Catastrophe (part forty-six)
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
Letters, carried a by boat that left Saint-Pierre at six in the morning, and were received that day at Fort-de-France, prove that in other quarters, in houses on other streets than Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, many women had not slept during the night, and were frightened. They must still have been frightened at 7:50 a.m. There is nothing extraordinary in this “pile”, in question. It does not prove the unlucky women had sensed approaching death.
Another group seen by M. Rozé is…most impressive. Two bodies on the threshold of a house, one fallen in front, face to the ground. Between his spread legs knelt the other, upper chest thrown back, head upright. The head was scalped, burned; it had no eyes, and formless lips around a carbonized thing which was the tongue…
Yet, this had been the face of a woman, lovely perhaps, become a thing undefinable, nameless…
A figure expressing a terror horrible to see.
The fate exemplified by the horse and car seen by M. Muller, demonstrating the rapidity, the instant death, of all who lived in Saint-Pierre, was also seen by M. Rozé. I asked M. Rozé what he thought of the story of Vaillant, and of the prisoner.
“Not possible,” he told me. “And for Vaillant’s, I have something more than speculation. The district of the rue du Petit-Versailles, where the gunner pretended to have left survivors in a house nearly intact, a family of eight persons…
“This district, I was with those who explored it minutely. There was nothing, nothing that resembled the descriptions of Vaillant, nothing.”
M. Rozé saw no corpses with their bellies burst. They were all scalped, without beard, without shoes, stripped of their clothing. They were seen completely naked, all. What power or action of the cataclysm could produce this result in an instant? In all the district of the Fort, which had covered the hill between the Rivière des Pères, and the Rivière Roxelane, the upper ground was razed, swept clear…by a force unimaginable. There was nothing there, not a corpse, not any object, and the houses were only dust mixed with cinders.
Like any self-respecting phenomenon, this of Saint-Pierre has its contradictions. While all the other corpses were naked, and all observers had seen them so, M. Rozé saw a woman on whose torso remained a muslin bodice. Near the town hall three corpses had the soles of their shoes fastened to the bottoms of their feet—the soles relatively well-preserved.
All the corpses showed a uniformly black color.
We note that this color was seen on the 9th. In days to come, if viewed by other observers, the uniformity seen by M. Rozé, and M. Clerc, would have disappeared.
Among the greater part of the corpses of the 9th, viewed by M. Rozé, the charring was advanced enough to destroy the hands. The forearms were black stumps, the ends coming out clearly, the radius and ulna. On the 9th, M. Rozé did not see the burst abdomens with the intestines protruding, red and swollen, noted by other witnesses. And this observation of M. Rozé accords with that of M. Clerc, who told me the corpses did not have their bellies open, except those who had been flung against obstacles and torn, as on the Place Bertin amid the debris of the trees.
This permits the supposition that putrid intestinal gasses burst the abdominal walls, which were thinned by carbonization; that the bellies had opened around the 11th. Under certain masses of rubble, the corpses were not much burned.
The corpses of men were in erection. The breasts of women, pointed. All the legs were spread. At times, one would see half-corpses. (On the 26th, I found half of a man on the Savane.)
Try to picture to yourself the horror of this immense charnel-house of the first days, when seen by M. Rozé, when seen by other people whose observations have been communicated to me. When they had not yet buried or burned any bodies…!
And the smells…!
On the 9th, it was an acrid odor, complex and indefinable, of the volcano and of the rotisserie, of powder-works and greasy food, a smell that stung the throat. There wasn’t yet the reek of putrefaction.
It’s true that this came later…
The 11th, M. Rozé went to the Carbet, to the little cove. Near the shore was a burned house. Many corpses. They were lightly roasted, their eyes puffed, their tongues out of their mouths.
A dog had not been burned at all, or even scorched. Its tongue drooped, and at its side was a pool of black blood.
Along the length of the coast, they noticed a decreasing intensity of the phenomenon. They saw trees standing, the leaves barely singed. They found corpses wholly clothed and without burns, their tongues out and spatters of black blood beside them. In a house were found four victims, seized by death in their occupations of the moment, whose attitudes marked no anguish.
There were four beings alive…dogs and cats. A female dog was lightly burned on the teats. She stared at them, her eyes dull. She did not stir. When they took her, she made no movement, and did not bark. A little Japanese dog was unmarred. Also two little cats, that the search team carried away, and who now live in the barracks.
In another house, an old man was dead in his chair, before his table with a bowl of coffee.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)