Catastrophe (part forty-eight)

Pastel drawing of Martiniquaise feeling fearful and resigned

Jean Hess

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

(part forty-eight)












M. Le Bris, commander of the Suchet, coordinated observations taken on naval ships in the waters of Martinique, and collated them in his report to the Naval Minister, sent by the same mail steamer that returned me to France. We will presume the minister immediately published this report in the Revue Maritime. I direct to this publication those readers seeking more precise observations; more extensive than my simple notes of a reporter.

The same for those wanting the complete works of M. Mirville; they will find them in the Journal Officiel of Martinique.

I will publish a few statistics:


The minimum variation in temperature, before the eruption of the 8th, was from 23.3 to 25 degrees; after the eruption, from 24.4 to 24.9. The maximum temperature, before the eruption, was from 30 to 31.8; after, from 31.2 to 33.1. [In Fahrenheit, these ranges are mid 70s to low 90s.] On the 8th, the minimum was: 22.1; the maximum, 29.3 degrees.

The barometric pressures noted on the 1st of May, at 6 a.m., at 10 a.m., and at 4:00 p.m., were: 763.0 mm — 764.1 — 761.8, diminishing by stages, becoming, on the 7th, 760.7 — 761.9 — 760.1; on the 8th, 761.2 — 762.2 — 760.1, rising after the eruption, until the 12th, where these readings were noted: 762.0 — 762.7 — 761.5. Following this, they fell again, then rose again, according to the caprices of the volcano.

The “special observations” that accompany the tables of M. Mirville are interesting:


At night, from the 2nd to the 3rd of May, rain of very fine volcanic ash. The ash layer at Fort-de-France is around ½ millimeter. The state of the hygrometer is steady, at 10 p. 100 below the median.

On Tuesday, the 5th of May, at fifteen minutes after midnight, the volcano ejected an avalanche of mud that filled the valleys of the Rivière-Blanche and the Rivière-Sèche, engulfing the Guérin factory. At this moment a black disk, darker at the edges, appeared in the sky, covering the sun. [A solar eclipse, which occurred before the Mount Pelée disaster.] A light depression of the barometer. The daytime oscillation attained 2.8 millimeters.








Wednesday, May 7th. From the first hour and a half after noon, we heard low booms at Fort-de-France, followed by rumblings like distant cannons. The noises were most violent from 2:00 p.m. to 2:30. The phenomenon continued with less intensity into the evening. Between 2:00 and 3:00 pm the river Madame rose and fell every five minutes, a phenomenon caused by the sea, which lowered and rose regularly. The total difference in the river’s level was 25 centimeters. The sea was calm.

Thursday, May 8th. Eruption of the volcano: a rain of agglomerated ash and siliceous rock. At the military hospital of Fort-de-France, one rock that fell weighed 85 grams. The entire city of Saint-Pierre was destroyed and burned. The destruction is most complete in the city’s center. Walls remain up to the first story, in the Fort and Mouillage districts. All the ships of the harbor are destroyed or burned. The catastrophe occurred at 7:50 a.m., as testified by the ambulance clock, which stopped at this hour. The layer of ash falling this day at Fort-de-France reached 6 millimeters.

17th May. Considerable discharge of ashes, carried by upper air currents and moving slowly southeast, obscuring an entire sector of the sky between the north and southeast. In the afternoon the inferior winds returned from the northeast a portion of the ash. Depth at Fort-de-France: 1 millimeter.

18th May. Very light rain of ashes towards 10:00 in the morning.

20th May. Great mass of dark clouds coming directly from the crater at 5:30 a.m., going towards the southeast, towards Fort-de-France; lightning and thunder in the cloudbank. The front of the mass lit by the rising sun, appearing as reflections of fire. Towards 5:45 a.m., a rain of black and angular stones, followed again by a rain of ash. Depth: 2 millimeters. Tidal wave at Carbet.


A note now, regarding M. Mirville:

This officer of the colonial health corps was part of the government commission, instituted to study the awakening Mount Pelée. All the other members of the commission are dead. Why? Very simple. The commission was not to reconvene at Saint-Pierre until the 8th. All the members, saving M. Mirville, were at Saint-Pierre on the 7th, and the governor, M. Mouttet, wished to draft a communication* to reassure the public.

The commission met for this purpose on the 7th, in the evening. When the meeting was decided, it was too late, practically speaking, to alert M. Mirville, who was at Fort-de-France. The last boat for Saint-Pierre had gone.

The next day, the 8th, M. Mirville expected he would arrive in time, taking the 8:00 a.m. boat, and not the one at 6:00. The passengers on the 6:00 a.m. boat perished, all of them. Those on the 8:00 boat, when they were passing the point of Carbet, saw Saint-Pierre in flames and returned to Fort-de-France.





1902 stereoscope photo of boulders from Mount Pelee

Stereographic image from Mount Pelée disaster, source: United States Library of Congress







*This communication was even posted the next day at Fort-de-France, when Saint-Pierre had been destroyed already! [Hess]

La Catastrophe de la Martinique

Public domain photo of candles for Martinique deadCatastrophe (part forty-nine)
















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