Catastrophe (part twenty-nine)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part twenty-nine)












It is important to say, because it would be odious to allow propagation of this absurd legend, of survivors imploring for help, and receiving none. Dedicated people—doctors, soldiers, police, the simple citizens—climbed through the ruins of Saint-Pierre as soon as the burning ashes diminished, and permitted their going in without dying. The city was anxiously explored by every means, and they found not a trace of the living. No more so at the prison of the miraculous Auguste, than on the streets vaguely indicated by Vaillant, as containing the house with eight injured.

What’s more, as I will go on saying, everything proves that all life was instantly snuffed at Saint-Pierre, the moment of the catastrophe. To claim anyone had survived is as absurd as saying the law of gravity had been modified by ministerial decree. One can blame a great many things on the Administration, and as often as the occasion demands, I will…

But, frankly, to blame it for allowing death, without aiding the survivors of Saint-Pierre, and that taken on faith, from the two crass jokers, the gunners Tribut and Vaillant, is too much!

To be able to say that no one, for the sake of the elections, had been willing to see the danger before the 8th…that is enough!

The romance invented by these two humbugs to justify their spree is worthy of the prisoner Auguste. And to believe these characters, to make them heroes of sensational articles, you must be an American journalist…one of those who planted their walking sticks on the side of the crater to pinpoint their measurements…

But let’s not joke too much about the American journalists. Ours—alas!—are not much further from reproach. And have we published fantasies, in our journals great and small?

Extracted from a newspaper of Bordeaux on the day of my arrival, is this piece on—


An infantryman who escaped the disaster.

It is the soldier Jeannin, of the 4th regiment. He was in the garrison of Saint-Pierre, at the very flank of the peak, with a handful of men, seventeen, all of them brave, who mounted guard, turn by turn, on the redoubtable mountain.

Alone, he survived. On the eve of the eruption, he had performed his accustomed task; he had gone up, gun in hand, onto the mountain. No sign caught his attention. Mount Pelée was not frightening. He and the others had walked, said the soldier, as on the hills at home. The next day, the mountain was on fire, sowing around it misery and death.

Isn’t it beautiful, these soldiers, who go up on the mountain, guns in hand…? Brave soldier Jeannin… Begone!








Interview with M. Raybaud



M. Raybaud is the managing director of the sugarcane plantations that cover the hillsides of the Saint-James properties, situated above Saint-Pierre, on the east side. Four years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting these plantations, and retain the best of memories for the charming welcome given me by M. Raybaud at his lovely colonial house, in the settlement at Trou-Vaillant. My first care when arrived at Fort-de-France was to inquire of M. Raybaud, and to search for him. Happily he and his family had escaped death. The altitude of the estate preserved it from the scourge. The torrent of flames that rolled down the valley of the Roxelane, and destroyed Saint-Pierre, had spread no higher than 120 meters—as I’d mentioned, recounting my visit to the ruins of Saint-Pierre.

The house of M. Raybaud sits at 160 meters, which saved it and its inhabitants.

Learning I was at Fort-de-France, M. Raybaud came to see me. He told me what he’d witnessed—and well, for being placed, so to speak, in the best box.


“Since the 20th of April, ash had been falling. From the foot of the mountain, we heard subterranean noises, that seemed to come from the side of the Prêcheur. I noted that the disappearance of the Guérin factory happened three days before the new moon of the 8th, which produced the terrible eruption. The eruption of the 20th also coincided with a phase of the moon.

“The phenomena occurring inside the mountain terrified Saint-Pierre. No matter anyone’s saying they doubted the danger, many people were frightened. The proof is that twenty-six of our friends came to beg our hospitality, notably the sister of M. Chomereau-Lamothe, the Deputy Director of the Bank of France*. They were saying in the city there was much less danger on the heights.”


*After reading this interview with M. Raybaud, in the Journal, where I had published a few chapters of this book, M. Chomereau-Lamothe kindly wrote me two letters, from which I extract these few lines:


“Permit me, monsieur, to thank you for what you say of M. Raybaud, to whom I owe such gratitude [ … ] Allow me to add that the modesty of our friend has hidden a great part of the truth [ … ] My parents have in fact written to me that they owe their lives to the energy, the presence of mind, the intelligent initiative, and the sustained courage of the young son of M. Raybaud…









1902 photo of ruins along Saint-Pierre's waterfront




La Catastrophe de la Martinque

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadCatastrophe (part thirty)










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




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