Catastrophe (part thirty-six)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part thirty-six)












The chiefs carried big sticks. The priest, having seen this, and heard the policeman tell his story, added:

“What was most amusing were the wives of the thieves, who prepared their meals.”

He did not pardon the looters for profaning the cathedral’s tabernacle, for stealing sacred vessels spared by the flames, and spreading the host in the ashes. The ciborium [container to hold the Eucharist] had been sold at Saint-Lucie, where it was repurchased by a priest.

It was not the Martiniquais alone who came to “prospect” the ruins. People came from all the neighboring Antilles. As by day they were exposed to unlucky meetings with the police, many pursued their work at night. Officers were posted to guard the land routes, but the great highway of the sea is open to all.

And the looters profited, “crows” of every condition. A scandalous story ran in Fort-de-France. On a day of high seas and contrary winds, a canoe mounted by several young men found itself in distress off Saint-Pierre. An American ship collected these young men, but their attitude and answers looked suspect to the captain, who passed them to the Suchet.

Here, recognized among them was the senator of the colony’s nephew, the young Godissart, and the affair was suppressed.

From another quarter, the journal l’Opinion published an article entitled: “Crows of High Flight” where quite clearly, the Martiniquais saw Senator Knight’s party accuse M. Clerc’s of stealing safes, from houses of commerce where they had debts, to make their debts disappear.

Such tales of pillage have given the parties new weapons in their political struggles…

And what they won’t risk in print, they make up for in conversations.

That is what I’ve heard!


Just where the hatreds of race, the political struggles, and the conflicts of interest can carry men, may be hard to conceive…

To have an idea, you must have been in Martinique in these days of mourning. Friends have said that I’m wrong to write this. I ought to hide this facet of human misery; I would be generous to speak only of misfortune, of these unhappy Martiniquais—to make everyone pity them and help them.








Certainly, I have the greatest pity for all who suffer, and I appeal to all human compassion for their aid. But I am a reporter, and I must give my readers the truth: everything I’ve seen, all I’ve heard, and all I’ve noted down.

I cannot worry as to what follows my reportage.

If it plunges a minister into shame, as at one time, M. Lebon, when I published his useless barbarisms of Cayenne [Devil’s Island]—

If it afflicts M. Decrais, in revealing his actions upon the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre, restrained by his order under the volcano, to their deaths—

This cannot, must not, influence anything in the work of a reporter, which must be a work of truth, truth in its entirety. I owe to the public the most complete information on the eruption of the volcano, on the ravages of the volcano, and on the people who still live near the volcano.

We have here such a beautiful documentation of humanity, such noble indications of the psychology of our human species…truly it would be a crime to shut these things away.

Read what I have read, in l’Opinion:


Like a lion crouched at the foot of its tamer, to rise in sudden repressed ferocity, to devour him, the mountain Pelée, whose terraces lay for centuries above Saint-Pierre, their verdure smiling upon its plains, awoke one day, growling and terrible.

And with a brutality born of former ages, the volcano, once quiet and tame, its fertile flanks once abundant with crops, opened on that confident and sweetly reposing city, just stretching itself at sunrise, a horrible maw. The vast, frightful volcano engulfed everything under its lava, its sulphur and fire…

We can only weep, bowed by the headwinds of this great storm. For the dead child, our ash-choked throats fling to heaven the revolt of our blood; we bow, reluctant before speech of eternal justice. The child of the cradle, the youth in flower, the modesty of virgins and the grace of young mothers, all that smiles, all that is radiant, all that disarms, the gluttonous Moloch has taken it all.

It may have been necessary…




1902 photo of Saint-Pierre waterfront destruction










Qui sait si l’onde qui tressaille,

Si le cri des gouffres amers,

Si la trombe aux ardentes serres,

Si les éclairs et les tonnerres

Seigneur, ne sont pas nécessaires

A la perle que font les mers.


(lines from “Napoléon II”, Victor Hugo)



Who knows if the waves that shiver

If the wail of chasms bitter

If the maelstrom’s raking fire

If the lightning and the thunder

Lord, are not of need

To make pearls from the sea



All these literary stylings tell you nothing. You believe they engender themselves from tropical rhetoric—

Well, this little phrase: It may have been necessary, and the couplet that follows: Who knows if…


…ne sont pas nécessaires

A la perle que font les mers


…has caused a great, a very great, emotion among the whites, who remain at Martinique—the Europeans and the Creoles. It is the whole battle of the races, of black and white, that the whites see in this…

Combat, signaled by a victory hosanna, after the catastrophe at one blow had killed the majority, nearly the entire white population of Martinique.

It is appalling, to employ a robust adjective in turn, that men could suppose such an idea had occurred to other men. Ah, well! Sad as it is, so it is.






La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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












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




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