Catastrophe (part fourteen)
“They followed, these black waves, one on another in a furious push. One on another, with thunder, making the sea recoil. Splinters, swirling… A sloop was hurled 150 meters to kill one of my foremen at my side.
“I went to the shore. It was desolation without name. Where a moment ago had been a prosperous factory, a lifetime’s labor, there was only a blanket of mud. A black shroud for my son, my daughter-in-law, my people. The mud had driven the sea more than ten meters from the shore, and for two minutes the surf was gone. Into this mudflow the volcano had thrown rocks of all sizes. An officer saw one the next day that must have weighed twenty-five tons.
“I returned to Saint-Pierre, after to Fort-de-France, where I rejoined my wife and daughters. I saw a new flow of mud from the mountain, a new plume of white smoke. On the 6th, at three in the morning, the electric lights went out. The inhabitants, in a panic, ran into the streets. They shouted that the mud would flow from the mountain by the river Roxelane, and carry away the city as it had my factory. I believe the panic was over negro thieves who might pillage abandoned houses.
“At 5:30 I saw a vertical column of smoke from the crater, higher than ever, thickening at the summit, following the direction of the wind. The summit was bare. The flanks of the mountain were full of fumaroles, as if there were hundreds of craters. The mountain carried on with its smoke and noise. The feeling was of an enormous effort, as if the earth was forcing out…”
[I have noted down the statements of Dr. Guérin, using none but the expressions he used himself. This remark, moreover, I will make only once. In every interview I have transcribed, I’ve respected not only the substance, but as much as possible the form. And if sometimes the reader “blinks” at these expressions, these images, this rhetoric a little strong, I’ll thank him to attribute them not to me, but to those from whom I had them! That said, let us return to the excellent Dr. Guérin.]
“I was afraid, and wouldn’t stay. I saw a few friends before I left. They accompanied me to the boat, and I said to them in parting, ‘Your city is not habitable. Evil will come to you…’ And, in fact, how could one call a city habitable, and live where, when I left on the 6th, something near five centimeters of ash was on the streets…? The elections, no doubt. The elections they meant to pursue under the menace of the volcano. Three hours after my factory had been carried away, when the emotion in all the Mouillage had not yet calmed, they placarded the walls with election posters.
“Ah! Monsieur,” went on the good doctor, “there are things that should be brought to light. Who knows, who will ever know, if the election was not the cause for keeping the population at Saint-Pierre? They tell you, I am not ignorant of it…they swear that the people of Saint-Pierre believed they were in no danger…that the estimation, to the contrary, was of greater safety in Saint-Pierre than Fort-de-France. But others saw the danger. I could see it. On the morning of the 6th, I said to my friends that their city was uninhabitable. Why did some who saw and knew, whose words had the chance of being heeded, not speak up? Politics, monsieur, elections.”
I asked Dr. Guérin if he had observed the phenomenon of the 8th.
What had he thought then, of what he could hear at Fort-de-France?
He believed it was destruction, a grinding, following electrical discharges that stormed in the mass of flaming gas.
If he had not seen the phenomenon of the 8th, he had by contrast seen very well, he told me, that of the 20th, that caused such hysteria in Fort-de-France. And for its description, I take his word:
“On the 20th, at five in the morning, I heard a low growling, and saw lightning, again and again, in the north. Then I heard cries in the street. Women, screaming that the flame of the mountain was falling on Fort-de-France.”
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902; translation, Stephanie Foster, 2018)