Catastrophe (part thirty-eight)
Interview with M. Peyrouton
The Treasury. The Bank.
Our former colleague, Peyrouton, who was director of l’Estafette, is treasurer of Saint-Pierre. Returning from leave, on the Canada, he was to have arrived according to schedule at Saint-Pierre on the 8th—on the day. But a delay would not put the steamer at Saint-Pierre ahead of the 9th.
Saint-Pierre no longer existed.
M. Peyrouton was charged by the governor to go forward, to count such valuables and cash as could be recovered under the rubble of the Treasury and Bank. He went to Saint-Pierre on the 11th, with the public prosecutor, Captain Evanno, and a detachment of forty soldiers.
This chore lasted from noon to 11 o’clock in the evening.
The Treasury had been pillaged. In the gutted safe they found a register, indicating the count of assets at the final entry on the evening of the 7th, had been 103,000 francs. The “private mission” in operation there, of search and excavation, had not failed to seize its opportunity.
From the two vaults of the bank, they pulled out notes, gold, and silver, worth two million and a few hundred thousand francs. There were 1500 bags containing, each, 200 five-franc pieces; the gunners carried these, two on each shoulder, from the bank to the shore. Captain Evanno, who commanded the detachment, found six looters. He arrested and set them to work, at carrying. No small thing, this employment of thieves to salvage the money they coveted. The captain wanted them transported to Fort-de-France, but the prosecutor declared that they must “let go” these voters.
The observations of M. Peyrouton, on the disaster, on the ruins, on the corpses, etc., are the same as those of other witnesses cited elsewhere. But, in a few neat words, precise, as must be from the mouth of an eminent journalist, M. Peyrouton characterized the catastrophe:
“The greater disaster is less of material losses, and the mourned, than the disappearance of the more intelligent and active part of the population. Martinique is decapitated. Those gone are those who produced. More than three thousand whites are dead, all the important trade of the island, the heads of households, their sons, their families, the ones who might carry on the traditions, who have the financial means…
“The old and fair race of the colonial gentleman, the white creole of Martinique, is stricken at the head and heart. Though sacrificed long since to the colored population by the law of numbers, it was this race of creoles who possessed the soil, kept the commerce, the bank, etc. It is they who nourished the island.
“Certainly, it is to be feared this loss must be as fatal to their enemies as to their friends.”
M. Peyrouton is too “Parisian” to enter into the battles that desolate this unhappy country. He does not yield, either, in his prejudice of color. But the fault does not prevent him noting, and seeing, and saying, that if the whites had no love for the mulatto and the negro, they, able for once to return this payment, will render it well.
M. Peyrouton has noted also the progressive victories of the man of color over the white…if he must he call these victories. And M. Peyrouton spoke of the hold taken on the bank by the blacks. It is a negro, by order of the Interior, who will be head of the bank, to replace its director, dead at Saint-Pierre. A black who has, himself, his prejudices of color.
“And,” M. Peyrouton said to me, “the Bank of Martinique is legally the property of the whites. When the government suppressed slavery in the colony, it compensated the white property owners. A part of the indemnity, a sum amounting to three million francs, under the law of 1849, put into effect in 1851, was for the founding of a bank, truly the property of the former owners of slaves, who remained owners of the land…a bank intended to promote, to facilitate, their culture and commerce.”
It must be added that all the whites of Fort-de-France complain bitterly of the bank operating under the administration of the “negro from the Interior”—as they designate the unlucky officer called by the ministry to direct a financial establishment in this country where tact, and a particular competence for such work, are needed—gifts not generally acquired in the Office of the Interior.
La Catastrophe de la Martinque
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)