Catastrophe (part forty)
A conversation with former deputy M. Duquesnay
An explanation of the phenomenon. And again, politics…
M. Duquesnay is the deputy not reelected from Fort-de-France. He could not give details on the eruption of the 8th, but had a good view of that of the 20th.
“It was a black cloud. When the cloud had crossed the peaks, advancing on Fort-de-France, it looked very black, and plated with silver, patches of yellowish red. There were spirals of rolling smoke, as religious painters will show supporting their virgins. There was no sound of thunder. But after crossing the peaks, the cloud was laced with silent lightning. Then it spread, and two or three enormous flashes came, then a rain of stone, cold stone, and an odor of sulphur.”
M. Duquesnay is a doctor of medicine, and for that was able to interpret, with a curiosity more enlightened than the ordinary person’s, the observations of those who’d witnessed the 8th. I asked him if he understood the phenomenon’s destruction.
He told me: “It was not that the volcano erupted in lava, or in a rain of fire. The mountain opened itself laterally. The fire came out like an explosion of gas, a carbonaceous whirlwind filled with stones. It was not electrical lightning that leveled the city. It was a huge jet of gas, a succession of jets of gasses, igniting themselves in long flashes of lightning, destroying and burning everything they overtook.”
“Then, why nothing similar at Fort-de-France, during the second eruption?”
“Because the ‘materials’ in their trajectory had time to oxygenate, so arrived burnt up. In this way the city was preserved from a flood of asphyxiating gas. We received only cold pebbles.”
M. Duquesnay had noticed the eruption of the 8th coincide with a partial eclipse of the sun. He also noted coincidence of various recurrences of the crater’s activity, with phases of the moon. But during our conversation M. Duquesnay was not slow to neglect the volcano. He is a political man. He was not reelected. He was beaten by Dr. Clement. He represents the party of the whites, and M. Clement that of the blacks. He accuses the administration of having advanced a detestable policy of race, in favor of the blacks, to the detriment of the whites. He accuses it, notably, of ‘treason’, because the elections were scheduled three days after the catastrophe, despite the catastrophe, and held in a disarray of mourning that struck the white party in particular, so cruelly tried already by the disappearance of Saint-Pierre…where the head of the party had been, and its great planning committee, its printing-press, its newspaper, etc., etc…
M. Duquesnay is very bitter in his reproaches against the administration. He has little love for M. Lheurre.
If a boatman of the harbor told me his complaints, I would not dream of repeating them, but M. Duquesnay is an important person, the outgoing deputy, and his declarations are worth recording. They give an accurate sense of the Martiniquais mentality, an element characterizing the course of these sad events; of the nature of it (and perhaps also of these men). This element, they seem to devote to all their misfortunes.
The unhappy island is in mourning, but mourning does not prevent the practice of politics. I have found politics everywhere; Martinique has them everywhere. And pursues them everywhere, even on the volcano’s corpses. Not a man among those I have interviewed who did not, before, during, or after speaking of the volcano, slip into his little political tirade, staged for the overwhelming of his enemy’s.
When I write not a man, though, I am at fault. There are two who said nothing to me: M. Lhuerre, and M. Bloch, the director of the government’s mission of condolence, with 500,000 francs of relief. “Nothing” is true of what they’ve said, if not of what they know. Here were two men marvelously faithful to their orders, when their orders were to keep quiet.
And their orders, indeed, were to keep quiet. They must not, they did not wish to speak politically, so that no statement of theirs could compromise their patron, His Excellence Decrais.
They had reason as well, a thousand times over, because they knew the abominable reality: the evacuation of Saint-Pierre had been forbidden for the electoral cause!
There are things of such enormity those speaking of them can never keep quiet…
This is what happened with the other officials, who on the fact of the Landes dispatch, and the affirmations of M. Clerc, gave me two successive versions, beginning with denial, pure and simple; then admitting to only half, slanted towards equivocation. Which is to confess doubly.
M. Lhuerre, with his fat figure and his expansive smile, M. Bloch with his meagre figure and his retentive smile, both saying nothing. Thus, they are certain of making no gaffes.
Here are two images of the virgin, appearing in clouds of the type M. Duquesnay had in mind.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)