Catastrophe (part fifteen)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part fifteen)












“From my window I saw a thick cloud come out of the volcano. Its base reached the peaks of Carbet. The height of it filled the sky, to more or less six thousand meters. The cloud was fluffy, gold at the top. I attribute this coloration, which the public took for fire, to the first rays of the sun. Lightning flashed at the center, flinging out in a frightening way that spawned a great panic in the population. The cloud advanced slowly towards the sea, slowly upon Fort-de-France. It seemed, as it moved southwest, that it must cover the city. The top overhung the shore, and it lowered itself, letting fall a rain of thick ashes and slate-colored pebbles, of which a few larger were the size of pigeon’s eggs. All the population ran mad, any which way, to save themselves.

“I had gone with my family to the boat landing of the Girard Company, of which I’m a director. A crowd followed me. I had an idea of commandeering one of the big steamers. But I saw the danger in this. All the crowd, wailing in their terror, would throw themselves on board at the same time, and the boat would founder. I thought of Fort Saint-Louis. I ran there with my family, and we waited in a pillbox for the end of the terrible event. At the first opportunity, I brought my family to Guadeloupe, from where I return today.”







The Agony of Saint-Pierre
by telephone and telegraph



Do you recall the play performed this winter at the Antoine, where we saw a husband participate by telephone in the murder of his wife? There was something like it, in this catastrophe of the 8th. The last words and gasp of the operator surprised at his post by the volcano, were heard at Fort-de-France by a colleague. The director of telephone services is M. Garnier-Laroche. I have from him an account of his memories.


“At five minutes to eight, I spoke by telephone with an employee at Saint-Pierre. This employee told me the situation had become very difficult. The city was covered in a dense cloud, making daytime night. They could no longer see, they were obliged to light lamps in the office. No one could bear it, everyone dreaded an imminent catastrophe.

“I passed the receiver to a worker, wanting to go and warn the governor of this serious news. I had barely reached the stairs when my employee called me back, telling me there was no response from Saint-Pierre. He had heard his counterpart stammer all at once, incoherent, sputtering like a man who chokes. There was a crackling over the apparatus. He had the sensation of a shock in his ear, then nothing…

“At that moment all the lights of the apparatus flickered powerfully. The same thing had occurred days earlier, and did again on the 20th.

“At 8:15, wanting to retransmit a communication to Saint-Pierre, I tried another line, to the office at Carbet, Saint-Pierre’s closest neighbor. The city was then in flames.”


On the telegraph, that is to say, the French cable, the employees at Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France also were occupied “talking”, when overcome by the catastrophe. Each morning, from station to station, the employees would transmit the news from their respective offices, before they began to serve the public.

The one at Saint-Pierre spoke of the volcano. He laughed. He noted the many terrors surrounding him…but enough! He cannot see any reason to tremble, to wail. He laughs. It was in a joke, a burst of laughter dotted and dashed to his apparatus that he was surprised by death. The agent at Fort-de-France had sent this “band” to the directors at Paris.










Newspaper clipping talks about play The Telephone

Figaro 29 Nov 1901






Translator’s note: I think the play Hess mentions is Au Téléphone (see clipping), by MM. Lorde and Foley. 


The telegraph operator’s exchange mentions a signal used to express laughter, a proto-emoji. This article, “LOL in the age of the telegraph”, tells more.



a Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page


















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




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