Catastrophe (part twelve)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique













To raise a monument to the great emancipator, following I don’t know what baroque idea, they could not find a better place than the foyer of the theater. The philosopher’s image was to preside over the sporting of crowds, amused by clowns. They found this very good…

Never mind.

The inauguration was to have taken place in May. They had written me to come. The invitation had, after Paris, gone to Saint-Domingue. Received sooner…and I don’t know if the 8th of May would not have found me at Saint-Pierre. I ought to have been there. This was why, in newspapers too hastily published, I figured for an instant among the victims. It was not my hour.

During our return aboard the Drague, we ate. The two priests made party to the mission, had in their basket a Mariani wine. Yes, we ate. The leader of the gravedigger’s team teased the priest who had needed a tonic, saying to him, “…as for work, that is digging enough!”


I have again seen the ruins. And it seems to me that, far from diminishing, the impression of horror that froze me at first glance must become each time more profound.

And once more from my book I transcribe some notes—

In the valleys near the volcano, those that had not received the maelstrom of fire, but where fallen ashes cover the grass and leaves, where the rivers have dried up in the valleys deserted by men, the livestock are in an agony of starvation and thirst. The desolated countryside vibrates with the cries of masterless oxen; oxen, from domestication, having lost the instinct that drives the wild animals far from this land of the dead. And it is saddening.

Mount Pelée shows, on the ridges, the crests, the plateaus not yet engulfed by flows of mud and lava, but where the rock has been broken by tremors and burned by volcanic flame, a play of form to startle the most lunatic of imaginations…

But when I search for a comparison that conveys an idea, of the slopes and hills of this gaunt mountain, I find this: the unexpected aspects of dust from my school hourglass, when I was making piles and pastes of it on the slope of my desk. This hard dust of hard sand had ridges, plateaus, and slopes as could not have been given play in any other material.

This was the aspect of the mountain, fissured by the hiccups of the volcano—the aspect in form.

The aspect in color… I give up.

One more, though…the slopes above the Prêcheur in the valleys and on the crests, where the fire hadn’t passed, but clouds of pebbles and ashes, and of heavy, hot vapors had rained, was a sulphurous landscape of livid yellow. The foliage hung heavy. The field grasses resembled heavy old rugs.

The cocoanuts and the palms were frayed and weighted. The empty houses, their black windows…the empty sockets of a death’s head…appeared to weaken, sag, and waver under these heavy forces. And all this was a dirty yellow, an old sulphur-green and grey. A lunar landscape, said an expert near me, when I looked at this. A landscape of hell, answered the helmsman, a negro who saw more rightly than the expert.

Also everywhere enormous blocks. In its convulsions, the volcano threw these, stone blocks that weigh many tons. And threw them, what’s more, no less far than the dust—for kilometers.








The Crater


They have published a number of fantasies, in America principally, on the crater. This is what I saw, photographed, and drew.

A large cleft opened on the mountain at 2-300 meters, following a line northeast to southwest. This cleft, parting from the summit’s circumference, becomes at the top a hole, in the middle of which points a cone, that appears clipped, but which can never be seen to the whole of its extremity, for this is always wrapped in smoke. Barely, in the shifts of the wind, it is possible to glimpse the extremity, whose sides burn, and burgeon red like the scabby edge of a healing abscess.

This cone makes a chimney. And from the height, smokes. It smokes also from its flanks, which are riddled as a sieve.

At certain moments it smokes like the heap of wood, covered in earth, where they make charcoal. And the hole where the cone is found smokes as well. But the great jet of smoke, that at times mounts three kilometers in the sky, straight up, to spread like a blanket following the wind, that carries the ash and stones, that comes from the central chimney of the cone—which alone is the true jet of the volcano.

And in reality, there is only one crater. Its tube, its chimney, if I may say, has thinned itself, crumbled, and this makes the hole where it rises from the summit, and the crevasse, by which the lavas and vapors flow… This I have seen very clearly, many times, and as near as one can. Before the eruption of 6th June, the crater appeared as I say, as what I’ve drawn, and no other thing. The shock of the 6th may have transformed it.



1902 Jean Hess drawing of Mount Pelee in eruption


1902 Jean Hess drawing of Mount Pelee in eruption







Translator’s note: These sketches of Hess’s make me think of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), an artist usually counted part of the American Realist movement. I don’t know if these were done in color, and I don’t know if somewhere they survive. 


La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on La Catastrophe de la Martinique page
Catastrophe (part thirteen)












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




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