Catastrophe (part thirty-seven)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part thirty-seven)












I have counted. Forty whites at least, of all classes and ranks, creoles, officials, soldiers and officers, have affirmed to me with indignation, that in his writings (read between the lines), the editor of l’Opinion has cleverly expressed what the blacks among the people brutally cry, that “the volcano has killed the béquets*, so the island becomes the property of her natural masters, the triumphant blacks.”

One day, at the hotel café, many officers said this before M. Muller, former cabinet chief of Governor Mouttet. M. Muller protested, and insisted that this was not possible, that he knew of no such spirit in the black population of Martinique. The discussion grew lively. The officers maintained their own insistence.

They had “heard”…

Elsewhere, an officer pointed out to me the article cited above, with emphasis on the sensational passage…which he explained to me. I believe it needless to add that men of the black party protested with an indignation just as passionate as that of their accusers.

Sad to see that despite the times, despite the new generations, the old hatreds of race and of color have not disappeared. And far from lessening, they are increasing. No one dares to say more in an official discourse, in a printed article; no one dares to flaunt in broad daylight the imbecility of which this bigotry is the mark…

But every day in conversation, they break out with these hatreds, due to this bigotry. I have listened to blacks hate whites. I have listened to whites hate blacks. The one can’t forget that he was once a slave. The other can’t be consoled that he is no longer to be master. And that is the constant clash, the war without truce. The parties will not disarm even before the mournful work of the volcano!

I might write lovely phrases of concord and peace, union and fraternity. Lies. I lived for ten days in an atmosphere a thousand times more nauseating and deadly than all the fumes of the volcano…

You would like to know how strong is this prejudice of color? The classic adventure remains contemporary, of the white woman unable see a man in the negro, in the mulatto, and no more modest before one of these beings than before an animal. Not long ago, the mulatto employee of a tax-collector was called for some information by the wife of his boss. He arrived at the wrong time in her apartment and surprised her naked, absolutely naked. He spread his hands, searched for an excuse, wanted to leave.

“But no, stay as you are,” said the lady. “You know that for you this counts as nothing.”






*Béquet, also Béké, is a Creole term for white European settlers of the French Antilles.



And as calm as if she had spoken to her dog, without looking to cover her nudity, the young woman asked this employee for the information she had needed!

And the creoles, the white women of Martinique, admire this trait. For them, the negro, the mulatto, has less humanity than a dog.


On the prejudice of color within another realm:

L’abbé Valadier, while on a mission to Martinique, had imprudently said that the blacks are the children of God, entitled even as the whites. White women no longer appeared at his sermons…!


Again, a note on these politics, these hatreds that cannot be disarmed even in the face of grief and affliction. This is from Dr. Guérin:


“Senator Knight went to Saint-Pierre for his personal belongings. He wanted to break open his safe. They provided him a master locksmith, they requisitioned a boat. M. Knight is a person of importance, but not so much as to occupy a boat alone. I’d wanted to take passage aboard this boat. M. Knight refused. Is he admiral of the fleet…? No. Is this not infamy…? Tell them in France! Especially because I was going to resupply my people in Carbet. Tell it, monsieur.”


It was on the Savane the doctor confided to me his anger. A moment after, on this same Savane, I met a man from the other side.

“How,” (he said to me) “can you speak with that old [here, an expression which despite my reporter’s sincerity, my care to always repeat exactly what was said to me, I cannot decently publish] Dr. Guérin…

“How can you listen to the doctor! He is a man of trumped-up noises, that’s all. Do you know what he’s spreading around now…? No? Well! Here is the latest… He peddles it everywhere that for the scandals of relief distribution, the Americans have changed their minds. That President Roosevelt has given orders to stop all new shipments, to close all subscriptions. The Americans have learned their aid was helping only the negroes… He said it, the negroes, monsieur, this béquet! And they’d decided to send no more shipments. But it was this, maybe, that he was telling you earlier.”

“No, he told me only that Senator Knight is the tyrant of the colony, and that he abuses the authority the government gives him too freely under the circumstances…”

“Wait…here comes the senator. Ask him what he thinks of Guérin’s complaints.”

And I tackle the senator. At the name of Guérin, he turns green:








“Ha! This gentleman complains of being bullied. He says we give everything to the negroes, for the sake of electoral politics. That we fix our agents, our voters, with this gift of American charity. That the whites are once again sacrificed, forsaken by the Capital, by our tyranny. We are perhaps the evil stepmother, as is said of France…of the homeland, Monsieur. But what does he have to complain of, personally? What does he want? What would he claim for himself? He has lost nothing, this gentleman, he is not a victim. His factory belongs to him no more. But in three days, it would have been seized by the bank. He says he has nothing left, he is poor. But he is rich. As long as he has worked, he has always placed his profits in the name of his wife. Ha! Monsieur, this party has no heart! But we can spot their maneuvers and we will outplay them!”




Here is a useful map, and a sampling of items that touch on the treatment of relief funds.





1902 newspaper map of Caribbean volcanoes

The St. Louis Republic, 14 May 1902



Newspaper clipping on England's volcano charity

The St. Louis Republic, 14 May 1902



Newspaper clipping on American volcano relief

The St. Louis Republic, 14 May 1902



Newspaper clipping of headline on Servan advice

San Francisco Call, 25 May 1902



Newspaper clipping on Admiral Servan's advice for the future

San Francisco Call, 25 May 1902



Newspaper clipping on relief supplies for volcano victims

San Francisco Call, 25 May 1902



Newspaper clipping of misappropriated relief funds

New York Tribune, 30 September 1902







La Catastrophe de la Martinique

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













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



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