 28th, it has two eruptions that extend their ravages, and force evacuations of the northern communities, up to that point spared, and where some thousands of inhabitants believed themselves safe.

On the 1st and the 6th of June, new eruptions.

And when will be the last?*

When does the terrible mountain rest?







In the Ruins



A Man of the Bible has said:

I saw the mountains and they trembled; I saw the hills, and they were all shaken; I cast my eyes about me and I found no men; and all the birds, even of the heavens, are gone; I saw the most fertile countryside become desert; and all the cities destroyed before the face of the Lord.


When I returned to the ruins, this verse of lamentation and terror came back to my memory.




*The telegrams received from Fort-de-France during the composition of this book have announced, on the 9th of July, one eruption more violent than the first, and rendering absolutely uninhabitable the north of the island.




Translator’s note: Hess is likely referring to Jeremiah 4:24, lamentation for Judah.

As he said in his preface, he took these lines directly from this notes, and his memory of them must be not entirely as they appear in the bible, since I couldn’t find his French version via internet search. The English (KJV) is:


I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly.

I beheld, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled.

I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger.



La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadLa Catastrophe de la Martinique (part nine)















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




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