Catastrophe (part forty-five)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part forty-five)















An Observation of M. Muller
The equipage of the doctor. Proof of instant death.



Some who first saw the stricken bodies in the streets of Saint-Pierre, and notably, in streets that were not strewn with rubble, had expected to find the dead in attitudes of flight; that they might deduce the victims had seen death coming, had tried to escape; that the blackened bodies would prove to have been burned alive.

Here is an observation wholly characteristic, absolutely demonstrative, and which proves instant death by asphyxiation or stupefaction, destroys the hypothesis of burning, against which these unfortunates could have fought. I owe it to M. Muller, colonial administrator, former chief of M. Mouttet’s cabinet.

M. Muller was among the first at Saint-Pierre, and saw what others saw, what can be read in the various interviews I publish. But he saw, further, a fact of greatest importance in reconstructing the tragic, lightning-quickness of the collapse, of Saint-Pierre on her inhabitants, striking every living thing in an instance, all.

It was on the street of Longchamps, at the house where a doctor had lived. The street was clear of rubble, with only a small amount of debris. The axis of the destructive current showed parallel to the street; and the houses, which sat low, had fallen inwards.

Before the doctor’s house was his horse, his carriage, his servant. The cataclysm had come at the moment the doctor began his run. His equipage was surprised where it waited, and there it remained, in place. The horse, carbonized, lay on its chest, its calcined legs no longer supporting it. At its side, in normal order, lay the yoke, fitted with the harness. At the rear, the metal frame of the carriage. And before the house, the body lying, equally carbonized.

That is the fact. It rejects all theories that death was other than instant, a bolt of lightning. It destroys the legend of the rain of fire, against which the unhappy inhabitants tried to shelter themselves while fleeing to the sea, by curling up in bathtubs, in basins, in streams under overturned canoes.

More so than man, an animal, seeing a phenomenon, a “thing”, to which he is unaccustomed, who hears a terrible noise, senses the fall of fire—more than a man, this animal will obey his instinct for survival, immediately, as a creature, seeing no obstacle, thinking of nothing, no weighing of what harm may come…he flees, blind, deaf, mad. Nothing can make him stay.

He flees…he flees…

If any fire had fallen on him, the doctor’s horse on Longchamps, a horse not restrained, since the coachman was near the house, would have fled, galloped, jumped, run headlong.

He would have gone to die further away. The carriage would have been smashed, etc., etc., but it was not. The horse was dead “in situ”, calm. He was killed without suffering.

And all the people of Saint-Pierre, too. That this confirms, that this proof is irrefutable, must be a consolation to those who loved them, who weep for them.








The Observations of M. Rozé
The appearance of the corpses. The death by asphyxiation proved. An explanation of the destructive phenomenon.



M. Rozé, pharmicist second class of the colonial troops, had been assigned to the search parties immediately after the catastrophe, as director of sanitation for the burial or burning of corpses.

On the 9th, he was at Saint-Pierre. On the 11th, he was at Carbet. He had seen the bodies of victims, on dates useful for sound observations.

Here are the most typical:

First, M. Rozé believes that a sign gave warning, and caused panic in Saint-Pierre. The explosion spoken of by some witnesses, perhaps, or the eruption that rose in a column of fire, or the sight of the falling cloud, seen from some vantages bringing mayhem down the mountain, and the valleys of the two rivers.

He admits that someone might flee, a half-minute between the sense of imminent catastrophe, that seems to have started the flight of a certain number of inhabitants, and the death that struck them all, at once. He cites these facts: in the rue de l’Hôpital, all the staff of a horse dealer were lying, face down, on the opposite side of the street, in front of the Colonial Bank.

At the hospital a man was found in a basin, where there was no water. Although he was carbonized, they recognized him…he was a nurse, named Alexandre. Had this nurse put himself in the basin, under the water, because he wanted to shelter from the flames? Or had he been taking a bath?

In the rue Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, in the prostitutes’ quarter, there were corpses arranged one against the other, as if they’d been sheep, frightened in a herd. The groups were melded together, a panic of women frozen in death. On the evening of the 26th, the third eruption, the cloud throwing flashes of fire over the city, I saw in Fort-de-France how easily the “sweethearts” of Martinique took fright, and fled in tight bands, moaning, shrieking, hugging…

There might have passed a thing like it, in this quarter of Saint-Pierre, where all the night they had watched in terror.




1902 photo of Saint-Pierre street day after volcano



The above photo is one of the eeriest. It was taken the day after the disaster, and the camera placed at the foot of a hill puts the viewer in the shoes of the searcher, whose job is to enter that building, to walk further up the street and discover what’s lying there.






La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadCatastrophe (part one)


















(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)