Catastrophe (part nine)
The Funeral Boat
On Land…What We Saw There
I had seen the volcano in passing near the coast, aboard the Saint-Domingue. I had remarked the terror it threatened to hurl upon Fort-de-France. I wanted to view this more closely; and I wanted above all to see the ruins, to go over what had been a prosperous city, a welcoming city, where four years ago on an earlier trip to the Antilles, I was pampered and feted.
I went with what was called, in Fort-de-France, the Cappa mission; that is to say, the detachment of workers under the direction of M. Cappa, the city architect, who had the mission of burying and burning the corpses. It was the port dredging-boat that each day…when it rested, when the sleep of the volcano permitted…carried this mission from Fort-de-France to Saint-Pierre.
The boat was always loaded with barrels of lime, jars of carbolic acid, and cans of kerosene. It had taken on the odor of a hospital ward, an “amphitheater”. I have sailed on all sorts of boats. I had missed that of gravedigger.
Dreary, are you thinking?
But no…it carried two policemen and two priests, also, who told me stories…stories of the volcano.
Then it had this inestimable advantage, that it was a dredger, and could not go fast. And as it passed very near the coast along the devastated regions, I could see them well.
The southern limit of the destroyed zone was at the town of Carbet.
It had been pretty, once, this town narrow and long, that slept on the beach at the foot of low hills furrowed and fertile. It was a town of rich cultivation, and rich fishing. The fire and the sea have left only ashes, only ruins.
We see at first scorched coconut trees and scorched cane; then burnt coconuts and burnt cane.
Then the debris of huts, and the scattered stone of houses. In a sheltering ravine, the church and its surrounding outbuildings are intact, but abandoned. The hot ashes have chased away the people.
By measures, as we advance towards the North, we see destruction more profound. The trees left are only smoking trunks. The cane fields nothing, nothing but ravaged earth. The huts, debris on the soil. All of it, a tangle of rubble. All the shoreline is full of what the waves return, like dead algae on our own beaches. The flanks of the hills are planed, harrowed; the heights are scorched, defoliated, carbonized.
And everything afterwards is ash. It has come to rest from a whirlwind, fallen with the rain. It gives the illusion of lava flows.
Then there are the naked rocks, grey and livid. The cliff looks like the walls of a limekiln. Farther on is the open land, under a frosting of white. The ashes are flocked on the perimeters of the cliff and the hills, drawn in arabesques of unimaginable fantasy. All these combinations of grey and white, the white of baked stone, the grey of ash. Anything that might be carved, modeled, drawn, painted, of this madness, could have no more than grey and white for the translation, in color, of crisis.
At the Monsieur quarter, a wreck on the beach. And it is here the truly beautiful devastation begins. One sees that a gust of fire has passed, wrenching the skeletons of calcined trees on the desiccated soil, cooked and recooked. But the gust was not much elevated. On the hills, higher, at one hundred thirty to one hundred fifty meters, are fields of cane still green, a brutal contrast. At the heights, life. Below, death.
I could pinpoint by this, in a number of places, the upper limits of the destructive phenomenon. From 120 to 140 meters.
Then, the quarter of l’Anse. In the middle of the burned ruins, a house has its four walls and its roof. It sings a foolish solo on a stage of trees without leaves, twisted by fire.
The tornado of flame seems to have worked like a factory for “bent wood”. This hallucinatory vision, with the headway of the boat, chases us from place to place—this vision of calcined trees in poses of agony. The corpses of men are frightful, but the dead lie. Death lets the dead trees stand…and this may be the more frightful. Death in what lives a little, seems a more potent death.
It has stricken everything here, death. At the southern tip of Saint-Pierre, on the flank of the hill, mid-coast, on a prominence that dominates the harbor, the sailors had lifted a great and beautiful statue of the “Bonne Mère”, to protect the shipping. The pedestal of the statue is all that stands. The virgin of stone has been projected twenty meters. But she has not broken in this fall. She has fallen intact, face to earth. One of the sailors of the funeral boat told me it is for weeping; not to look on the destruction she did not know how to prevent.
And the city…this which was a city…
The words, the words to tell it…
No, I can’t find them.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, Jean Hess; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)