Catastrophe (part twenty-four)
“Just so. Mouttet was only an instrument. Mouttet obeyed. You could well say that he died a hero, a victim of professional duty, if, in professional duty for a governor of Martinique, you hear absolute obedience to the minister of the colonies. And if the same professional duty consists of bowing down before M. Knight the mulatto, perinde ac cadaver… And here is how we make cadavers, many. Too many.”
(When I said to you, that in Martinique, they will fight on the coffins!)
M. Clerc, with his temperament, appreciates these events preceding a catastrophe. He lays here all the passions of a party chief who swears himself victim of administrative tyranny, the oppression of an unjust judiciary… Which is his right. All the whites in Martinique (save those of the government) say it is his duty, and that he talks sense. I publish his declarations as a reporter. I reproduce them with the greatest fidelity possible, meaning fidelity to my belief. Further, I will reproduce faithfully other declarations, other letters, other facts from proofs…
But, precisely because I do the work of a reporter, searching for and telling the truth, I must, along with the declarations of M. Clerc, publish those of others.
And you will conceive readily that they are not of the same view, that others are conscious of the appalling responsibilities that crush them—
Reflect on this a moment!
A city is threatened. Its inhabitants are able to flee. They would flee, on being told that prudent eyes estimate the situation dangerous. But no one communicates to them the views of prudent eyes… Because the voters are wanted to remain. They are wanted to vote, in three days. The election of the government is believed assured. And the government have need of all their seats; they count their majority in single digits. The chief of the colony, transformed into an electoral agent, has pressing orders, imperatives…this must be done, this must be done. To do otherwise is a disgrace. They multiply the encouragements to remain. They publish reassuring opinions. They exhort. They give example.
And forty thousand are dead!
Ah! M. Decrais, if I were in your place, at night I would fear the ghosts of these forty thousand…
The Version of the Government
I ought to write the versions, because there were two successive versions among the government people. The first, when told about the pessimistic views sent from Saint-Pierre, in M. Landes’s dispatch, etc., was denial.
All so simple…
Landes could not have sent anything at all. Landes had not the status to communicate with the governor directly. He could not have sent anything, and the governor could have responded nothing to Landes. The only assessment one might have attributed to Landes must be optimistic, for if Landes were a serious man, the point could not be admitted of him, that he second-guessed the committee’s conclusions, which were reassuring.
The only true fact, and proof, was that.
They added, not without an appearance of reason, that if the governor had received serious word of danger, he would not have escorted Mme Mouttet to Saint-Pierre. Certainly, he would have gone himself, since it was his duty—but he would have gone alone.
That makes the first explanation given me by the government. A negation.
A great man, who has made some noise in the history of these recent years, would claim he has nothing to confess. [Probably a reference to Decrais.]
The government of Martinique will not confess.
Denial is easier and far simpler. But, once the precise statements of M. Clerc were known to a number of people, it was believed necessary to speak a little, and they said this to me:
“There is some confusion in the recollections of M. Clerc. True, M. Landes had sent a dispatch to Fort-de-France saying the hill of Lacroix could collapse. But this dispatch spoke of vague probabilities. Further, it had not been addressed to the governor, with whom M. Landes had not the right to correspond directly.
“It was a dispatch addressed to the director of the cable, who, since the 4th of May, had been posting news relative to the eruption, news sent him by many people, M. Sully notably, from Saint-Pierre.
The Latin term perinde ac cadaver refers to complete obedience to a superior, to offer no more resistance than a corpse.
The photo above, taken on May 11, shows the state of the city on the day the election would have been held.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
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(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2018, translation, Stephanie Foster)