Catastrophe (part twenty-three)
“As there was a weak place, going laterally, effected by that notch of the dry pond I’d mentioned, it gave under powerful pressure, and the heavy mud flowed along the mountain. It devastated the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and carried away the Guérin factory, under the conditions you know. But suddenly the chimney had been swept away, released. I no longer saw mud. I saw only a constant eruption of ashes and pumice.
“The eruptions grew continually more intense. You would have to be blind not to see the danger threatened. For myself, I settled my family on the heights, to take shelter there.”
Declarations of M. Clerc
On the responsibilities of the government
The interview, you will see, was becoming interesting.
I pursued this: “So, you were dreading what in fact occurred?”
“I beg you, don’t make me say what I haven’t said, what I could not say. What has occurred is so unbelievable, so mad, so much outside all human foresight, so new, that no one would have been able to imagine it; consequently, to dread it. There had been fear of another thing, not a catastrophe like that of the Guérin factory, since the mountain had emptied all its mud, but an earthquake. Ours is a country of earthquakes. This is never forgotten, and given the activity of the volcano so near Saint-Pierre, we had not only the right, but the duty to predict misfortune…”
“So, if you had been governor, if you had been mayor of Saint-Pierre, you would have evacuated the city?”
“Completely. I would have done for the other families what I’d done for mine. I have settled mine outside the danger zone at Parnasse, at the plantation of Litte. It would be insane to stay any lower. M. Mouttet is dead. M. Fouché is dead. Many others are dead, may God keep their souls!”
And a mist is seen in the eyes of my interviewee, a mist that quickly dries, however. For he takes up again with a violence barely contained:
“Those who pretend that we were absolutely ignorant of the danger until the last moment, lie. There was a great earthquake forecast, a great tremor, and they feared the burning ash as well, that it would cause fires…”
“But, the scientific commission, their report?”
“Officially, by order…this report… It was signed by Landes, was it not? Well! Do you know what was the thought of Landes at the moment he signed it, with the other members of the commission, this report that by a terrible irony of fate was posted in Fort-de-France the same instant Saint-Pierre, crushed by the explosion, disappeared completely in flames? Here is what he thought, the unlucky professor!
“I had seen him on the evening of the 7th, and I remember exactly, that he said to me: ‘I sent a dispatch to the government saying the Morne-Lacroix would collapse under the violence of the eruption and this would constitute a grave danger to Saint-Pierre. They answered me: Thank you for your communication, but be careful of warning the public.’ I will never forget the expression of sadness, of worry and trouble, poor Landes had on his face the last evening of his life.”
“That is very interesting, what you say there. I’ve heard talk already of something like it, but I’d believed it was folklore, being aired so much following the catastrophe, and as an edgy population is always disposed to welcome…to amplify, even to fabricate…”
“No, no, a thousand times no. This is not folklore. It is the perfect, the pure truth. I am absolutely sure of my memory. Landes said those things to me. I have even seen the dispatch he received. The administration was at fault. Dissect it any way you like, search all the explanations you please… I won’t go there. They demanded reassuring signs, and they gave these to the public. I am persuaded that if they hadn’t wanted at all costs to reassure…and to reassure the same people who, if allowed to obey their impressions, their fears, or you may even say their madness…
That thousands would not now be dead. They say no human science could have predicted the cataclysm. Agreed, let’s admit this, but admit also that no human science was capable of denying the danger, of affirming there was no danger, that we were absolutely safe at Saint-Pierre—as they had done.
“One must allow the people liberty to do what they please, to go if it is their wish. Yet literally, they were forced to remain, by affirmations known to be insanity, by a veritable pressure…less strong than the electoral pressure, true, but all the same, effective. Behold, the error for which M. Mouttet has paid with his life, and his wife’s.
“Who imposed this line of conduct on this unfortunate governor? Who is responsible for this attitude the evidence condemns? Who? Look, and you will see those responsible are not among the dead. You will see, perhaps, that you must look to Paris.”
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique: 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)