Catastrophe (part sixteen)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part sixteen)














The Day of the 8th at Fort-de-France
The account of the newspaper L’Opinion



As a journalist, I naturally asked a fellow journalist for the story of the “terrible day”. The amiable director of L’Opinion has given me the article in which he recorded his own memories:


Thursday, the 8th of May, 1902, Fort-de-France awoke, as to an ordinary day. A vague disquiet had hovered over the city since the burial of the Guérin factory under lava, but we told ourselves the distance from the volcano, 28 kilometers [17.39 miles] away as the crow flies, was sufficient. And it must be admitted we had wholly accepted the verdict, as to the progress of the eruption, from the commission charged with its study. The day before, Governor Mouttet, alerted by the mayor of Saint-Pierre that the Roxelane churned with black water, had gone there. Mme Mouttet, wishing to be with her husband, was also at Saint-Pierre, as well as Mme Gerbault, wife of the late colonel of artillery, who had been president of the scientific mission. Further, the cable dispatches put on display reassured, perhaps too absolutely, the apprehensive populations of the colony’s two great cities.

It is, however, worth establishing, that M. Landes—who, it seems, at the last moment had addressed to the governor a very alarming dispatch—told his students a few days before the dismissal of the high school that an analysis of the heavy material ejected by the volcano presaged an exceptionally violent eruption.

But they were far from suspecting the cataclysm in its brutal reality!

They believed an earthquake was the only worry, and as Fort-de-France rested on uneven terrain, the people of Saint-Pierre reasoned what may have been false, refused to leave their city built on solid ground, believing they enjoyed in this regard complete safety.

They were to celebrate that day the solemnities of the Ascension. The whole of Martinique was in holiday mood, when Mount Pelée, so long at work, launched death in the form of an electrically charged cloud of sulphurous gas, on the thousands of beings full of life and activity, who could not escape the scourge, and annihilated in a single blow the city of industry, the intellectual and commercial center of the colony.








At Fort-de-France, around six in the morning, an atmosphere clear of haze, and a lightened, pale sky, promised a comparatively fine day. Everyone was afoot at a good hour and making preparations for the Ascension. Suddenly, around eight o’clock, the sky grew black as ink; then a hail of small stones fell on the houses, a pattering on metal and tile that seemed at first inexplicable. At the same time, a cloud of airy ash enveloped the city and its environs, covering everything in a grey veil. A fine rain came soon after, turning this into sheets of mud, that soiled and spotted everything, while the formidable rumblings of the volcano increased the unease and fright.

At the first cracklings of pebbles on the roofs, the whole population, seized with horror and dread, and not knowing which way to go, fled the houses searching for shelter, not caring where. It was an unforgettable exodus to the countryside. Each brought away whatever was most precious. The women carried their children, the men supported their wives. By an unexplainable notion, they directed themselves inland. On the heights, a surge of seawater into their houses, an end by drowning without hope of flight, was not to be feared. They might still find themselves buried by an earthquake, the event we feared most of all.

It was a fantastic procession, lasting all morning, under blinding ashes that dirtied everything, a terrified population like a troop of sheep, surprised by the first thunder of a dreadful tempest.

Towards midday, news of the disappearance of Saint-Pierre began to circulate. The city had been destroyed, they said, by fire. Conjectures followed. How to get precise information? We could no longer communicate by telephone. The line of Saint-Pierre, after a cry of the ultimate suffering from the attendant, had gone dead. The ferry of the company Girard, which services Saint-Pierre, could not approach. From the side of our boat, we had a good view of the shoreline houses, or what remained of them, still in the clutch of flames; as to the rest, it was impossible to pick them out. They were enveloped in an impenetrable fog of ash and smoke. We returned to Fort-de-France.

There was an hour of unspeakable anguish. All who remained in the city, or had returned, went to the harborfront fearing the worst, to question one another in hopes of learning news of our sister-city. Everyone counted a parent, a friend, or an acquaintance in Saint-Pierre. For long hours, while the troops posted to the edges of the quays and the shops along the seaside kept the area closed, guarding against a danger we could not imagine, the crowd demanded to know what thing so horrible had happened, that it must be hidden from them, making their suffering ten times worse.






La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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
















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



%d bloggers like this: