Catastrophe (part twenty-five)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique













When M. Jalabert received the dispatch, in which M. Landes spoke of the fall of the Morne-Lacroix, and of the possible consequences, he had thought it best before posting this, to communicate it to the governor.

“There was nothing of immediate threat in the dispatch, sent by a man who, for being a teacher at the high school of Saint-Pierre, could hardly be considered a prophet in matters of the volcano. But as the population of Fort-de-France was nervous, as was that of Saint-Pierre, and had needed rather to be reassured than alarmed, M. Mouttet asked the director of the cable not to post this dispatch. That is all.

“It is possible M. Jalabert had cabled this to M. Landes at Saint-Pierre, and that his telegram was the one seen by M. Clerc. We know nothing of that; what we do know is that the governor had not corresponded with M. Landes. But he did not suppose for an instant that catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre. The proof of which, we repeat, is that he had taken Mme Mouttet there.”


Here, a parenthesis. In another conversation with someone from the government, I have noted this:


When for the first time we spoke of the volcano, M. Mouttet exclaimed:

“A volcano on top of everything else! As if we didn’t have enough from the elections…!”

His preoccupation was to finish the elections, and to think of the volcano after. On the 7th, following the incident of the Landes dispatch, he was telephoned by the mayor of Saint-Pierre, M. Fouché. This mayor had posted a reassuring declaration the evening before, but, “it did not take”. He declared himself powerless to constrain the population, and moreover to maintain order. It needed a higher authority…

The higher authority was M. Mouttet. He decided then to leave for Saint-Pierre with Mme Mouttet.


This is a person from the government, who said this to me.

This person did not add that the governor preferred, for his stay in Saint-Pierre, to be aboard a ship, where the chances of safety were greater, the risk less, and had asked the commander of the Suchet to conduct him to Saint-Pierre and remain at his disposal for a tour of the communities in the north.

The commander of the Suchet had other orders from the minister of the navy. He evaded the governor’s requisition.








The officer from whom I had this detail, added: “The Suchet was not made for electoral tours.”

It is for this that M. Mouttet left Saint-Pierre aboard one of the Company Girard’s boats. And also for this that he left taking with him only the Gerbaud household. He had left behind at Fort-de-France a number of persons, including his chief of the cabinet, and the Pignier household, originally invited to accompany him. The quarters at Saint-Pierre, where at the last moment he saw himself obliged to take lodgings, had only two apartments.

Let us now give the floor to the “we” of the government:


“The governor had not supposed for an instant that a catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre, and no one could have supposed this, M. Landes no more than any other. All this story is nothing but a political maneuver, from people who cannot reconcile themselves to an electoral failure.”

I believe that some in the government have even added:

“…people who today would like to profit from the catastrophe, to restore their business losses.”

And that others even say, “…to fish in troubled waters.”

But, if this proposal is denied, I’m willing to conceded that I’ve misheard.

You see that if one side is callous, they are not less so in the other camp.

I have given one side’s version, and the other’s.

I believe it is easy to choose.


And to make this easier, here is a document I want to publish at once, a simple letter received the day after publication of the Clerc interview, in the Journal.















Monsieur Jean Hess of the Journal


It is not without vivid emotion that I read in the Journal your account of the horrible cataclysm at Saint-Pierre, where mine are forever buried, as well as the various interviews taken in the course of your travels.

Without prejudging the conclusions that will be drawn from your impartial inquiry, it seems to me that so far, and apart from a serious presumption relative to the intentions of the governor, lost to the fire, any tangible proof cannot be made.

It is my part, then, to lift all doubts and enlighten the judgment of all, not with allegations—which is always easy, but with irrefutable proofs

Here’s how!

The 5th of May last, I found myself in my study at Saint-Pierre together with my two neighbors and friends, MM. Fouché and Landes. These gentlemen, very worried at the negative result of their urgent appeals, decided to remit through me a confidential letter to the governor at Fort-de-France, where I would call, on business. At my departure, I had two letters to deliver instead of one. The one of Fouché and the other of Landes. I left. On the voyage, we crossed paths with M. Mouttet. You know what came next.

During the crossing from Colon to Pauillac, I had the curiosity to read the two documents, although I sensed their contents, but I had not expected an indictment from beyond the grave so thunderous, against improvidence and criminal carelessness, the primary causes of the deaths of forty thousand people.

If I have kept silent to this day, it is wholly from the cruel sorrow that strikes my father’s heart so often. I have had to watch at the bedside of my elder daughter until her death, from meningitis. Following upon the horrible vision of that place…!

I propose to publish the two documents with my notes, when they are coordinated. I am not ignorant of the importance of these two factors in the ultimate distribution of benefits, also my conscience shouts to me not to make these disappear.

Will you accept, Monsieur, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments,


Charles Riffard

Notary of Saint-Pierre


16, rue de Jardin-Saint-Paul, Paris

23 June 1902









1902 photo of Saint-Pierre from harbor


Translator’s note: The above photograph may not seem strikingly different from others of Saint-Pierre’s disaster. But it is worth a closer look. Put yourself shipboard alongside the photographer, and consider that this approach, three days after the eruption (note the wreckage is still smoking) was one of the first that could be made to view a horror examined up to that point only to the extent the burning city and the volcano allowed.

The quality of this shot is grainy, but on the hillside you see the snowlike appearance of the ash-cover that Hess noted earlier in his account. 




La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadCatastrophe (part twenty-six)












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




%d bloggers like this: