Catastrophe (part twenty-two)
Behind the façade, plastered with their grandiloquent political programs, there is this. The negro can no longer feed the whites and the mulattos. The white does not want to die, and the mulatto would like to live. That is the fact, the truth, and I say it. Everything else you will be told is a joke.
Add, that in this struggle for life, since the instinct for preservation directs the actions of all living beings, the normal political fury joins itself to, and makes the racial hatred, the prejudices of color that are always teeming, more violent, and more ferocious.
This gives an idea of the island. You will understand why they fight, even upon the coffins. And why the day after the catastrophe, the first distributions of aid were made as the distributions of electoral money—and why, while the communities of the north, in an anguish of fear, cut off from flight on the edge of the earth, were clamoring for help, the preoccupation had been to promote the election in the south.
And you will understand the internecine war, wherever survivors are found. The confoundment of the whites, with the cream of the conquering mulattos, who were vanquished, decimated, ruined…
Then, the placidity of the negroes, many of whom are not far from thinking the profession of “victim” as good as any other.
M. Fernand Clerc, man of the volcano
M. Fernand Clerc is not only the white party’s political man most in view, the leader of the opposition, etc., etc… This catastrophe has made him the Man of the Volcano. He it is who “pipes the tune” for the reporters and the American geologists. It is to him they address themselves, all those wanting to approach the monster.
Great gods! I begin to sound like a Yankee reporter… I’d sworn to write this volume without ever “hawking a monster” to my readers; but, finally, it will have to do… We allow “monster”. And since monster it is, let us say that M. Fernand Clerc has become the monster’s acknowledged guide. He divines, he sees, he knows when the monster sleeps, and he tells the Americans: “This is the moment. Go forth.”
Once, however, they did not go. The monster was smoking…it spat, it burned…it was lovely. The geologists admired it, along with M. Fernand Clerc, in one of the houses, on one of the properties, of M. Fernand Clerc, from where they could readily see the monster.
“Oh, splendid!” murmured one with phlegm…who was not the monster, but the American.
The smoke, the pebbles, the ash, the fire, snatched by a gust of wind, changed their direction, to menace the home observatory.
It smoked more, it spat greatly, it burned grossly—not the American, the monster.
Then said the geologist, with less phlegm, “Oh! This is terrible!” The fire-breathing beast looked set to bury them in ashes and pebbles.
The Yankee said, “Let’s run!”
He had no more phlegm at all.
The stories of M. Fernand Clerc are the source of material for the most sensational articles published by the American newspapers.
M. Fernand Clerc owed me as well, for France, an interview. The notes taken under the dictation of M. Fernand Clerc do not constitute the least interesting chapter of my reportage…
And now, it is M. Fernand Clerc who speaks:
“At the summit of Mt. Pelée was once a plateau of around three hectares. There was beautiful vegetation, a little lake of beautiful clear water, but without fish; lower down on the Morne-Lacroix, one of its foothills, was a deep bowl of 120 meters, a dry pond, whose west wall had a great vertical notch…
“The summit of Mt. Pelée had been a walking destination for pleasure parties. We Martiniquais went there to picnic. The climb was not hard… You had only a few hundred meters to go by foot. The ladies weren’t afraid.*
“At the height was a magnificent view. You could see Saint-Pierre below. With a good glass, you could even recognize individuals.
“The dry pond was an old crater, that hadn’t smoked since 1851. However, I recall perfectly that in May of last year, there were some fumaroles. The 26th of April the volcano began to throw some ash. It spewed and smoked up to the 5th of May, the day the Guérin factory was destroyed. The dust and the water of centuries had accumulated in the volcanic chimney, of which the dry pond is the mouth. The mud made a plug.
“When, for a cause that can perhaps be explained, the power of the actual eruption was produced, the plug was projected from the chimney, which I leave it to you to calculate the length…
‘But, it had to be very long, if one is to judge by the enormous volume of ejected mud.
Author’s note: *A young man, with whom I spoke of these pleasure parties to the mountain, and the ease of climbing, told me: “There were a few places where you would have to do some gymnastics. Also, to climb the mountain, the ladies put on trousers…”
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)