Catastrophe (part thirty-two)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part thirty-two)












Monday, 5th. This morning, flat calm, detonations rare. The top of the mountain is covered in a clear, blue cloud. The neighboring houses appear all white. We hear noises like lava that boils and overflows. Towards one o’clock, louder detonations. The Rivière-Blanche and the Guérin factory seem in the midst of a rocket-blast, then we see no more but part of the smokestack; the rest has disappeared in a deluge of mud. At five o’clock, the remains of the factory show nested in white vapor. In the night between five and six, the growling rises to the point that, taking a lantern, I venture out under the mangoes. What can be the state of things? Nothing has changed.


Tuesday, 6th. This morning, we learn that the detonations of yesterday were followed by an inundation of mud that engulfed all of the Guérin factory and its people. The curious go out from Saint-Pierre. The mud is above the factory to the height of around ten meters, and took barely one or two minutes to make its way to the sea. The boats of the factory (tugs) have sunk in open water; they are called Carbet and Prêcheur. M. Eugene Guérin and his wife, and the foreman M. du Quesne, have perished, overtaken by mud while running to reach the boats. The boats had been under steam since the morning.

The day of the 6th passes in a long trembling of the mountain, which, at 11 o’clock, appears without a cloud; this allows us to discover the place of the crater. Until evening, the volcano booms. Today, many people have left the city in a panic, fleeing at random.


Wednesday, 7th. The volcano smokes with greater abandon, and the detonations resound here until evening. At midnight, thick clouds in the direction of the west bury everything in shadow, to the sea.


Thursday, 8th. During the night from the 7th to the 8th, the rain has entirely washed the fields, and their greenness has reappeared. I believe we are in a lull, for the noise of the volcano is heard no more.

Towards 8 o’clock, a horrible detonation, following a discharge of thick clouds and water vapor. This directs itself north to south, through the riverway that leads into Saint-Pierre. I fling into my house with my wife and children; we close every door and window. Through a little opening, I look for death to come. All seems finished, when a breeze from the east, a true cyclone wind, rises, fighting against the cloud, and pushes it off, dispersing the whole of it. We are saved. I look, and Saint-Pierre is in flames. There is nothing left; the population has disappeared in less than thirty seconds. The rest of the day passes in a flat calm.

On the ninth, we decide we must reach Fort-de-France; we go down on the Carbet, where we are collected on a barge, with the Manavit, our country neighbors.


Odilon Darsières


(Proprietor of the Chabert farm, on the hill of Cadet, face-to-face with the mountain, six or seven kilometers as the crow flies, from the crater.)








Interview with M. Cappa, Chief of the Incineration Mission



M. Cappa is the municipal architect of Fort-de-France. He has been charged with searching for the corpses, and burying or burning them. They had given this mission at first to the soldiers. But duties more imperative and more to a soldier’s calling prevent the commander shrinking the garrison at Fort-de-France, relatively weak in numbers, by those the chore of burial requires.

The municipality of Fort-de-France has gathered volunteers for this special task, giving the direction of it to M. Cappa. I accompanied M. Cappa on one funeral expedition, where he served as guide in crossing the ruins of Saint-Pierre. As the dredging-boat carried us to the dead city, M. Cappa told me his memories of the terrible fortnight. They are precise, neat, the memories of an architect. I transcribe them as I have them in my notes.

As a little diary, a memento:


On April 23, vents opened on the southeast face of the mountain, smoking. On April 30, and on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, of May, the  rivers Blanche and Pères overflowed. The Blanche ceased to flow after a day, then ran with a fury. The curious came out in great numbers.

In Fort-de-France, in the night of the 2nd to the 3rd, the wind from the north brought a rain of ashes.

On the 5th of May, at noon, the Guérin factory was carried away.

On Wednesday the 7th, at Fort-de-France, from half past two, to three in the afternoon, strong growls, then a prolonged rumbling. A phenomenon of ebb and flow, to a height of around 30 centimeters.

On the 8th, at five in the morning, from Fort-de-France smoke from the crater still seen. Rain had fallen at around two in the morning. At six, the curious depart for Saint-Pierre, on the Diamant. At 7:45, many persons arrive from Saint-Pierre.

At 8:20, a rain of stones, following a rain of ashes.

The steamers Rubis and Topaze try to reach Saint-Pierre. They cannot approach, and return saying the city is on fire.

They think the inhabitants were able to save themselves, and will arrive by land. They make the first preparations for receiving them. The population waits on the shore; it is dismayed. Only that evening can the Rubis, the Topaze, the Pouyer-Quertier approach Saint-Pierre, and take stock of the catastrophe.








The boats bring back some injured, from the harbor and environs of Saint-Pierre. The victims of the neighboring communities arrive. At eleven in the evening, we give them food at the city hall, and lodgings in the school.

On the 9th begins the rescue mission of Saint-Pierre. At Fort-de-France, fearing scenes of disorder, we put sentries in front of the bakeries.

On the 11th, the soldiers began incinerating corpses at Carbet. They were not sent again. The colonel commanding the troops needs all the soldiers at Fort-de-France.

A civil mission is put together, and works on the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th. On the 17th, those disembarked cannot work, because the rain of ash is truly too strong.

On the 19th, the mission is back at work. Near 11 o’clock, the mountain abruptly covers itself in a black cloud, very intense, shot through with lightning. Powerful detonations, prolonged, come from the crater. A rain of ash. The dredging-boat whistles the rallying signal. The workers reembark.

On the 20th, the mountain smokes as usual. The mission sets off from Fort-de-France; then around 5:20, a black cloud coveres the mountain. This is also shot through with lightning. Huge masses of smoke form, ascending with great speed. Climbing to a certain height, these clouds, when lit by the rising sun, take on the hue of fire. The mission returns to the ship.

Fort-de-France is in a panic. The people cry, ‘The fire is in the sky?’ The cloud covers the city in a few minutes. The population is terrorized. They flee in their night clothes, some women wearing nothing but a flannel shift. A man was naked, wearing a top-hat. Screams of the fleeing, trying to reach the shore. Many shelter at the church. A rain of stones and ashes.



1902 photo of corpse-disposal pyre






La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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












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



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