Catastrophe (part eighteen)
The Ships’ Crews in the Harbor
The Roddam; the Gabrielle; the Roraima
The nightmare of the sailors
The harbor of Saint-Pierre, as always in this era of great cargoes of sugar and rum, was filled with ships. All perished but one, the Roddam, which being under steam was able to slip anchor and flee. She arrived at Saint-Lucie with half her crew dead…
A ship of horror.
Read what the Journal of Saint-Lucie wrote of her arrival:
This afternoon of May 8th, a steamer, that looked to have been through some powerful trial, entered the harbor. This was the Roddam, which had left here yesterday at midnight, for Martinique.
The captain asked at once for a doctor. On the bridge were ten dead and others dying. The captain was covered in ash and black grime, his hands horribly burned. Six inches of ash covered the ship. He told how he had come to drop anchor at Saint-Pierre, and was speaking with his agent, M. Joseph Plissonneau, who was alongside, when an awful cloud of smoke, brilliantly lit with pieces of flaming charcoal, hurtled from the mountain, towards the city and the port.
The captain barely had time to draw the agent’s attention to the phenomenon, when the terrible cloud was on them, raining fire over the ship. He ordered the anchors released, the ship luckily still under steam, and able to slowly move itself farther from land. His men fell asphyxiated or burned around him, one by one. After drifting many hours he was able, by a superhuman effort, to return to Castries.
M. Plissonneau managed, by hanging onto her, to board the Roddam.
All the other boats in the harbor of Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe were burnt or destroyed, some at once; others, as the Roraima, the largest, sinking only in the days to follow. Nearly all the sailors who found themselves on deck perished.
A few were saved. M. Georges Marie-Sainte, the second captain of the schooner Gabrielle, which belongs to the trading-house of Knight; and the deputy purser of the Roraima, notably, were living still at the hospital, when I arrived in Fort-de-France.
For an answer to my questions, they gave me two numbers of L’Opinion, where I read the story of M. Sainte:
The day before yesterday, the 8th of May, the sun at six in the morning illuminated a Saint-Pierre relatively tranquil. To the north, Mt. Pelée fumed, the wind driving the smoke westwards, blotting out the sky in that direction. Between six-thirty and seven, the columns of smoke turned white and were flaked with ash, emerging abruptly in turmoil, as a new crater 200 meters below a crest already deformed, split open, fissuring from high to low, throwing the city into a general panic. The population spread along the shoreline, wearing themselves out in various conjectures. For some, the phenomenon of full daylight on the city and shadow on the sea was explained by an eclipse of the sun, announced by the Bristol almanac. For others, the obscured eastern view was due to the smoke, black as soot, spewed by the volcano.
It was seven when the Diamant, of the Compagnie Girard, departed. Clearing the wharf, the little steamer at once fixed herself to a buoy. The boats in the harbor rode as usual at the mercy of the waves. Towards 7:10 those on the schooner Gabrielle spotted a yawl carrying the governor and members of the scientific commission, which passed fifty meters from them. She seemed to direct herself towards the Prêcheur, and kept to a distance of at least 400 meters from shore.
At seven fifty-five, a formidable rumble was heard from within the mountain, as if a monstrous rent was tearing from top to bottom. And then we saw, in the midst of an impenetrable black smoke, a gigantic mass, a thing formless and boundless, that fell over the valley at dizzying speed, burying under ruins, engulfing in torment, the whole of Saint-Pierre, from Sainte-Philomène to Petite-Anse du Carbet.
On the sea, two-thirds of the ships in harbor, after a sinister creaking of their frames, had their masts and upper decks broken, carried away, then sank at once, some by the prow, others by the stern.
Three boats alone, of which two were steamers, the Roraima and the North America, were able to resist the shock. But of their charred crew, there remained but a few, saved by some miracle. M. Georges Marie-Sainte, aboard the Gabrielle, owed his life to a sudden forced immersion. The water was so hot that his body, and the schooner’s four other survivors’, were badly scalded. After wresting free of some rigging that hindered his movements, he rose back to the surface. It was then that he could contemplate, in all its grandiose horror, the blaze that stretched before his sight, from Sainte-Philomène to three hundred meters from Carbet, devouring the ruins of a city already in rubble, and coloring the place with fantastical gleams, as the fires of Bengal.
While he searched for some wreckage to save himself, a furious rain of incandescent lava, a nameless mixture of mud and lava-like stone, fell on the burning city and its environs, whistling and crackling on the sea like bullets from a heedless fusillade.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)