Catastrophe (part twenty-one)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(twenty-one)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another captain, arriving before Saint-Pierre in the same conditions, and seeing the volcano, learning it had destroyed the city, wanted even to avoid Fort-de-France. This was the captain of the Mariette, of Bayonne.

M. Cappa, who found himself aboard the dredger, met him off the coast.

“What is that mountain that smokes?”

“The volcano.”

“What volcano?”

“Mt. Pelée. Do you know nothing? Where do you come from? Where are you going?”

“From Bayonne. To Saint-Pierre. With a load of cod.”

“Saint-Pierre does not exist. The volcano has destroyed it. But they have need of food in Fort-de-France. Go there.”

“Thank you. I also have a cargo for Guadeloupe. I will go there.”

And the Mariette turned from him, without wanting to hear any more.

 

 

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XIV 
On the Outskirts of the Rain of Fire

 

M. Lasserre

 

 

The extent of the gaseous storm’s destruction has been noted at many points. MM. Lasserre and Simonet were on the road from Morne-Rouge, making for the rise of Petit-Réduit. They were going by carriage, when, reaching the hill, they saw the cloud approach. They took their horse off at a gallop, shouting and laying on the whip. But barely had they gained sixty meters, when the phenomenon was upon them. They were burned, but still had the power to save themselves.

“It was,” they told me, “as if we’d had a jet of steam and ash blown in our faces.”

That is their only memory. They had not dreamed of observing this thing… They did not look it over; they fled. Which we understand.

 

 

M. Guillaume

 

M. Guillaume, of Prêcheur, saw the phenomenon of the 8th distinctly. His house is thirty meters from the limit of the devastation zone. His oxen barn was burned, with the animals and their keeper. His impression is of a great terror.

He heard what seemed a fusillade. He breathed an odor of saltpeter. His watch marked the time as five minutes after eight. The wind blew from the North, bringing clouds of hot ash, small rubble, and burning debris. This lasted a second. The sky turned red. Then two minutes of raining ash, and a half-hour of raining mud.

 

 

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XV 
An Interview with M. Fernand Clerc

 

Political Digressions

 

 

M. Fernand Clerc is the chief of what one calls, in Martinique, the party of whites. He is owner of a large factory, of large properties, and within his sphere commands a great influence. It was he who four years ago nominated Denis Guibert for Deputy, who was not known to anyone on the island, had never gone there, and will never come there. This year, M. Fernand Clerc thought a Martiniquais would better defend to Parliament the interests of Martinique, or, if you prefer, the interests of the factory owners of Martinique. And he presented himself.

He was a candidate hostile to the administration and to the mulatto party, and violently resisted. But just as I have said, he possesses influence. He is moreover a man of rare energy, great charm, and extraordinary activity. He was making his campaign ‘effective’…and in the initial round had come in first. The volcano at this point prevented him from facing the electorate.

Though not immediate to a report devoted to Mt. Pelée’s eruption, as we are with the leader of one of Martinique’s parties, I believe it advantageous, and necessary, to discuss the political situation. I say necessary, because when we know the situation, we can know the mental state of the Martiniquais, before, during, and after the catastrophe. Of these human events, many seem inexplicable, if we lack the key to the colonial psychology, particularly as to Martinique and Guadeloupe.

We have three classes of men: whites, mulattos, and negroes. Negroes make up the majority. They are the hands…the hands that work the soil, the hands whose labor nourishes the whites and mulattos. But the general economic condition makes this labor poorly remunerated. The colonial goods today are produced everywhere. They have fallen in price. Hence, the crisis of Martinique. The whites would like to profit alone, from the meagre benefits the island’s exploitation returns. The mulattos as well. And they fight on the backs of the negroes. The poor man is always the one who pays.

On one side are the masses, still ignorant…some a little brutal, naïve, credulous, fetishistic, passionate, manipulable, capable of being swept away, capable of a low servility, of crushing submission. And also, of a generous pride, of fearful revolts…a mass, let us not forget, who were freed from slavery barely 50 years ago. To be exact, from 1848. Those negroes older than 54, voters today, have been slaves. Of the three generations active today, one was born into slavery, another grew up amid stories of slavery, and the third has received, with their blood, all the grudges, passions, hates—all the special mindset of the first two.

It is this mass of land-laborers, this voting mass, who are at stake in the electoral battles, where political supremacy, disputed by whites and mulattos, is in reality only a safeguard of economic interests.

 

 

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La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadSee more on Catastrophe page
Catastrophe (part twenty-two)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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