Catastrophe (part thirty-one)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part thirty-one)












Around one o’clock, we heard something like salvos of cannon fire issue regularly, that is to say, at equal intervals.

This lasted about an hour and a half. That evening, M. Alain, director of the Pecoul plantation, warned us of a fissure on the side of Trois-Ponts, which set the town in a stir. Everyone was leaving as quickly as possible. Only M. Boudet, secretary of the mayor, and we, remained. Around ten o’clock in the evening, as the mountain’s growls were terrible, I went to the window, and saw a flow of fiery lava in the direction of Trois-Ponts.

We all fled on foot, towards Parnasse, a property located at two to three hundred meters altitude, 200 meters higher than Trois-Ponts. We arrived around midnight. At that moment, the mountain was in full eruption, hurling lava, smoke, and flaming rocks.

Thursday, near six in the morning, the mountain was completely calm, and we admired the puffs of smoke and vapor, as they headed to the sea.

Around eight-fifteen, without any sign to announce a new thing, the mountain opened from top to bottom, and launched, like a great flash of lightning, a jet of flame in the direction of Saint-Pierre. For a quarter of an hour, it threw flames in succession, always towards Saint-Pierre and its environs.

Those of us who watched the spectacle from Parnasse were not in the zone of fire, thanks to a wind that blew against the flames, allowing us to save ourselves. As we ran, we saw, in the direction of the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre), that everything was on fire. Around eight-thirty, when the turmoil began to calm, I went down from the heights. I was going to find my younger brother, but the air was so hot, I couldn’t go on.

I retraced my route and came to the hill of Saint-Bernard, that rises over Trois-Ponts, and the Centre, the Fort. As far as the sea, I saw a complete wasteland. The Mouillage sat in ruins. On all the trajectory the flames had followed, everything had been annihilated. I could see only a trail of ashes. In that part of Saint-Pierre called the Centre, and that of the Fort, nothing remained standing. All the houses were reduced to ash. There was not even a corpse. They had all been volatilized. It was only in the part of Saint-Pierre called the Mouillage, or at the harborfront, that there were a few corpses among the ruins.








All others, from the Prêcheur, the Abymes, up to Saint-Pierre, had been volatilized. A part of Carbet was like the Mouillage. From this locality, two or three families alone have saved themselves.

After these jets of fire, the mountain was completely still. It no longer launched flame or smoke. At around eleven, it smoked again, and hurled lava. It was then we left for Trinity, where we had to take shelter. I have learned since, that on the side of Macouba, and the Grande-Rivière, fissures had formed, spewing lava. The population was forced to evacuate by sea, and make for Dominique; the roads by land were made impossible, by the two types of eruption. The mud, that thickened immediately, and the fiery lava that went down to the sea. It fell as a flaming river, to the Roxelane, penetrated the earth, and came out on the shore.




















This story was communicated to me by a friend at Fort-de-France, and I publish it as is:


Saturday, 3 May. The volcano of Mount Pelée, which for four days had smoked, had littered all the ground and the roofs of the houses with a greyish dust, a sort of cement, silver in the rays of the sun. At six in the morning, a light rain of it fell, explaining this phenomenon that had come in the night. Soon the rain of dust grew and was covering passersby, and the refugees—women, old men, children tumbling along with oxen, horses, everything else, from the heights of the Soufrière, from the hill of Saint-Martin, from the Prêcheur—were all grey from head to foot. Saint-Pierre believed itself far enough from the volcano, with no cause to flee, and placidly took in these bewildered visitors.

At eight in the morning, I went to the heights, from the lowland of Saint-Denis to the hill of the Cadets (the Chabert plantation). During my climb the volcano hadn’t ceased to erupt and throw smoke and dust, blown by the wind from east to west, onto Saint-Pierre and its environs.

The hill of the Cadets is 4 or 5 kilometers, as the crow flies, from the volcano, and faces it. All the ground was littered with ashes, as in the city. However, it was not raining ash, at the time, as on Saint-Pierre. There, the manifestations of the Soufrière eruption were easily called to mind. The crater was immersed in a thick cloud.








Otherwise, the day carried on in eruption, and Saint-Pierre received all the effusions of the crater.

At six in the evening, the sun disappeared in a premature night of dust that covered the horizon. The onshore wind started to blow, and Pelée seemed to take on gigantic proportions in a hazy envelope, going up to the sky, and stretching like a phantom over the hill of the Cadets, the green hill, in full eruption.


Sunday, the 4th. This morning, the haze has thickened, but Saint-Pierre and its environs show clearly under their blanket of whitish-grey. At seven, with a calm wind, the Soufrière threw a thick smoke that rose to the clouds. The animals were able to graze. The day passed without further incident. The eruptions went on, lasting about a minute, and repeating at intervals. An east-west wind swept the dust to the sea. Many people gather this dust, believing they can sell it for cement. At night, from the 4th to the 5th, the eruptions continue. But there is no more rain of dust after that night.




1902 photo of destruction rue Victor Hugo Saint-Pierre, Martinique








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











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