Catastrophe (part forty-nine)
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
The Observations of the Pouyer-Quertier
The exact unfolding of the phenomena
Now, the most precise observations, the best and clearest noted on the eruptions of Mount Pelée, and the phenomena accompanying these, belong to the officers, engineers, and commander of the Pouyer-Quertier, the Company ship of the French underwater cable.
Many descriptions, many stories of things witnessed, if witnessed “by eye”, can be legitimately suspected. Many tales I would not reproduce, as they do not seem credible. Not that I accuse these people of lying. I concede they all spoke in good faith, even those making the most doubtful representations.
But good faith does not preserve us from falsehoods. After such a catastrophe, surpassing all horrors we have seen, all we could have imagined, our poor human brains suffer such commotion that impressions become confused and diminished. Or augmented, our memories distorted—and we lie, believing very sincerely that we tell the truth.
Then, there is the imagination, the terrible imagination. I don’t mean of the alcohol-poisoned, or the insane. Imagination alone is enough. It is not necessary to be southern, or creole, or negro. Thing dreamed of, thing believed in, thing seen…and there it is. People are killed because lunatic fancies become realities. They tell you absurdities against all the laws of nature; laws against which no saints, no gods, no volcanoes can prevail…
You speak to them gently of hallucination, and they knit their brows; they cannot comprehend that you disbelieve their assertions. You say to them kindly that unless it had been a salamander (and still), no being of flesh and bone, no being that has lungs and breathes, no one could remain in the flaming furnace that was Saint-Pierre on the 8th of May. Yet they persist no less in swearing that two gunners promenaded there, that they brought out an old woman, that the prisoner lived.
After these great volcanic spasms, accompanied by every sort of electricity, we must believe that in certain minds the lid on the critical sense pops off.
None such to fear with the scientists and the sailors of the Pouyer-Quertier.
The cable was broken on the 5th, nine miles at sea from Saint-Pierre, and seventeen miles from Fort-de-France, at a depth of 2620 meters.
On the 7th, the Pouyer-Quertier went to search for the rupture. We recorded the position and marked the place with a dead buoy, set afloat at 2 hrs. 15 mins. There was a current of three knots. For that stretch we went at half-speed.
The buoy did not float well. At 5 hrs. 30 mins., we replaced it with one we thought better. Barely wet, the new one was taken by a turbulence, sucked into a sort of gulf, and sunk. It had been in a very good state, perfectly waterproof. It was the best on the ship.
The night came; we could not take up our work. It must wait until the next day.
We did not approach Saint-Pierre, because the wind dashed over the sea a very bothersome rain of ash. We heard detonations. We made our route towards the south, to the seafront of Fort-de-France. By morning, the currents had diverted us to the canal of Dominique.
At 8:00 precisely, by the clock of the Pouyer-Quertier, the eruption occurred. We were at seven miles, making straight for the Cape of Saint-Martin, whose bearing we had taken.
We saw black smoke coming from the volcano enfold itself on the flanks of the mountain and Saint-Pierre. Two vertical bluish flashes, one succeeding the other by a short interval, went from the height of the mountain, down to the water’s edge. Following these flashes, sooty flames cut the black cloud in a few places. Then there was an encompassing general fire. All the coast on fire. We heard no noise. The phenomenon lasted thirty seconds.
We set a course for land. The rain of ash chased us. And it was all black. There was no more to be seen.
Over deep ocean at 9:30, we made out before Saint-Pierre what appeared a line of breakers, a mile in length, whose roll seemed directed towards the sea.
We headed south. We recognized Cape Salomon. We saw a steamer coming from the south. In two hours, we were at Fort-de-France.
There, we offered our services and we received a requisition of aid. We left for Saint-Pierre. At 6:00 in the evening we were at Carbet. The sea was covered in wreckage. The sky was clear. There were stars. The crater pulsed red like a chimney at the top of a furnace. We saw seven points of fire at the summit of the mountain. From time to time, the craters lit up the flanks of the mountain. One crater, on the southwest part, we saw in eruption again on the night of the 10th. The streams of lava which by day are white, appear in the night phosphorescent. In the projected materials, we saw bits of lava like those of Vesuvius.
The burning wreckage prevented us from approaching Saint-Pierre on the 8th. We brought back wounded from Carbet.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
(1902, Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique; 2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)