Catastrophe (part thirteen)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part thirteen)















Those Who Have Seen 


Some Interviews



How was the destruction at Saint-Pierre accomplished? By what force were they thrown to earth, set afire, these ruins through which, in so sorrowful a promenade, I have led you?

I have seen the volcano hurl clouds of black smoke at night, alight with fire. I have seen the crater kindle itself and glow. I have seen the descent of lava flows, torrents of smoking, vaporing mud. I have seen the volcano spit ashes, and received the rain of them.

But all this cannot suffice to explain the crushing of a city and the death of forty thousand persons living there.

To understand this destructive phenomenon, it is necessary to question those who saw the 8th, and could study the immediate aftermath.

This I have done. Eyewitnesses… But, let us pause on this word, “eyewitnesses”—this does not mean witnesses found in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe. Of that type, there are none. All who were alive in Saint-Pierre on the 8th of May, at 7:50 in the morning, had died before the ticking on to 7:50 and a half minutes…absolutely all.

The eyewitnesses were those who were found at the limit of the destructive phenomenon, at sea or on land, of whom some were grievously burned; and most of these died, after a more or less lengthy agony.

Among all those I’ve listened to, here are the most interesting—













Conversation with M. le docteur Guérin
Eruption of the 5th



Dr. Guérin is an old man of seventy-two years. In type, he is the accomplished white creole of the Antilles. Very robust, spry, and let us say the word, very young despite his great age.

He was embarking at Pointe-à-Pitre, aboard the Saint-Domingue, where I had taken passage. He had conducted his family to Guadeloupe, after the catastrophe, and was returning to Martinique to occupy himself with what was left behind. Not many things…the volcano had from him beforehand, one might say, taken all.

It was with Dr. Guérin the volcano had begun, in destroying his factory, located 2 kilometers north of Saint-Pierre, on the ocean side, at the mouth of the Rivière-Blanche.

He told me all he knew, all he had seen. I will let him speak:


“Mt. Pélee began to make her noise around the 25th of April. The 28th, my factory manager made the ascent with a few other persons, of whom a young Parisian—M. Mervardt, I believe—perished afterwards in the catastrophe. They found the dry lake filled with water. The water was hot in certain places, cold in others. It overflowed on the factory side, into the Rivière-Blanche. The river, which in ordinary times had little water, had tripled in volume. The water was drinkable, but tepid.

“Thursday, I was away. Friday, my son telephoned me to say there was no more water in the Rivière-Blanche, only mud. The mountain smoked. The ashes fell. Saturday, the hands, taken with fear, refused to work. The ashes fell that day as far as Fort-de-France.

“That Monday morning, they telephoned me that the factory was in danger. In the night, there had been an inundation of black mud, that overflowed the defenses built to protect the factory against the Rivière-Blanche. This mudslide stopped at four o’clock. At 9:30, the mountain was equally calm. More than five hundred of the curious came to eye this phenomenon, which began to worry me, and the others present.

“I wanted immediately to bring away my family, and the factory personnel. I could not go until noon. I decided it would take two hours; I had ordered my yacht put under steam at the factory port. At ten o’clock, I heard cries. They sounded the alarm. Frightened people flung past my chalet, situated above the factory, clamoring: “The mountain is coming down!”

“And I heard a noise which I can compare to nothing. An immense noise…what…? The devil on earth. I went outdoors… I looked at the scene. It was coming down, under white smoke, crashing, an avalanche of black stuff, an enormous mass more than ten meters high, at least a hundred and fifty meters wide. This went along the bed of the Rivière-Blanche, rolled against the factory…like an army of gigantic rams…

“Stupefaction nailed me in place. I could not move. All my life was before my eyes. My unfortunate son and his unhappy wife ran towards the shore. I saw them disappear behind the factory. As soon as it arrived, passing ten meters from me, I felt the deadly wind. And at once came the mud…it was earth-splitting. Everything is broken, drowned, buried…my son, his wife, thirty of my people… The large buildings were carried away on the waves of the avalanche.”






La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe (part fourteen)















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




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