Catastrophe (part thirty)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part thirty)












“During the night of the 7th to the 8th, the occurrences redoubled in intensity. The women gathered in the salon, praying. We heard the volcano’s noise constantly. We could easily distinguish three sorts: intermittent explosions, like cannonshot, a low and steady growling from the chimney, and a noise like a thunderstorm. All night, sheets of fire came from the crater at the foot of the Lacroix hill. There were sparks, there were jets of flame that lasted more than a minute, climbing high and flowering in sheaves, in fans, in bouquets of rockets. The volcano was spitting smoke all the while, that rose very high. When pushed southeast by the winds, and when it reached the clouds, the smoke made lightning wherever it touched. I slept for two hours, until four o’clock.

“At four o’clock the rumblings grew louder and woke me. At four-thirty, dawn came, with the sky and air clear. But over Saint-Pierre, to the west of my house, I saw darkness.

“The appearance of the volcano was as it had been. It was billowing smoke that rose straight up, and covered the western sky. On the east side, the smoke drew a line ascending, neat and regular, cut against a very clear sky.

“All at once, the smoke turned back towards us. We cried: ‘The volcano is coming!’ Mme Raybaud, very frightened, said we must flee. And the blackness of Saint-Pierre grew deeper. Cauliflowers of smoke, blacker and blacker, came out of the volcano, and rolled from the east to the west. The plumes rose and fell, then spread from the side of Saint-Pierre.

“At seven-forty-five, we were going to set a table for breakfast, when a most appalling noise stunned us. Imagine thousands of ships letting off their steam after mooring. It was truly terrifying. Our terror was twice as much when we went to see what had caused the noise. There was no more clear sky above our heads. It was chaos.

“Below in the valley, to 800 meters from our house, we saw it coming, flush with the ground, cutting through billows of black smoke—a sea of fire.

“Instinctively, we threw ourselves into the house. What to do? We huddled against each other. We wanted to die together…we were waiting for death. There was a moment of anguish. The panic…the lack of air? I don’t know. My son, more energetic than the rest of us, went back outside. He returned at once, saying, ‘Run! We have time!’ The fire had taken hold at the front of the sugar cane. We could not have stayed…the fire gave us legs. We ran out the back door and saved ourselves, taking the road to Fort-de-France. Stones and mud rained, pieces of mud big as coils of rope.








“On foot…very fast, I don’t need to tell you…we went as far as Fond-Saint-Denis. I left my family and my friends at the village hall. And so delivered, for a time, from worry for their safety, I went back to my property.

“The house was spared. The highest plantations, the larger part, were intact. But those below had been ravaged. And it was below, alas! that my laborers were found. So many victims! Seventy-two dead, twenty injured. I harnessed my two carriages, and all the carts of the workshop, to carry the injured to Fort-de-France. Before leaving, I looked at the mountain. It stood razed to the summit. The Morne-Lacroix was partly knocked down. And of this I’m certain, because a peak in the west, that before I could never see from my house, I saw distinctly.”


I spoke to M. Raybaud on the day of my departure. He is getting his own back. He has resumed his work; he has taken courage, if he had ever lost it. He is that type of the strong creole race of the Antilles, a worthy son of those whites, who, sword in hand, so valiantly defended their island, their French island, against the English…

And we have kept this island.

And yet we understand failures, after such terrible crises!



















The account of M. Molinar




M. Molinar has dictated his memories and impressions to the Courier of Guadaloupe, which has published them, and from which I print them:


Monday, the mountain smoked in the ordinary way. I went down from Trois-Ponts, and on to the home of Mme Clerc, who lives on the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre).

She put a carriage at our disposal. We started off. In this carriage were Mme Coypel, Mlle Carland, Mme Clerc, Mme Cambeith, my aunt, Mme Molinar, and myself. We went to visit the Rivière-Blanche. The accident to the Guérin factory had not yet occurred. Around 15 centimeters of ash was on the road.

Coming to the factory, near a quarter to noon, we set foot on the ground, and went to the river. But as the terrain was very spongy, Mlle Carland sank to her calves in mud. I gave her my hand and helped her to free herself. After this mishap, and with the state of the terrain, we did not push farther. We took our seats again.

I went home to Trois-Ponts, where I learned of the accident, come just after our departure. The wedge of mud that swept the Guérin plant away had advanced itself thirty meters into the water and formed a small cape, passing the very place we’d been a moment earlier. At the same hour (towards half-past noon), the sea pulled away from Saint-Pierre, thirty meters, leaving the boats dry. Then it came back a minute or two after. That was when some people left Saint-Pierre, and they are the ones who survived.

The end of the day passed tranquilly.

Tuesday, I did not leave the house. There were bursts of noise continually from the mountain, which never stopped throwing ash.

Wednesday morning, I went down around nine o’clock, from Trois-Ponts to Fonds-Coré, to see the state of the Rivière-Blanche. I could not cross because of the Rivière-Sèche that obstructed the way with a mud flow as high as 50 meters. Going back, around noon, and passing the Rivière des Pères, I believed I saw, just beyond the bridge, a chasm where the sea would rush in, and the river…

In any case, an abnormal agitation.






La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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









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




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