(notes of a reporter)
To the lost souls of forty thousand
I dedicate this work of a reporter.
Forty thousand victims…
This statistic is not exact yet, and probably never will be. The number of forty thousand is that which was given at first. Afterwards, they tried to reduce it. First Lieutenant Fontaine, who with his commander on the Tage, Captain Le Bris, made of the question a profound study, had given me at Fort-de-France the number of thirty-seven thousand, five hundred. Now that the truth about the forced retention of the inhabitants at Saint-Pierre has seen the light of day, thanks to the publication of my articles in the Journal; now that we know, and are in no further doubt, that it was M. Decrais, minister of the colonies, who gave the ill-fated governor Mouttet the order to keep the voters at Saint-Pierre, to assure the election of 11 May—as if one could palliate that which is odious and horrible by making a gamble, for the sake of a ministerial voice in Parliament, of the lives of forty thousand human beings…and to have lost… They seek to diminish the number of victims of the carelessness, the stupidity, the madness of government—
It is a mere thirty thousand they admit. If this continues, soon there will be no more. And you will see that, in a while, they will pretend this horrible tragedy of Mt. Pelée is only a fable due to malevolence.
It is true that without any benevolence for our colonial administration, I relate these events that had preceded and followed the eruption of the volcano, Mt. Pelée.
Once more it was given to me to grapple with, from the first hour of the sinister actuality, the incapacity which characterized the people of the Pavillon de Flore in their misdeeds overseas.
Once more, in speaking only the truth, without even the obligation to comment, I have raised against these “minus habentes” an indictment which would condemn them forever, if we had in our country, in colonial matters, an opinion capable of enlightenment.
In Indochina [Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia], the people have killed the goose for the golden eggs. I have predicted, I have said and repeated…
Enough! They will begin to believe me when the revolt, which for a year has rumbled in the frontier provinces, has rendered the whole empire to fire and blood; when to political bankruptcy is joined economic bankruptcy.
In our old colonies, we have always said that the government, with the sole restriction of maintaining order, must not weigh on the will of universal suffrage. Yet it was that, by ministerial order, to obtain the constituency of which he was certain, to assure this for having applied all possible, and even impossible, pressures, M. Mouttet had forced the officials, he had enjoined the inhabitants, to keep at home in Saint-Pierre, despite the menaces of the volcano, despite the panics caused by these menaces. It was because of M. Mouttet taking an active part in the election, that the volcano of Mt. Pelée killed, on 8 May, forty thousand human beings.
The notes, the documents that I collected on the spot, and that I here publish, permit no doubt this is so. For the election of 11 May to be legal, that it could take place, needed the population of Saint-Pierre to not abandon the city. M. Decrais gave to M. Mouttet the order of maintaining, by all the means possible, the population in the city under the volcano, under the menace of the volcano…
I had the honor to know M. Mouttet. This unfortunate man was a disciplined official, who executed orders received, and was always careful to meet his responsibilities. He would never permit himself, in a grave circumstance, to take an important measure without referring it to his chief, the minister.
The fifth of May, when the volcano had ravaged the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and the approaches to the Prêcheur, he [Mouttet] alerted Paris. The sixth of May, when the volcano, in devastating the valley of the Rivière des Pères, poured its mud and its hot waters into the Roxelane, extending its activity as far as the city of Saint-Pierre, M. Mouttet again alerted Paris. He sought at the same time aid for the victims.
The response of the minister, on which they waited was, to be precise: As soon as the Ministry of Agriculture had given him the money, he would send 5000 francs.
The official charities ordinarily fund themselves through levies dependent on sums engaged in racecourse betting. When the cocottes have had generous clients; when the speculators have swindled a moneylender; when the cashiers have made a forced loan to their boss; when the coin of vice “rolls” in quantity to the bookmakers, all the better for a hundred levies by the Agriculture, permitting the ministers to practice the virtues of charity.
Wait, cabled M. Decrais to the unlucky Mouttet.
The volcano must wait. What mattered was the election—we vote first; we occupy ourselves afterwards with measures for public safety.
But the volcano did not wait. The volcano jeered the election of the eleventh; its overfilled subterranean boiler must vomit. It vomited on the eighth, producing forty thousand dead. Forty thousand dead, account for which, public opinion [since the law does not provide penal sanction for this sort of crime (1)] has the right to demand of His Excellence M. Albert Decrais. Although he is an old enough politician, M. Albert Decrais has still, I believe, a conscience.
The wait is on, for the ghosts of forty thousand of Saint-Pierre to come brighten the last moments of M. Albert Decrais, when on his deathbed; when, in that rapid review of their lives the camarde grants to those in the throes, he will see all the unfortunates of Saint-Pierre, and all the others who fell sacrificed by his incapacity, in the countries where “the colonial” operates—
The wait is on, for this hour of supreme justice. It must be. I want it, and it will be—it must.
He will carry this upon his retiring, as the irons of the galley-slaves in their prisons; it is necessary he carry these forty thousand dead.
And that he feels remorse.
And that he feels anguish.
And that he feels shame.
Truly, this must be so. Too many political crimes are above the law. We are a people without courage. We bear everything. We do not know how to feel indignant of anything. We do not know; we have no more will to punish, and the crimes are renewed. Under the pretext that M. Decrais certainly could not have wanted to kill forty thousand people—that he is an honest man; that he cannot be considered an assassin—the majority of those who believe themselves intelligent, and call themselves serious, clamor that it is madness to reproach an ex-minister of the Colonies with these forty thousand dead of Saint-Pierre…
I do not have to search for the intentions of M. Decrais.
I do not have to argue whether he is an honest man—for this case, at least.
I do not have to say now whether he can be considered an assassin.
I have only to research and to say: These are the facts.
Author’s footnote: (1) There are many articles of law relating to homicide by imprudence; but, as ministerial responsibility is with us but a myth… We will not think about it.
Translator’s note: I could not find English words that gave a clearer sense to “cocotte” (in context, a sort of escort, paid in favors) and “camarde” (an allegorical figure of death). I offer illustrations below.
- Hess’s dedication uses the term “mâne”, which seems to be the concept, contrasting with “âme”, of a soul belonging to one who died unshriven.
- The Pavillon de Flore is a part of the Tuilleries complex in Paris, that at the time of this publication (1902), housed the offices of M. Decrais, the Colonial Minister.
- Minus habentes, a Latin plural, the singular of which, minus habens, is used as a legal term to define a sub-standard intellect.
Now, the fact, at Saint-Pierre, is that these inhabitants wanted to go. And if these seems to you too general, absolutely, take that portion of the inhabitants whose example had the chance of being followed, and the fact that M. Decrais had ordered M. Mouttet to keep them at Saint-Pierre until the eleventh. And the fact that it was also these inhabitants, which the officials had retained by force at Saint-Pierre, whom the volcano killed on the eighth…there were forty thousand victims. And for these deaths, it is upon M. Decrais, with no possible discussion, and entirely obvious, that responsibility falls.
I am exposed to a danger against which no courage, no human force, can prevail. I know it, and I want to go. But I am a civil servant and you prevent me going; you menace me with the revocation of my post if I go. I stay, to wager my life; and I lose it. The volcano kills me…it is true…it is not the minister. But they who weep over me, have they not the right to say the minister is my assassin!
There, is the striking fact of my enquiry at Martinique.
When the catastrophe occurred, I was traveling in the Greater Antilles. Returning from Saint-Domingue, I arrived at Port-au-Prince on the eleventh of May. When the agent of the Transatlantic Company came aboard, M. Dardignac, he said to us: “Saint-Pierre is destroyed by the volcano. The whole of Martinique is threatened. Already forty thousand are dead!”
The first boat leaving Port-au-Prince, destined for Saint-Thomas, from where these “opportunities” are frequent for Martinique, was the Olinde-Rodrigues, of the Transatlantic Company, a regular mail from France, which was meant to raise anchor on the thirteenth. I immediately took passage. The Haitians had the preposterous idea of beginning, on the next day, a revolution, fighting in the streets by day, by night…
An interesting adventure, true, for anyone who would like to see all the spectacles close up.
But a hitch delayed our departure.
As there was no other foreign ship in port, M. Desprès, the minister for France, requisitioned the Olinde-Rodrigues, in order to have at his disposal a large vessel where, in case of danger too grave, foreigners could take refuge. He kept us until the sixteenth. That day an English boat arrived, which the British consul requisitioned, while waiting until another arrived to guarantee the new service required by circumstance.
When I arrived at Saint-Thomas, I found the Saint-Domingue, belonging to the Transatlantic Company, ready to sail for Martinique.
(And of this I sincerely rejoiced. To travel aboard the English boats, the American, the Dutch, the German…in the Antilles above all…it has always seemed to me excessively disagreeable. A thousand times, I prefer the French, especially to cross the Atlantic. Patriotism? No. Simply a question of comfort. I like a good berth, good food, and good service. But these I have never found to my taste except on our own. And if you ask me why this digression, I reply that I love my fellow man, that I never let escape an opportunity of being useful to him, and thus, I deem it necessary to always fight the absurd legend people with bad stomachs propagate, wanting to make believe it better worth traveling on a foreign ship than a French ship…
I embarked from Saint-Thomas on the Saint-Domingue… But a new setback was caused this time by the volcano. Rather than make directly for Guadalupe, the packet-boat must go to Puerto Rico for the loading of sixty tons of food that the American generosity had sent to the victims of the distressed island. We were in Puerto Rico* on the twentieth. At five o’clock in the evening, we had a new emotion. The hawkers cried a broadsheet edition by the principle journal of the place, the Times of Puerto Rico, I believe…or something similar. This broadsheet contained a terrible dispatch, announcing that an eruption far more grave than the first had come to the place, that the ruins of the northern island were consumed, that Dominique, however distant, had been covered in ashes and debris…not to speak of Fort-de-France, but one could assume everything to fear… (1)
This tells you in what state of mind we arrived on the twenty-first at Guadaloupe.
(1)These Americans have the secret of sensational and alarming information. The reporters and the experts who were at Fort-de-France have literally panicked the population by their representations and their pessimistic predictions.
*Translator’s note: This was the 20th of May, 1902; the disaster occurred on the 8th of May, and by the 20th, the relief shipment had already arrived at Puerto Rico. Theodore Roosevelt was president.
But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand. Ezekial, 33:6 KJV.
At Basse-Terre, we were reassured. At Pointe we found a thousand Martiniquais refugees, of whom around five hundred had come not wanting to stay at Fort-de-France, for being told it was rendered uninhabitable by the previous day’s eruption.
On the 22nd, I was at Fort-de-France. I stayed there until the first of June. This allowed me to go to Saint-Pierre, to explore the ruins, to study the volcano as closely as possible…but at a respectable distance. I was not like the American reporters, true salamanders, who disport themselves in the hot flows and burning vapors that rake and constantly hide in smoke all the slopes of the mountain, claiming they have climbed where one can measure the crater exactly.
I looked from farther off, yet I believe I have seen better, for the good telescopes are not made for dogs…
I have seen three eruptions: those of the 26th, the 28th, and June 1st.
I have interviewed all the people capable of furnishing useful information; all those who had seen something of interest.
My excellent colleagues of the Opinion, the journal of Fort-de-France, were to me particularly valued for their articles; while their hints allowed me to work rapidly, with no loss of time. Permit me to thank them here.
On the first of June, after an investigation conducted to the best of my ability, I embarked aboard the packet-boat Canada, of the Transatlantic Company. The obligingness of M. Vié, company agent to Martinique, and the amiability of M. Geffroy, commander of the Canada, made it possible for me to work shipboard. On the fourteenth of June, I arrived at Bordeaux with the manuscript of this book.
Book is without doubt a large word to designate a collection of notes, no less hastily gathered than rapidly collated and composed. Some day will be written, I hope, a work that is mature, careful, and reflective, on this catastrophe of Saint-Pierre, unique in the annals of the world. And that will be a book. Mine is not, truth to tell, more than a pile of information. These are my notebooks; this is the work of a reporter, his notes and documents.
What I Saw
Approaching the Volcano
(On the way to Pointe-à-Pitre, at dawn)
The agent who came aboard showed us a dispatch from Fort-de-France, saying the city was uninhabitable, that its people had almost died, and that everything was full of ashes.
The Salvador conducted here [Fort-de-France] five hundred refugees. These unfortunates had departed five hundred, but arrived five hundred and one. A woman, from fear, had given birth. I saw many of these refugees put ashore. The mayor of Point-à-Pitre had not enough time to house them all. Some waited, bleak, stupefied, under the awnings of the market.
I spoke with them and found that they were still more bleak, more stupefied, than they appeared. Why had they gone? They had foreseen the fire of the volcano on their heads. They had received its stone and ash. They were afraid; they had stormed the Salvador. And when the ship was crowded to capacity, they were sent to Guadeloupe. They were there, and they were still afraid…the fear of hysteria. When they spoke of the volcano, they looked up in the air, to see if the menace was not again on their heads. And their eyes were round, fixed.
A man who knew scripture said to me, “Monsieur, the Lord has sent us a cloud. He has spared us this time. But…”
I spoke of the Soufrière of Guadeloupe, whether one did not see it smoke more than was customary?
“Quiet, monsieur, quiet. We must not summon evil. And above all, we must not joke about misfortune.”
The people had completely lost their heads.
Some, however, returned with us to Fort-de-France. Notably, an old gentleman, the doctor Guérin, whose factory carried away three days before the catastrophe of the 8th, marked the first ravages of the volcano; and a young woman, a laundress who answered to the sweet name of Zulima. She told us that Fort-de-France was empty, dead, sad, the Zulimas had all filed off, for they did not want to die. And also they could no longer practice their profession of laundress. There was no water in the channels of the fountains; they had needed to use the gutters of the street, and those were muddy and full of ash.
Zulima told us afterwards that all this “was not good begaye”. I believe she also spoke politically. She said that it was “no good either” that they had not reelected M. Duquesnay. That it was the fault of the governor…
“And the volcano?”
I dare not add that she answered: “That is the fault of the administration.” But she thought it. She said to me, as well: “The Americans are very good people…yes, very good… Monsieur…”
Translator’s note: The salamander reference is to an old myth that salamanders can survive fire.
Bèl begay is Haitian creole, meaning today awesome or wonderful! The quote of Zulima’s Hess uses is “c’etait begaye pas bien”, italics his, indicating a non-French expression.
Before the Volcano
(On the way to Saint-Pierre, at sunset)
The land! It is always there at the end of a voyage, an impatience, a quivering, when we approach land. The eyes scrutinize, the glasses scour the horizon, searching between the sky and the waves, for that place, in the uncertainty of the distance…that patch a little darker, which hour by hour, mile by mile, will come into focus, delineate itself, and mark the port.
With an anguish of impatience, in a confusion of sorrowful feeling, we searched the horizon for that dark little spot, which, emerging, growing, must bring into clarity the glow of the destructive volcano; show us, in lieu of that welcoming port of our rejoicing, a dead city, a cemetery of sadness.
At first it was very beautiful. The day fell away in a calm light of thin mist, the rain that casts itself like a muslin veil on the tropical seas, in the months of the high sun. The waves were a pale emerald, such as the poet saw like to the eyes of Minerva, the blue-green eyes of the goddess…this was a sea very wise.
The land. A mountain of rounded forms, harmonious; a purple mountain, light blue on light crimson, a mountain haloed in clouds of rose powdered with azure. An exquisite pastel of delicate grace…
This…the volcano? This lovely thing…?
But we approach. At the same time approaches the night.
In the night…
The tenderness coloring the countryside, from the details made precise by shadow, becomes a harsh anger. The sea plunges itself into mourning. The mountain grows large, black, tragic, a menace.
It is no longer veiled in pink and blue. It is helmeted, plumed in black smoke, with spots of red—with spots of blood. And this plume mounts to the sky, very high, launched by a powerful exhalation.
And we approach still. And there are, on the flanks of the mountain, wide lava-channels, white. And under the black again, a stain of white, large, long, at the bottom of the gulf…
But what blacks! What whites! I know of no words capable of rendering the livid filth, a thing never seen, beyond dreaming, and that you will not have imagined. No need to know that, in there, over there, are scattered forty thousand corpses, for this vision to seem frightening. No word, I tell you, to rehearse for you the horror…
White and black.
Never will a painter find on his palette such…so dismal, this black, this white; under the glow of the volcano, under the glow that, now yellow from the mudslides and the ashes they carried, greens the blue of night.
And we approach closer. We pass nearer, near to Saint-Pierre, this that was Saint-Pierre.
And then it was more than horror…
The white ruins under the night, ruins that seemed a city of tombs, and from the distance we ventured, the stench of ashes. This white, that covered the mountain; this white, that covered the ruins—an immense shroud, all white, a white our eyes had never seen. All this white that lay white in the night, it was ashes…
It was the ashes that had killed.
A nightmare vision. A terrible nightmare.
The hour after, we arrived at the harbor of Fort-de-France. There were ships. We heard, from a high deck, the Blue Waltz. The admiral was dining. We returned to reality.
Other Sights of the Volcano
The mountain emerges as a truncated cone, and the clouds are the truncated cone reversed. Cloud and mountain, two truncated cones, interpenetrated by the mountain’s summit, a gigantic X, a solid base, a loose belt fluttering, a floating cap. At five miles from the vent, we breathed the odor of sulphur and received the ashes. This powdery ash filters the light.
Each minute, thus to say, varies the aspect of the mountain…
The cone of the cloud is crumpled, the smoke tumbles low. It is now a reversed plume that spreads towards the North. Then the cloud rises wide, enormous, very high, cleanly cut on the clearer sky of the South coast, confounding itself with the black sky of the North coast. It is a dark, sooty mass that reflects reddish, yellowish, that expands into layers blackest at the heights. Is it the imagination, that all these lava flows, white on the mountain, have the air of an amphitheater’s stone slabs?
When we point South, and we ourselves are moving off, the mountain and clouds all resume the aspect of a pastel, of a dark indigo pastel; and there, where we divine the summit, the crater we see is a curved line, a very large U…five incandescent dots that must be huge. They seem to us, in the distance, in the somber blue of night, like five red balloons; you know, those of the engineer Beau, the balloons of celluloid in which the gay places of the cities enclose their electric lights and render them more pale, more lovely.
The impressive thing about this photo, taken from Hess’s book, is the hand on the rope. It gives a sense of immediacy to the moment depicted, the ship approaching the ruin of Saint-Pierre, the passengers not yet knowing exactly how the horror will appear to them.
Translator’s notes: on page 8 of this translation, the Blue Waltz was heard from a “haut bord”. Because the next sentence is, “the admiral was dining” and because Hess is entering the harbor on a ship himself, I picture the music coming from the deck of another ship, a larger one with the admiral aboard, so I’ve chosen to state it this way.
On page 9, a puzzling phrase, “la joie des villes”, that in searching Gallica, I can’t find as a set expression; in context, it seems to refer to providers of conviviality generally, which I call here the “gaiety”.
These two instances may not be correct.
Homer’s Hymn to Minerva
I sing the glorious Power with azure eyes,
Athenian Pallas, tameless, chaste, and wise,
Tritogenia, town-preserving maid,
Revered and mighty; from his awful head
Whom Jove brought forth, in warlike armor dressed,
Golden, all radiant! wonder strange possessed
The everlasting Gods that shape to see,
Shaking a javelin keen, impetuously
Rush from the crest of Aegis-bearing Jove;
Fearfully Heaven was shaken, and did move
Beneath the might of the Cerulean-eyed;
Earth dreadfully resounded, far and wide;
And, lifted from its depths, the sea swelled high
In purple billows, the tide suddenly
Stood still, and great Hyperion’s son long time
Checked his swift steeds, till where she stood sublime,
Pallas from her immortal shoulders threw
The arms divine; wise Jove rejoiced to view.
Child of the Aegis-bearer, hail to thee,
Nor thine nor other’s praise shall unremembered be.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Published by Mrs. Shelley in 1839, date of composition, 1818 (public domain).
Ashes and Terrors
Black Fears. White Fears. Blue Fears.
Zulima has not lied. She has barely exaggerated. Fort-de-France is sad. The city seems to go forth from a bad dream. It lies in the ashes. It stinks of volcanism. The ashes cover everything. They are on the roofs, on the soil, in the air, in the trees, in the water of the mountain streams, in the water that we drink, in the bread that we eat, everywhere.
At the hotel I could not bathe, the water ran black in the basin, mud. All the cooking has a taste of ashes—on all the furniture, on the beds, in the drapes, it is ashes and forever ashes.
They showed me the pebbles that fell from the cloud, three days past; they are fat as a thumb, like pigeons’ eggs.
Ashes and pebbles…now I can explain to myself the terror of the people seen at Guadeloupe. And explain the terror of the people who stay, with whom I live.
They habituate themselves to the volcano, to the trembling of the earth. I have been told by a friend that in this neighborhood of constant threat, they have acquired a new and particular temperament…
I believe it.
But I believe it needs time, and also I believe the volcano must extinguish itself, that the earth no longer quake.
At present, the volcano of Mt. Pelée has not gone out, the smoke it spits can be seen at all times from Fort-de-France; we are always menaced, the silhouette blocks the sky… We can ask ourselves at any hour if the death the smoke portends, in its magnificent billowings, will not soon fall on us.
And the earth under our feet no longer feels solid. It has not quaked, but it shivers. This shivering agitates, unnerves, worries. And knowing that, on the last night of Saint-Pierre, there had been similar shiverings, we are frightened…
Is it well to be terrified…well to go in fear…?
Our breathing is bad, there is an oppression, hot and full of electricity…we suffer this in the hair. And there is the physical fear of being drowned in something that can’t be seen, can’t be understood, only felt… It is the fear of the body whose vital forces all bristle in revolt against a deadly threat that lowers upon them, penetrates them…
And it is something that defies analysis, for in the heavy body the spirit becomes heavy. The head is heavy, the chest is heavy, the limbs are heavy. The nerves are weighed upon, and when, to the shocks of this mysterious force, that grinds out its gleams in the night, these vibrate painfully, heavily, it is a crushing anguish…
The man who thinks, the man who reasons the futility of fighting against these invisible forces, the man who knows the wise thing is to resign himself and wait for the inevitable…he resigns himself, and sleeps.
But I understand these crowds of animality closer to our origins; these crowds who shudder, who tremble, who have fear…a blind, deaf, mad fear…and who flee, and weep, and cry out. In the African savannas, in the months of fiery sun, when the grass burns, I have seen beasts escape with this same bellowing, roaring their fear.
The evening of the 26th I saw, and heard, this fear in Fort-de-France. I had passed the day in Saint-Pierre; I had seen the lava flows in the Rivière des Pères, seen the Roxelane smoking. I had seen the mountain covered in fumes, the crater active. I had felt the earth shake. My nerves were vibrating with the tension of the atmosphere. I returned to Fort-de-France at night waiting for an eruption more powerful, more violent, and for what we would see of the city.
At nine o’clock, “it was there”. The night became black. An enormous cloud…black, opaque, black, black…advancing rapidly, in rolling billows that could be seen bounding, parti-colored, for they had, with their black, reflections of a deep red, and lightning that shot gleam after gleam, making the brooding menace show itself blacker.
This lightning flashed in the night like bombs, a burst pimple of sooty red, bristling with long red jets, reflecting the yellow of a smelting pot, threaded through with gold. Others had the form of a paste, as of red ink feathering; there were also in this blackness, thin, long slits, like immense sabre cuts in the cloud, vibrating at instants with red and yellow, that barely seen, mutated into great, quivering waves of luminous blue, retreating into the black as quickly as they had risen.
And this was of an unspeakable beauty…
And it could be death, death to come, for everyone, all who lived in Fort-de-France…
A cloud like that, a cloud that from the crater’s mouth had flowed heavy on the valleys of Saint-Pierre, had killed forty thousand beings; this that rolled on our heads some hundreds of meters off, was lighter, no doubt, unable to fall…but who knew it!
Many thoughtful persons have said to me, and I think so myself, that this cloud so black was of the same nature as that destructive whirlwind of the 8th, the whirlwind of heavy gas, projected with force by the volcano. That this was carried by a current of air, formed in answer to a zone of atmospheric heat, and that at the end of its trajectory, at the end of the current, the cloud had to fall, asphyxiating and burning.
In agony can be exquisite pleasures. I believe all men have that passion for the unknown, that attraction to the mysterious gulf, where at the toss, it is “heads or tails”, a fortune wagered at a stroke. Or even a louis, as it rolls at last on the carpet…the blood starts in the veins, the arteries, the heart… It is a delightful anguish, a piercing indulgence, waiting with bated breath for the moment to follow…
It was here, under the cloud of Fort-de-France.
I have rediscovered an old and very dear friend, a friend of my young years. We go out to dinner, to a place for admiring the scene of apocalypse, which the sky—if you prefer, the atmosphere—offers us in magnificent spectacle.
We look at each other, and smile.
“It would be truly ironic…”
But it is not irony, it is a panic…of others. A rush of fear, of packs of men, troops of women. Hysterics. Shrieks.
“The fire, the fire of the volcano is on us. We are lost!”
And along the shore, in the dark, it was desolation, lamentation. Then, a gust of wind…violent and sudden as it had come, the cloud climbed again towards the north, vanished, disappeared; the stars rekindled…
It was newly calm. A heavy calm.
The restlessness had not ended. For hours I saw groups wandering, frenzied unfortunates going, they did not know where…mute, and holding hands.
* This same friend, that the panicking crowd had separated from me, returning to the kiosk in the evening, mentioned a curious effect of the fear on women, or, to speak more precisely, on certain women. “I was at the end of the Savane [a public park], between the carénage [literally “fairing”; a traffic zone along the harbor front, outside the park] and the fort… No electricity. You know that the population believes the electric lighting attracts the volcano… So, no lights. Shadow. A young woman falls into my arms: ‘Save me, monsieur! I can’t take any more…” We were near a bench. I made her sit down. I tried to give her courage with a few words… She needed… I still don’t know if I dream… But this was fearfully mad…”
One of the frightened characters who drank near us launched an anathema on my friend: “You are a débauché and blasphemer. Monsieur (he cries to him), it is people like you who have made the anger of the Lord fall on the others, on the innocents…”
And the heat was overpowering, and the thirst. At the kiosk of the hotel, on the Savane, we drank; we discussed. Also we searched, in the alcohol, for a night’s sleep. Everyone had at the corners of their eyelids a new crease…in the eyes a new glaze, in the voice, a new timbre…of nervousness.
We have the fault of belief that only the black Martiniquais, mulattos or creoles, cede to panic, are free with those manifestations of fear, somewhat exaggerated…
Panic is an evil that strikes men without regard for race, like the smallpox.
The placid Anglo-Saxon is subject to it, as the nervous Spaniard, and the timorous African. One of the most delightful stories in the order of events (if, however, we are allowed to speak of delights in such mourning), is that of an American globetrotter and reporter.
This intrepid man, sent no doubt by the papers of his country—by friends who exalted his intrepidity—to uncover new impressions closer to the volcano, was taking lodgings in the hotel when I came down.
Arriving, his first care was to demand the hotel vault, to deposit his valise and notes, and to deposit himself, in case of a new eruption.
He was disappointed, heartbroken, on grasping that there was no hotel vault, but was consoled the next day, the 20th, when Providence heaped upon him sight of all the thrills and great spectacles he had come to research.
At five o’clock, he is roused by the people fleeing before the “fire of the mountain”.
He dresses himself, seizes his photographic apparatus, and descends to the park. He looks. He admires. He photographs the groups. He searches for pretty women a little undressed, for the sake of conserving their features. He is calm. He takes snapshots of clouds. He beams. It is so beautiful!
“Very beautiful!” he cries. “I would not give my ‘films’ for five thousand dollars.” But, the phenomenon builds on itself suddenly. The odor of sulphur falls, the ash falls, the pebbles fall.
“Aoh!” And the intrepid Anglo-Saxon shows that he runs very fast, precipitating himself fleet as a deer towards the shoreline. He goes straight to the extremity of the wharf. He sets his apparatus on the boards…his watch, his hat, his vest…and dives headfirst into the waves. He swims well. A half-hour later, he returns to land. His bundle had naturally disappeared in the hurly-burly.
He retreats to the hotel, murmuring this time, no more, “beautiful!”, but “very bad, very bad”, and takes the first boat leaving. The emotions of the country were too strong for his nerves, however solid…being that they were Anglo-Saxon nerves.
The other Americans showed in equally striking manner the superiority of Anglo-Saxon legs for running. They had projected making an ascent of Mt. Pelée and going to contemplate the “monster face to face”. For Americans with self-respect, for Americans who are true Americans, such enterprise is child’s play. There is not one American come to Fort-de-France, who hasn’t downed his split of champagne at the edge of the fuming crater; or at least does not say so, and no doubt prints it…
These farceurs are truly admirable, and most humbly I bow before their superiority. I confess most piteously that I did not dare attempt the ascent, so innocuous, so easy…
From the New York Tribune of 8 June 1902.
Click the screenshot, left, to read an example of the American coverage, in its entirety. Location: Library of Congress, United States.
The visitors had not seen half the places they intended to see, when a hoarse shriek from the siren of the Potomac called all to the boat. The expected had happened. Without a shock or a detonation loud enough to disturb the deep silence of the city of the dead, Pelée was again in eruption.
In brief, a few Americans had planned to realize it, this ascent become classic and obligatory. They were at the Morne-Rouge. In complete equipage, they’d gone. Wagons, horses, mules, guides, and provisions. They had dined, very calm, happy in the beauty of the evening, the night at its birth.
The volcano appears to them as an American painting, the backdrop of an American stage-decoration, of an American opera.
When, all at once, a change in the view.
The mountain growls and smokes…otherwise, it is as usual. For it is very rare it “rests”…more than an hour or two. But the Americans foresee the clouds of fire on them, and fly, abandoning horses, cars, all…in the night, without knowing where, without troubling themselves for the road, jumping across hedges, tumbling down ravines, crossing precipices, climbing banks, they go running, bounding…
They feel they are chased by the fire of the volcano, the fire at their rear, that makes beasts and men run…
They ran so all night. At daybreak, they fell exhausted on the road. The first negro they encountered, they covered with promises of dollars, if he would point them the way to Fort-de-France.
I would not be astonished to read in their journals a different account of their climbing the volcano. But the truth is mine. I know, in fact, someone in whom I place all confidence, and who that night was staying at Morne-Rouge…to see.
The French also showed beautiful examples of dementedness. A young functionary will remain famous in Martinique. During the panic of the 20th, he was seen to quickly exit his hotel, bare-headed, clad in underpants. He brandished an enormous cavalry revolver and cried: “Away, away…we are going to die…save us…if you do not make way, I will kill you!”
The unfortunate boy had been so much tried by fear, that he could live no more, but with the idea of killing himself, if “the fire of heaven” came to fall on Fort-de-France. He asked me how it needed to be done, to kill oneself with a shot.
“To the temple, monsieur, is it not? To the temple.”
“Eh! My dear monsieur, you must never tremble, for then you will miss. Like poor F—, who last month in a fit of fever fired badly, burning both eyes, and dying only after an agonizing fifteen days…”
“Then the heart…”
“This must equally be done with a firm hand…and I think that you tremble, monsieur.”
“Then, one must allow oneself to burn like that, without doing anything…”
“I believe so.”
“Ah, monsieur, one sees you did not view the martyrs that have been landed here…burned…burned… But you do not know what this is! My God! My God!”
And the unfortunate has gone in the night…with these gestures and these “my Gods!” Fool.
I assure you that the conversation was exactly such.
This man was one of those elite beings, to whom their knowledge and their impassivity, joined to a ministerial degree, give the right to judge the weaknesses of other men, and to condemn them.
The Dates of the Volcano’s Ravages
Before going further, that it not be lost in the information and interviews to follow, I bid the reader regard the map of Martinique. He will see the northern part of the island drawn within a circumference, having at the center, and culminating in a point, the mountain, Pelée.
From this orthographic node goes out, radiating towards the sea, a series of ridges, limited by the valley escarpments or the flowing of the rivers.
To the west, the valley of the river Prêcheur, ending at the town of the same name; then, the valley of the Riviére Blanche; the valley of the Riviére des Péres, and of the Roxelane, which flows through two northern quarters of Saint-Pierre. The southern part of the city extends along the harborfront, at the foot of the low hills drawing into a long plateau; farther south still, lies the town of Carbet.
Here now, “the dates of the volcano”:
In March, the crater begins to “vapor”.
It “smokes”, at the end of April.
On the fifth of May, it spits the mud that carries away the Guérin factory on the Riviére Blanche. May 6, it makes a flow of mud in the Riviére des Péres and in the Roxelane.
The 8th, it destroys Saint-Pierre and her suburbs, from Prêcheur to Carbet.
The 20th of May, it covers Fort-de-France in ashes and pebbles.
The 26th and 28th, it has two eruptions that extend their ravages, and force evacuations of the northern communities, up to that point spared, and where some thousands of inhabitants believed themselves still safe.
The 1st and the 6th of June, new eruptions.
And when the last?*
When does the terrible mountain rest?
In the Ruins
A Man of the Bible has said:
I saw the mountains and they trembled; I saw the hills, and they were all shaken; I cast my eyes about me and I found no men; and all the birds, even of the heavens, are gone; I saw the most fertile countryside become desert; and all the cities destroyed before the face of the Lord.
When I returned to the ruins, this verse of lamentation and terror came back in my memory.
*The telegrams received from Fort-de-France during the composition of this book have announced, on the 9th of July, one eruption more violent than the first, and rendering absolutely uninhabitable the north of the island.
Translator’s note: Hess, above, is most likely referring to Jeremiah 4:24, lamentation for Judah.
As he said in his preface, he took these lines directly from this notes, and his memory of them must be not entirely as they appear in the bible, as I could not find his French version match anything in an internet search. The English (KJV) is:
I beheld the mountains, and lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly.
I beheld, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled.
I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger.
The Funeral Boat
On Land…What We Saw There
I had seen the volcano in passing near the coast, aboard the Saint-Domingue. I had observed the terror it threatened to hurl upon Fort-de-France. I wanted to see this more closely. And I wanted above all to see the ruins, to go over that which had been the prosperous city, the welcoming city, where four years ago on an earlier trip to the Antilles, I had been pampered, feted.
I went with what was called, in Fort-de-France, the Cappa mission, that is to say, the detachment of workers under the direction of M. Cappa, architect of the city, who had the mission of burying and burning the corpses. It was the dredging-boat of the port which each day…when it rested, when the sleep of the volcano permitted…carried this mission from Fort-de-France to Saint-Pierre.
The boat was always loaded with barrels of lime, jars of carbolic acid, and cans of kerosene. It had taken on the odor of a hospital ward, an “amphitheater”. I have sailed on all sorts of boats. I had missed that of gravedigger.
Dreary…do you think?
But no…it carried also two policemen and two priests, who told me stories…stories of the volcano.
And then it had this inestimable advantage, that it was a dredger, and could not go fast. And as it passed very near the coast when we were along the devastated regions, I could see well.
The southern limit of the destroyed zone was in the town of Carbet.
It was pretty, once, this town narrow and long, that slept on the beach at the foot of low hills furrowed and fertile. It was a town of rich cultivation, and rich fishing. The fire and the sea have left only ashes, only ruins.
It is at first scorched cocoanut trees and scorched cane; then, burnt cocoanuts and burnt cane.
And the debris of huts, and the scattered stone of houses. In a sheltering ravine, the church and its surrounding outbuildings are intact…but abandoned. The hot ashes have chased away the men.
And by measures, as we advance towards the North, we see destruction more profound. The trees remain only smoking trunks. The cane fields, nothing, nothing but ravaged earth. The huts, debris on the soil. It is a tangle of rubble. All the shoreline is full of what the waves return, like dead algae on our own beaches. The flanks of the hills are planed, harrowed; the heights are scorched, defoliated, carbonized.
And everything afterwards is ash. It has come to rest in turbulence fallen with the rain. It gives the illusion of lava flows.
Then there are the naked rocks, grey and livid. The cliff looks like the walls of a lime-kiln. Farther on is the open land, under a frosting of white. The ashes flocked on the perimeters of the cliff and the hills, drawn in arabesques of unimaginable fantasy. All these combinations of grey and of white. The white of baked stone, the grey of ash. That which might be carved, modeled, drawn, painted, of this madness, could have no more than grey and white for the translation, in color, of a crisis.
At the Monsieur quarter, a wreck on the beach. And it is there the truly beautiful devastation begins. Clearly, one sees that a gust of fire has passed here, wrenching the skeletons of calcined trees on the desiccated soil, cooked and recooked. But the gust was not much elevated. On the hills, higher, at one hundred thirty to one hundred fifty meters, are fields of cane still green. This makes a brutal contrast. At the heights, life. Below, death.
At several points I could pinpoint, by this, the upper limits of the destructive phenomenon. From one hundred twenty to one hundred forty meters.
Then, it is the quarter of l’Anse. In the middle of the burned ruins, a house has its four walls and its roof. It sings a foolish solo in a décor of trees without leaves, twisted by fire.
The tornado of flame seems to have worked as though a factory for “bent wood”. This hallucinatory vision, with the headway of the boat, chases place to place; this vision of calcined trees in poses of agony. The corpses of men are frightful. But the dead lie. Death lets stand the corpses of trees. And this may be still more frightful. Death in that which lives a little, seems a more potent death…
She has stricken all here, death. At the southern tip of Saint-Pierre, on the flank of the hill, mid-coast, on a prominence that dominates the harbor, the sailors had lifted a great and beautiful statue of the “Bonne Mère”, to protect the shipping. The pedestal of the statue is all that stands. The virgin of stone has been projected twenty meters. But she has not broken in this fall. She has fallen intact, face to earth. One of the sailors of the funeral boat told me it is for weeping; not to look on the destruction she did not know how to prevent.
And the city…this which was a city…
The words, the words to tell it…
No…I can’t find them…
It seems to me, when my memory before my eyes evokes the spectacle…it seems to me that I become stupid again, as I was made when the boat had stopped, when a canoe landed me on the beach.
Once, from a savage, I received a knock-out blow to the head, so violent that for a moment I had no thought of defending myself. A thing parallel to Saint-Pierre in its immense ruin…in the ruin without name.
It felt evil. From the acrid stench, a fetidity, and then another thing I don’t know: the moist ashes browning, the putrescence…it caught in the throat. A stupefaction as of drunkenness mounted to the brain. And of dazedness. Stupidity…no other thing.
I was, in effect, a moron. I looked, and did not know whether I saw. I tried to observe, to notice, and I did not know whether I thought. Not a line came to mind for my notebook. I had no notion of stirring to employ my photographic equipment.
The physicians tell us that when there are too many soundwaves, too many light waves, our ears can no longer hear, our eyes no longer see. Is a similar thing produced in our brains when impressions too many and too violent strike it all at once?
It was one of the gravediggers who brought me out of this dazed state. We followed a beach covered with debris; there were powdery ashes with nails pointing up in the air.
“Take care,” he said to me, “you are going to step on that…you will be punctured…and you know in this country, when a man gets a wound of that sort, he gets tetanus more easily than a pension…”
And this little detail, of my not stepping on the nail, not to catch tetanus, restored to me my legs and my eyes.
I looked, and I saw. And I know now what terror is, and what horror is…
And who will want to know the reality, of grand words one finds hard, barbarous, magniloquent, words a little mysterious in their distance of unreality, these words said of cataclysm and catastrophe…let him go in meditation, on a pile of broken things, formless and putrid, that has become the landscape once so lovely, of Saint-Pierre the laughing city…
Let him go…let him go, as I, to that place. And if these annoyances which come to men seem to him heavy…after…he will have but to recall Saint-Pierre and how little, before the least quiver of the earth, counts man.
In the twenty years that I have circled the globe, finding myself well-placed, at said hour, in such theaters as the human brute seeks Glory, I have seen beautiful wars and destruction.
The months before Saint-Pierre, this winter, at Saint-Domingue in Haiti, I came to admire what efforts, what patience, what will, what cunning, what relentlessness, what genius, and what cruelty, sets men to their hateful work, when—for a few sous, a little pride—to assault an ephemeral power, they will flock…unto the glorious breach.
The Martinique volcano shows better the destruction of a country…a magnificent work…imagine the monuments to an artilleryman who could confound you thus, in the landing of one blow…a city, ten villages, and forty thousand men. And we curse the mountain Pelée.
And to my own lips, as I wandered among the ruins, I felt anathema rise against the Mountain of Death.
Yet she works without anger, in the fatal serenity of Destiny, where inanimate matter, deaf to the anguishes of animate matter, boils, whirls, bursts, flies, and settles, balancing, for so moves the universe, the supreme law of Things and of Beings.
And no one could ever say, and no one imagine, the results of this “work”…this that I saw.
You know, in the museums, these reproductions of cities, done in pasteboard and painted wood. Dream of one stomped by an elephant, burned afterwards, drowned at last with mud and ashes, and you will see what I saw in Saint-Pierre…
Only there, what was destroyed, stricken, churned, set afire, was a city of three thousand houses, covering eighty hectares, with one hundred and three streets, a development of more than twenty kilometers… A city where nearly forty thousand inhabitants found themselves, when it was snuffed in the disaster.
Others have said of this disaster, that it was “like a giant pile-driver had worked over the city”, and left only ruins.
At a distance, we thought we saw the lines of low walls, as they have in cities of Southern Algeria, and the ashes gave them the appearance of Saharan huts at the feet of the dunes. We could have the illusion of something that was still a city.
Near, there was nothing but debris. Stones in heaps, in the streets, in the inside of what had been houses. Piles of stone everywhere. A shower of rubble and plaster. Elsewhere stone, nothing but stone. With lines of cracked walls, walls very low, two meters, three at most… The sections that remain standing, in the quarter of the Mouillage, are not, for saying so, only those that are parallel to the shoreline; in the quarter of the Roxelane, on the contrary, they are found in the axis of the valley.
But what, far better than phrases, will permit your trying to imagine this destruction, are photographs. I have brought back many. I am publishing some. See these, consider these…a countryside of crushed stone. And crushed, for certain quarters, is a word insufficient. The heights of the Fort district have been more than crushed…pulverized, torched; of the houses, of the people, nothing remains. The place has been swept, razed…there is nothing left.
And this, from the first great eruption, of the 8th. At the Mouillage, after the 8th, there were still a number of walls standing. The eruption of the 20th has completed the work of its predecessor.
See, see, the photographs…they are eloquent, they are explicit, more than my words and descriptions.
Some notes, some details, though, penciled in my notebook.
Of the silence enveloping the countryside, a staggering silence… Nothing…nothing… Only two heaps of coal, that have burned since the 8th, speak…by their fire…of life in these ruins. Thousands of joists and long rods of iron have been projected, twisted, onto the beach. Below, I saw under a lava of ashy mud, tatters of dirty stuff…it was a dress of flowered percale… A woman…
Farther, a packet of papers…of smoky registers…
I search the cane. An attorney’s study was thrown away here… I picked up a letter from 1849… And some photographs stained and scorched. Of innocence, of grace, of beauty. Three portraits of babies who had asked no more than to live… Two portraits of beautiful young women…who had lived. One woman…the mother.
In a neighboring heap, thousands of clay pipes, a depository… Some are intact. I took one. Under the stones, not far from what had been a rich trading-house of the senator Knight; a house where standing remained alone what had been the masonry pavers containing safe and vault… In searching, in spreading ashes under rubble that smelled of death, I found some melted silverware. I have kept a spoon, fused together with a pair of sugar tongs.
There are no more remaining in the center. Everything here is stone. The second eruption made for them a vast tomb. The first I encountered was on the Grande-Savane, near the stone bridge of the Roxelane…and it was no more than a demi-cadaver, a blackened trunk without legs, having only one arm… For a head, a thing formless. The gravediggers covered him with a few shovelfuls of earth and ashes.
On the stone bridge I searched for the plaque of marble where, under the reign of Louis XIV and the generalship of the Count d’Ennery, a Danton, the monk Cleophas Danton, had engraved his name of agent-surveyor. It is no longer there.
Under the trunks of venerable trees, wrenched and broken as though wisps of straw, I saw the iron frame of an infant’s carriage.
Where, the baby being walked?
And it is with desolation, with dread, one goes further in this mournful exploration, the silent ruins, the mortal ruins, peopled with their dead, their victims. One listens for them…and one sees…
Not everywhere is it illusion. At Trois-Ponts, I saw…
They were rotting.
There, at Trois-Ponts, on the hills of Parnasse, the upper limit of the 8th’s gaseous whirlwind is well-marked along the flanks. All below razed. Higher, a fifth, to estimate, is left alone. This gives in the area of 120 meters for the height of the whirlwind.
At the botanical garden, in the valley that leads to the hills of Trou-Vaillant, and the settlement of Saint-James, life returns. In the midst of burned trunks, a few starts of green. The reawakening of nature in death.
Farther, in the fullness of destruction on a cinder-covered slope above a college, equally we saw a reappearance of life. From the grey shroud ventured a few shoots of green, and a white flower. We baptized it, “perce-cendre”. And that made us…something. I affirm to you, in all sincerity, that this is not “in the literature”.*
The singularities of the wreckage. They are always there. And this is useful, if only for the annoyance of those people always wanting, with these complicated phenomena of nature, an explanation very simple, unique… In the college, where this little white flower pushed up, everything was crushed. Still standing was a portico of the gymnasium, three thin wooden beams…
At the hospital, in the midst of the ruins, the disinfection tank had not been crushed.
And at the hill of l’Orange, again the dead…
It is an odor of death that has pursued me throughout the ruins.
The odor of forty thousand dead!
We have passed near the theater. It is not without a certain emotion I contemplate its incinerated ruins. Our friends of Saint-Pierre had proposed to make a great ceremony in honor of Schœlcher.
* This passage is a little cryptic. The reason for “something”, as I interpret, is that the name they gave the white flower, is a play on perce-neige, the French name for the snowdrop (galanthus). Their feeling may have been a sort of wistful humor, but Hess was reluctant to report that they laughed at this moment. Further significances could have come to their minds: the snowdrop is a traditional Candlemas offering, and generally associated with the Virgin. The Républic française called its fifth month, a period in January, Pluviôse, and a day of this month was called “perce-neige“.
In honor of which, a bonus:
Charles Baudelaire (a translation)
Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entière,
De son urne à grands flots verse un froid ténébreux
Aux pâles habitants du voisin cimetière
Et la mortalité sur les faubourgs brumeux.
Mon chat sur le carreau cherchant une litière
Agite sans repos son corps maigre et galeux;
L’âme d’un vieux poète erre dans la gouttière
Avec la triste voix d’un fantôme frileux.
Le bourdon se lamente, et la bûche enfumée
Accompagne en fausset la pendule enrhumée
Cependant qu’en un jeu plein de sales parfums,
Héritage fatal d’une vieille hydropique,
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.
Deluge-sion, pattered against the whole city,
A great flood from its urn pours a cold mystery
On pale dwellers of the neighboring cemetery
And waiting death over suburbs foggy.
My cat on the floor-tile searches his litter
Restless his body mangy and meagre
An old poet’s soul at sea in the gutter
Voices the sorrow of a shivering specter
The church bell lamenting and the log wrapped in smoke
Join with, in falsetto, the ailing pendulum’s stroke
A game but yet fulsome of soiled perfumes
Deadly inheritance of edemic old age
The brave jack of hearts and the queen of old maids
Sinister cause of their lovers’ undoing
(Because of the rainy imagery, I’ve translated the name Pluviôse as a pun.)
To raise a monument to the great emancipator, following I don’t know what baroque idea, they could not find a better place than the foyer of the theater. The philosopher’s image was to preside over the recreation of crowds amused by clowns… They found this very good…
The inauguration was to have taken place in May. They had written me to come. The invitation had, after Paris, gone to Saint-Domingue. Received sooner…and I don’t know if the 8th of May would not have found me at Saint-Pierre. I must…I should have been there. That was why, in papers too hastily published, I figured for an instant among the victims. It was not my hour.
During our return, aboard the Drague, we ate. The two priests made party to the mission had in their basket a Mariani wine. Yes, we ate. The leader of the gravedigger’s team teased the priest who’d needed a tonic, saying to him, “…as for work, that is digging enough!”
I have again seen the ruins. And it seems to me that, far from diminishing, the impression of horror which froze me at first glance must become each time more profound…
And again from my book I transcribe some notes.
In the valleys near the volcano, those that had not received the whirlwind of fire, but where fallen ashes cover the grass, the foliage; where the rivers have dried up in the valleys deserted by men, it is the livestock in an agony of starvation, of thirst. The desolated countryside vibrates with the plaint of masterless oxen; oxen from domestication having lost the instinct that drives wild beasts far from this land of the dead. And it is doleful.
Mount Pelée, on the ridges, on the crests, on the plateaus so far not engulfed by flows of mud and lava, but where the rock has been broken by tremors, burned by volcanic flame, shows a play of form to affright the maddest of imaginations…
But when I search for a comparison that permits an idea of the configuration, the slopes and hills of this gaunt mountain, I have found this: the unexpected aspects that took the dust of my school hourglass, when I was making piles and pastes of it on the slope of my desk. This hard dust of hard sand had ridges, plateaus, and slopes as could not have been given play in any other material.
This was the aspect of the mountain, fissured by the hiccups of the volcano.
The aspect in form.
The aspect in color…I give up.
One more, though…the slopes above the Prêcheur in the valleys and on the crests, where the fire hadn’t passed, but clouds of pebbles and ashes, and of heavy, hot vapors had rained, was a sulphurous landscape. A livid yellow. The foliage hung heavy. The field grasses resembled heavy old rugs.
The cocoanuts and the palms were frayed and heavy. The empty houses, their black windows…the hollows of a mortuary…appeared to weaken, sag, waver under these heavy forces. And all this was a dirty yellow, old sulphur-green and grey. A lunar landscape, said an expert near me, when I looked at this. A landscape of hell, answered the helmsman, a negro who saw more rightly than the expert.
And also everywhere enormous blocks. In its convulsions, the volcano threw these, stone blocks that weigh many tons. And threw them, as well, no less far than the dust—for kilometers.
They have published a number of fantasies, in America principally, on the crater. This is what I saw, photographed, and drew.
A large cleft opened on the mountain at 2-300 meters, following a line northeast to southwest. This cleft, parting from the summit’s circumference, becomes at the top a hole, in the middle of which points a cone, that appears clipped, but which can never be seen to the whole of its extremity, for this is always wrapped in smoke; barely, in the shifts of the wind, it is possible to glimpse the extremity, whose sides burn, and burgeon red as the scabby edge of a healing abscess.
This cone makes a chimney. And from the height, smokes. It smokes also from its flanks, which are riddled as a sieve.
At certain moments it smokes like the heap of wood, covered in earth, where they make charcoal. And the hole where the cone is found smokes as well. But the great jet of smoke, that at times mounts three kilometers in the sky, straight up, to spread like a blanket following the wind; that carries the ash and stones; that comes from the central chimney of the cone—that alone is the true jet of the volcano.
And in reality, there is only one crater. Its tube, its chimney, if I may say, has thinned itself, crumbled, and this has made the hole where it rises from the summit, and the crevasse, by which the lavas and vapors flow… This I have seen very clearly, many times, and as near as one can. Before the eruption of 6th June, the crater was as I say, what I’ve drawn, and no other thing. The shock of the 6th may have transformed it.
Translator’s note: These sketches of Hess’s make me think of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), usually counted part of the American Realist movement. I don’t know if these were done in color, and I don’t know if somewhere they survive.
Those Who Have Seen
How was the destruction at Saint-Pierre accomplished? By what force were they thrown to earth, set afire, these ruins through which, in so sorrowful a promenade, I have led you?
I have seen the volcano hurl clouds of black smoke at night, alight with fire. I have seen the crater kindle itself and glow. I have seen the descent of lava flows, torrents of smoking, vaporing mud. I have seen the volcano spit ashes, and received the rain of them.
But all this cannot suffice to explain the crushing of a city and the death of forty thousand persons, then living there.
To understand this destructive phenomenon, it is necessary to question those who had seen the 8th, and those who could have studied the immediate aftermath…
This I have done. Eyewitnesses. But, let us pause on this word, “eyewitnesses”…this does not mean witnesses found in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe. Of that type, there are none. All who were alive in Saint-Pierre on the 8th of May, at 7:50 in the morning, died before the ticking on to 7:50 and one-half minutes…absolutely all.
The eyewitnesses were those who were found at the limit of the destructive phenomenon, at sea or on land; of whom some had been grievously burned—and most of these died, after a more or less lengthy agony.
Among all those I’ve listened to, here are the most interesting:
Conversation with M. le docteur Guérin
Eruption of the 5th
Dr. Guérin is an old man of seventy-two years. In type, he is the accomplished white creole of the Antilles. Very robust, spry, and let us say the word, very young despite his great age.
He was embarking at Pointe-à-Pitre, aboard the Saint-Domingue, where I had taken passage. He had, after the catastrophe, conducted his family to Guadaloupe, and returned to Martinique to occupy himself with what he had left behind. Not many things…the volcano had from him before, so to speak, taken all…
It was with him the volcano had begun, in destroying his factory, which was located 2 kilometers north of Saint-Pierre, on the ocean side, at the mouth of the Rivière-Blanche.
Guérin told me all he knew, all he’d seen. I will let him speak:
“Mt. Pélee began to make her noise around the 25th of April. The 28th, the manager of my house made the ascent, with a few other persons, of whom a young Parisian, M. Mervardt, I believe, perished afterwards in the catastrophe. He found L’Etang-Sec filled with water. The water was hot in certain places, cold in others. It overflowed on the factory side, into the Rivière-Blanche. The river, which in ordinary times had little water, had tripled in volume. It was drinkable, tepid.
“Thursday, I left. Friday, my son telephoned me to say there was no more water in the Rivière-Blanche, only mud. The mountain smoked. The ashes fell. Saturday, the hands, taken with fear, refused to work. The ashes fell that day as far as Fort-de-France.
“That Monday morning, they telephoned me that the factory was in danger. In the night, there had been an inundation of black mud, that overflowed defenses built for protecting the factory against the Rivière-Blanche. This mudslide stopped itself at four o’clock. At 9:30, the mountain was equally calm. More than five hundred of the curious came to eye this phenomenon, which began to worry me, as well as all those present.
“I wanted immediately to bring away my family and the factory personnel. I could not go until noon. I decided it would need two hours, and ordered my yacht put under steam at the factory port. At ten o’clock, I heard cries. They gave the alarm. The people flung themselves past my chalet, situated above the factory, people who clamored, frightened: “The mountain is coming down!”
“And I heard a noise which I can compare to nothing. An immense noise, what…? The devil on earth. And I went outdoors…I looked at the scene. It was coming down, under white smoke, crashing, an avalanche of black matter, an enormous mass more than ten meters high, at least a hundred-fifty meters wide. This mass goes along the bed of the Rivière-Blanche, rolls against the factory…an army of gigantic rams…
“Stupor nails me in place. I cannot move. All my life is before my eyes. My unfortunate son and his unhappy wife ran towards the shore. I saw them disappear behind the factory… As soon as it arrived, passing ten meters from me…I felt the deadly wind….at once came the mud… It was earth-splitting. All is broken, drowned, buried…my son, his wife, thirty people…the large buildings are carried away on the waves of the avalanche…
“They followed, one upon another in a furious push, these black waves. One upon another in thunder, making the sea recoil. Shards…swirling… A sloop is projected 150 meters and comes to kill at my side one of my foremen.
“I go to the shore. It is desolation without name. There, where an instant before had risen a prosperous factory, the fruit of a lifetime of labor, there is no more than a blanket of mud, black shroud for my son, my daughter-in-law, my people. This mud has chased the sea more than ten meters from the shore. The surf does not come back for two minutes. In this mudflow of the volcano, there are blocks of stone of all sizes. An officer saw one the next day, which must have weighed twenty-five tons.
“I returned to Saint-Pierre, and after to Fort-de-France, where I rejoined my wife and my daughters. I saw new mud flow from the mountain, new white smoke. I went back to Saint-Pierre. On the 6th, at three in the morning, the electric lighting was extinguished. The inhabitants, afraid, came out into the streets. It was shouted that by the river Roxelane, the mud would descend the mountain, and carry away the city as it had my factory. I believe the panic was due to negro thieves hoping to pillage abandoned houses.
“At 5:30 I saw come out of the crater a vertical column of smoke higher than ever, and which thickened at the summit, following the direction of the wind. The summit of the mountain was uncovered. The flanks were full of fumaroles as if there were hundreds of craters.
“The mountain worked on, in its smoke and noise. One felt an enormous effort, and it seemed that the earth was forcing out…”
[I have noted down the speeches of Dr. Guérin, and in all, there are none here but the expressions he used. This remark, moreover, I will make here once for all. In every interview I have transcribed in the course of this work, I’ve attached respect not only to the substance, but as much as possible to the form. And if sometimes the reader “blinks” at these expressions, these images, this rhetoric a little strong, I’ll thank him to attribute them not to me, but rather those from whom I got them! That said, let us return to the excellent Dr. Guérin.]
“Afraid, I would not stay in the city. And before I left, I saw a few friends, who accompanied me to the boat. I said to them in parting:
‘Your city is not habitable. Evil will come to you…’ And, in fact, how could one call habitable, and live, in a city where there’d been, when I left on the 6th, something near five centimeters of ash on the streets…? The elections, without doubt. The elections they would pursue under the menace of the volcano. Three hours after my factory was carried away, when the emotion wrought in all the quarter of the Mouillage by the tidal wave had not yet calmed, they placarded the walls with election posters.
“Ah! Monsieur,” went on the good doctor, “there are things that should be brought to light. Who knows, who will ever know, if the election was not the cause of keeping the population at Saint-Pierre? They tell you, I am not ignorant of it…they affirm to you, that the people of Saint-Pierre believed themselves in no danger; that the estimation, to the contrary, was of far greater safety in their city than in Fort-de-France. But other people saw the danger. I could see it. On the morning of the 6th, I declared to my friends the city was uninhabitable. Why do others who see, others who know, others whose words have the chance of being heeded, why will they not speak of this? Politics, monsieur, elections.”
I asked Dr. Guérin if he had observed the phenomenon of the 8th. No. What had he thought then, of what he could hear at Fort-de-France? He believed in a destruction by crushing, following the electrical discharges that reproduced themselves in the mass of flaming gas.
If he had not seen the phenomenon of the 8th, he had by contrast seen very well, he told me, that of the 20th which caused such a powerful panic in Fort-de-France. And for its description, I take his word:
“On the 20th, at Fort-de-France, at five in the morning, I heard a low growling, saw frequent lightning in the direction of the north. Then, cries in the street. Women, screaming out that the flame of the mountain was falling on Fort-de-France.
“I saw from my window a thick cloud come out of the volcano. Its base reached as far as the peaks of Carbet. The summit’s billowing invaded the entire sky, to more or less six thousand meters. The cloud was fluffy…its top gold. I attributed this coloration, that the public takes for fire, to the first rays of the sun. At the center of this majestic cloud, before its imposing, frightful face, burst numerous flashes that inspired a huge terror in the population. The cloud marched slowly towards the sea, upon Fort-de-France. It appeared inevitable that it would cover the city, making southwest. It dominated the shore, hanging over as it lowered itself, letting fall a rain of thick ashes, and slate-colored pebbles, of which a few larger were the size of pigeon’s eggs. All the population ran mad, any which way, to save themselves.
“I had gone with my family to the landing of Girard’s boats. A crowd followed me. I had an idea of commandeering one of the big steamers of the Compagnie Girard, of which I am a director. But I saw the danger in this. All the crowd, wailing in their terror, who’d followed me, would throw themselves on board at the same time, and would founder the boat. I thought of the Fort Saint-Louis. I ran there with my family, and we waited in a pillbox for the end of the terrific phenomenon. Then at the first opportunity I conducted my family to Guadeloupe, from where I return today.”
The Agony of Saint-Pierre
by telephone and telegraph
You recall the play performed this winter at the Antoine, where one saw the husband assist by telephone in the murder of his wife? There were a few things resembling this, in this catastrophe of the 8th. The last words, and the gasp of the telephone operator surprised at his post by the volcano’s fire, were heard at Fort-de-France, by one of his colleagues. The director of telephone services is M. Garnier-Laroche. I have taken from him an account of his memories.
He told me:
“At five to eight, I spoke with an employee at Saint-Pierre, on his apparatus. This employee told me the situation had become very annoying. Dense clouds covered the city and made night of day. One could no longer see. They had been obliged to light lamps in the office. Everyone dreaded an imminent catastrophe. They could not hold on…
“Then, I passed the receiver to a worker, wanting to go warn the governor of this grave news. I was barely on the stairs when my employee called me back, telling me there was no more response from Saint-Pierre. He had heard his counterpart stammer incoherently all at once, sputtering as a man who strangles… There was a crackling of the apparatus… He had the sensation of a shock in his ear, then nothing…
“At that moment all the lights of the device flickered powerfully. The same phenomenon had been produced days earlier, and was produced again on the 20th.
“At 8:15, wanting to try retransmitting a communication to Saint-Pierre, I took another line, going to the office of Carbet…the closest neighbor of Saint-Pierre. The city was then in flames.”
On the telegraph, that is to say, the French cable, the employees at Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France also were occupied “talking”, when overcome by the catastrophe. Each morning, between stations, the employees before serving the public had to communicate the news of their respective residences.
He at Saint-Pierre spoke of the volcano. He laughed. He noted many of the terrors around him…but enough! He cannot see any reason to tremble, to wail, but to laugh. It is in a joke, a burst of laughter dotted and dashed to his apparatus that he is surprised by death. The agent at Fort-de-France had sent this “band” in the direction of Paris.
Translator’s note: I think the play Hess mentions, is Au Téléphone (see clipping), by MM. Lorde and Foley. The rest of the article is about another work being censored.
The telegraph operator’s exchange mentions a signal used to express laughter, a proto-emoji. This article, “LOL in the age of the telegraph”, tells more.
The Day of the 8th at Fort-de-France
The account of the newspaper L’Opinion.
As a journalist, it is only natural I have asked a journalist for the story of the “terrible day”. The amiable director of L’Opinion has given me the article in which he recorded his memories.
Here it is:
Thursday, the 8th of May, 1902, Fort-de-France awakened, as to an ordinary day. A vague inquietude had hovered over the city since the burial of the Guérin factory under lava; but we said that after all, the distance from the volcano, situated 28 kilometers off as the crow flies, made a sufficient guaranty. And then it must be admitted, we wholly accepted the verdict, as to the progress of the cosmic phenomenon, from the commission charged with its study. Moreover, the day before, Governor Mouttet, alerted by the mayor of Saint-Pierre that the Roxelane rolled with black water, had been sent to the place. Mme Mouttet, wishing to accompany her husband, was also at Saint-Pierre, as well as Mme Gerbault, wife of the late colonel of artillery, president of the scientific mission. On the other hand, the cable dispatches put on display reassured again, in a way perhaps too absolute, the slightly terrified populations of the colony’s two great cities.
It is however a restriction worth establishing, that M. Landes—who, it seems, at the last moment had addressed to the governor a very alarming dispatch—told his students a few days before the dismissal of the high school that an analysis of the heavy material vomited by the volcano presaged an exceptionally violent eruption.
But, they were far from suspecting the cataclysm in its brutal reality!
They believed that an earthquake was the only fear, and as Fort-de-France rested on uneven terrain, the people of Saint-Pierre reasoned strongly that which may have been false, refusing to leave their city built on solid ground, believing they enjoyed, in this regard, complete safety.
They were to celebrate, on that day, the solemnities of the Ascension. While the whole of Martinique was in holiday mood, Mount Pelée, so long at work, launched death in the form of an electrically charged cloud of sulphurous gas, on the thousands of beings full of life and activity, who could not escape the terrible scourge, and annihilated abruptly, in a single blow, the city of industry, the intellectual and commercial center of the colony.
At Fort-de-France, around six in the morning, an atmosphere clear of haze, a lightened, pale sky, promised a day relatively lovely. Everyone was afoot at a good hour and going about in preparation for the Ascension. Suddenly, around eight o’clock, the sky grew black as ink; then a hail of small stones fell on the houses, producing on metal and tile a pattering that seemed at first inexplicable. At the same time, a cloud of airy ash enveloped the city and its environs, covering all in a grey veil. A fine rain came soon, transforming this into sheets of mud, soiling and spotting everything, while the formidable rumblings of the volcano increased the soul’s unease and fright.
At the first cracklings of pebbles on the roofs, the whole city population, seized with horror and dread, and not knowing which way to go, fled the houses searching for shelter, not caring where. It was an unforgettable exodus to the countryside. Each brought away whatever was most precious. The women carried their children, the men supported their wives; taken by an unexplainable notion, they directed themselves inland. There, on the heights, they need not fear, at least, the abrupt influx of the sea into their houses—an end by drowning without hope of flight. They might still find themselves buried by an earthquake, of all events that we feared most.
It was a fantastic procession, lasting all morning, under ashes blinding and dirtying; a terrified population appearing like a troop of sheep surprised in the valley by the first thunder of a dreadful tempest.
Towards midday, news of the disappearance of Saint-Pierre began to circulate. The city had been destroyed, they said, by fire…and the conjectures followed. How to get precise information? No more communication by telephone. The line of Saint-Pierre, after a cry of the ultimate suffering from the attendant, had gone dead. The ferry of the company Girard, which services Saint-Pierre, could not approach. From the side of our boat, we had a good view of the shoreline houses, or rather, what remained of them, preyed upon by flames; as to the others, it had been impossible to pick them out, enveloped as they were in an impenetrable fog of ashes and smoke. We returned to Fort-de-France.
There was then an hour of unspeakable anguish. All who remained, or who had returned to the city, had gone to the harborfront, to question one another with the hope of obtaining information as to our sister-city, death in their souls. Each counted there a parent, a friend, or acquaintance. For long hours, while the troops posted to the edges of the quays and along the shops of the seaside where they’d come to affix the seals, mounted guard to prevent who knows what danger, this mournful crowd, whose anguish shrunk from mystery and the unknown, demanded to know what could be so terrible, that what was happening must be hidden from them.
Meanwhile, at the Secretariat General had been frequent conferences between the Secretary, the Attorney General, a few notables, and the mayor of the capital, whose incredible activity and profound pain, visible on his features, suggested we hardly knew what impressions of unhappiness and despair.
But the population remained without news of Saint-Pierre. They bided in expectation of some unknown event imagination made still more appalling. When the Suchet arrived around ten in the evening with thirty victims, the crowd in despite of the soldiers, massed itself on the Esplanade, in the alleys, and the neighboring streets, hoping to meet in the lugubrious parade of artillery wagons bearing the dead and wounded, some dear one to assist and help, at the supreme moment.
Long after the last wagon had carried to the hospital its funereal burden, this crowd remained opposite the quays, their souls divided between varied sentiments, their hearts overflowing with an indefinable sadness. They asked one another if they were not played upon by some malign nightmare. It was in this mood each at last went to his bed, to rest limbs fatigued by a day’s poignant emotions and vain waiting.
Under the Rain of Fire
Chavigny de la Chevrotière
I spoke with one of the men treated and cured of his burns. The young Chavigny de la Chevrotière is a boy of twenty years. He has a bronzed complexion; his scars are all fresh, making great pink patches on the backs of his hands, on his arms, on his neck, his head, his brow. As this boy is dressed in only a shirt, I see also traces of burns on his shoulders and his chest.
With eleven of his comrades, he was leaving in a canoe on the morning of the eighth from the Prêcheur, meaning to carry a dispatch to Saint-Pierre, because the telephone wires had fallen the day before, and the town’s inhabitants, frightened by the mud flows and fumes that threatened them, begged help from the chief city.
He began making his way at 7:30 a.m. The sea was fine, but the river carried mud into the town. There was a rain of ash, and the volcano’s smoke was black. The boating party found itself about a mile offshore, passing the semaphore station to the south of the Prêcheur, when suddenly, “everything was wrecked”.
Chavigny saw a flash go from the mountain that “set the sky ablaze and scattered…” The direction looked to him southerly. It made at the same time, a “formidable noise”, as of thousands of drums, thousands of cannons.
Then, there was a “flurry of hot earth”, that fell over the boat, burning everyone. “We had immediately thrown ourselves into the water and dived under,” added Chavigny. “When I came up to the surface to breathe, the hot earth fell and fell. It burned me on the head and hands. I dived again. Five times, so that I would not be cooked, I had to put my head down below. Finally, the sixth time when I came up, the flurry was finished. The seawater was all white, and a little warm at the surface.
“The sky was dark still, full of dark, rolling clouds. There were no more flashes of lightning. There was no more noise. You could not see the hills of Saint-Pierre. You could not see anything but a line of fire along the harborfront, in the place of the city. The rain of mud put out the line of fire…”
“A rain of mud?”
“Yes, I got it too. It fell also on the sea…and it lashed hard. There were drops as big as cubes of sugar.”
“You remained a long time in the water?”
“Yes, but I had no watch to tell the hour. And then, I was very scared. I landed at Abymes. I was taken up by the Pouyer-Quertier. They conducted me to the hospital, where I saw die many of the poor devils less lucky than myself. I was healed in thirteen days.”
“Now…I don’t know. They tell me there is nothing left along the Prêcheur. I am here. I wait. Why? I am ignorant. I am a victim. They feed me.”
“I don’t know any more!”
And the poor boy left, shrugging his shoulders in a gesture that signified…whatever you like.
The Ships’ Crews in the Harbor
The Roddam; the Gabrielle; the Roraima
The nightmare of the sailors
The harbor of Saint-Pierre, as always in this era of great cargoes of sugar and rum, was filled with ships. All perished, save one, the Roddam, which had been able, being under steam, to slip her anchor and flee. She arrived at Saint-Lucie with half her crew dead…
The boat of the terror.
Read what the Journal of Saint-Lucie wrote of this arrival:
This afternoon of the 8th, May, a steamer entered the harbor, that seemed to have been powerfully tried. It was the Roddam, which had left here yesterday, at midnight, for Martinique.
The captain asked at once for a doctor. On the bridge were ten dead men and others dying. The captain was covered in ash and black grime, his hands horribly burned. Six inches of ash covered the ship. The captain told how he had come to drop anchor at Saint-Pierre, and was speaking with his agent, M. Joseph Plissonneau, who was alongside, when an awful cloud of smoke, brilliantly lit with pieces of flaming charcoal, hurled itself from the mountain, towards the city and the port.
He barely had time to draw the agent’s attention to the phenomenon, when the terrible cloud was upon them, raining fire over the ship. He ordered the release of the anchors, luckily being still under steam, and was able to slowly move farther from land. His men fell one after another asphyxiated or burned all around him. After drifting many hours he was able, by a superhuman effort, to return to Castries…
M. Plissonneau had managed by hanging onto her, to board the Roddam.
All the other boats in the harbor of Saint-Pierre at the moment of the catastrophe had been burnt or destroyed, some at once; others, as the Roraima, the largest, sinking only in days to follow. But nearly all the sailors who found themselves on board perished.
A few, however, had been saved. The second captain of the schooner Gabrielle, belonging to Knight, M. Georges Marie-Sainte, and the deputy commissioner of the Roraima, notably, were living still, at the hospital, when I arrived in Fort-de-France.
For an answer to my questions, they gave me two numbers of L’Opinion, where I read the story of M. Sainte:
The day before yesterday, the eighth of May, at six in the morning, the sun illuminated a city of Saint-Pierre relatively tranquil. To the north, Mt. Pelée fumed, the wind driving the smoke towards the west, blotting out the sky in that direction. Between six-thirty and seven, the columns of smoke turned white, flaked with ash, coming out abruptly in turmoil, as a new crater 200 meters below the crest of the mountain, crumbled already, split, fissured, high and low. This, for the whole city, made a general panic. The population spread along the shoreline, and wore themselves out in various conjectures. For some, the phenomenon of full day on the city and shadow on the sea was explained by an eclipse of the sun announced by the Bristol almanac; for others the obscurity of the eastern view was due to the smoke, black and sooty, spat from the volcano.
It was seven when the Diamant, of the Compagnie Girard, departed. Clearing the wharf, the little steamer at once fixed herself to a buoy. The boats in the harbor rode as usual at the mercy of the waves. Towards 7:10 those on the schooner Gabrielle spotted a yawl carrying the governor and members of the scientific commission. This passed fifty meters from the schooner. She seemed to direct herself towards the Prêcheur, and kept to a distance of at least 400 meters from the shore.
At seven fifty-five, a formidable growling made itself heard within the mountain, as if a monstrous rent bore from top to bottom. And then we saw, in the midst of a black smoke impenetrable to the eye, a gigantic mass, formless, boundless, that came falling over the valley at dizzying speed, burying in ruins, engulfing in torment the whole of Saint-Pierre, from Sainte-Philomène to Petite-Anse du Carbet.
On the sea, two-thirds of the ships in harbor, after a sinister creaking of all their frames, had their masts and their upper decks broken, raked, carried away, and were sunken at once, some by the prow, others by the stern.
Alone, three boats, of which two were steamers, the Roraima and the North America, could resist the shock. But of their charred crew, there remained but a few who had been saved by some miracle. M. Georges Marie-Sainte, who found himself then aboard the Gabrielle owed his life only to a sudden forced immersion. The water was so hot that his body, and the schooner’s four other survivors’, were terribly scalded. After wresting free of the rigging that hindered his movements, he came back to the surface. It was then he could contemplate, in all its grandiose horror, the frightful blaze that stretched before his sight, from Sainte-Philomène to three hundred meters from Carbet, devouring ruins of a city already in rubble, and coloring the place with fantastical gleams, as the fires of Bengal.
While he searched for some wreckage by which to try saving himself, a furious rain of incandescent lava, a nameless mixture of mud and lava-like stone, fell on the burning city and its environs, whistling and crackling on the sea like hasty bullets from a heedless fusillade.
Translator’s note: I’m not certain what the Roddam was doing with her anchor. Wikipedia gives a fairly extensive overview of anchors and anchoring techniques, from which I gather she would normally position herself more closely and perpendicular to the anchor, tightening the “rode” (rope or cable attachment), increasing tension until the anchor popped loose. The language: filer and lâcher, suggests she may simply have abandoned her anchor.
Fires of Bengal refers to a particular type of pyrotechnic flare, that burns with a blue light.
Towards nine in the morning, during a lightening of cover, M. Marie-Sainte could clearly distinguish Mt. Pelée reduced by at least three hundred meters, the crest sheared off, the flanks widely cracked. Surrounded by the survivors of his former crew, he was preparing, on some wreckage newly encountered, to gain a greater distance from the shore…when the wind, blowing until then from the northwest, changed abruptly and blew southwest. This wreckage was inexorably pushed towards the flaming harborfront. He took a decision to abandon it, but his companions, having not the stamina nor the courage to challenge the high seas, themselves clung on. Alone, confident of his will and the strength of his arms, the second captain of the Gabrielle stayed above water for more than two hours.
The wind again had changed in the interval. His companions tried to rejoin him. Soon, they could see the smoke of a steamer coming up. All their signals to make themselves known to this ship were in vain…no doubt, they could not be seen.
And during all these driftings, on land the growling of the volcano continued without interruption; the rivers overflowed, carrying debris of every sort, trees, animals, and human beings, asphyxiated or charred, masses without form, marred past recognition.
Towards two in the afternoon, the unlucky victims could see, a mile distant, an empty canoe. The courageous captain of the Gabrielle flung himself, swimming, with the intention of guiding it near his companions of misfortune and having them board. After a tenacious effort, after a struggle of half an hour against the waves, the wind and wreckage that covered the sea, the small boat freed of hot water and the lava massing there, he at last had the happiness of seeing all his companions now possessed of a means of salvation.
It was around three p.m., when they discovered, coming in their direction, another steamer they were not long in recognizing: she was the Suchet. A whaler, standing on which were a few men and an officer, passed near to them. Finally, they came to the vessel, where they were received. She approached Carbet. A squad of sailors landed to rescue victims. Alas! These were hardly more than effigies, men, women, children, burned, maimed, dying—of whom a great number expired while being carried aboard, or during the crossing.
As the Suchet departed, the mountain, quite visibly sunken, vomited again enormous blocks of lava, aflame; the great city of Saint-Pierre, on the eve of the present day so animated, so bustling…no longer there, only a mass of burning rubble. And underneath, everywhere within a vast scope, one of charred corpses, asphyxiated by the immense furnace.
The return to Fort-de-France was mournful. The pleas of the wounded, the cries of despair of the burned, their sad contortions, death rattles…all this formed a lamentable tableau, worthy to excite human pity, of which there was no lack.
The Roraima was commanded by Captain Muggha, and had sixty-eight people above-decks: captain, crew, and passengers, taken in all. The passengers were just at the point of disembarking onto a tender alongside. The agent of the Quebec Line, M. Joseph Plissonneau, came aboard at seven forty-five. He told Captain Muggha that, since it was the day of the Ascension, there would be no work. As he had on board sixty passengers who were desirous of being taken to Saint-Lucie, he counselled him to return, there to unload his cargo for that island, and then to come back next day, to unload that of Martinique. Captain Muggha refused, deciding to stay in the port of Saint-Pierre until the next day for his disembarkation.
The agent left the Roraima to go on board the Roddam, belonging to a line for whom he was also agent, and who sat at some distance, in quarantine.
The agent had barely touched the Roddam, when the summit of the mountain, crowned in fumes, became more and more agitated, thicker volleys of smoke fountaining from the breast of the crater; smoke rising in spirals sometimes grey, sometimes blue, sometimes black.
Here is the account given of the catastrophe by M. H. Thompson, the deputy commissioner. He said that he was:
“…at panel number 2, leaning on the railing, looking with astonishment at the magnificent and terrible appearance of the mountain, and many of the passengers, as well as the crew, were on deck, contemplating the grandeur of the phenomenon. The third engineer, camera in his hands, was taking a photograph of the smoking mountain. This was a few minutes before eight.
“All at once, a horrifying roar made itself heard, followed by a powerful explosion. The noise could not be compared to anything but a thousand cannons of the largest caliber, discharged together. And the sky was nothing but a great flame.
“A momentary pause in the growling, and Captain Muggha rushed on deck, crying to the crew to raise the anchor. But it was too late. A whirlwind of steam fell on all the ships, and an avalanche of fire swept the city and the shore with the violence of a hurricane.
Mr. Thompson said that he flew into his chamber, while the steamer was heaving, and the masts and stacks were falling into the water.
“The eyes, ears, mouth, clothing, of those on deck were full of ashes and hot fragments, and the darkness was so intense, the roaring so powerful, they could not see or hear what was steps ahead of them. Everyone was literally suffocating. For a short time, the scene was appalling…
“Luckily, the firestorm lasted only minutes. The air became a little purer, the breathing freer. Injured and uninjured now had to combat the progress of fires at several points on the ship. The cries of the wounded begging for water were heartrending, their suffering terrible.
“And from the flames, the Roraima could not be saved. She had lost the greater part of her passengers and crew. Some few were rescued by the Suchet, which arrived in the afternoon around three o’clock.”
Not all the captains in the harbor were surprised or killed by the disaster. One had a miraculous flash of insight; he was the captain of an Italian vessel, the Orsolina. He had witnessed the start of the eruption. He had seen the Guérin factory engulfed. He had felt the sea, with the swellings of the tide, dance under his ship. Above all, he had seen the ash. His compass ran berserk, always in coincidence with new eruptions. The captain was Neapolitan, familiar with Vesuvius, and he mistrusted this volcano.
On the 7th, he said, “If Vesuvius smoked this way, we would evacuate Naples.” He demanded his papers from the customs officer, so as to raise anchor.
“Impossible!’ came the response. “You haven’t finished unloading your cargo. Your papers aren’t ready.”
“Oh, well. Then I’ll leave without papers.”
They threatened him with strong penalties.
“Who is going to apply them to me?” answered the captain. “You? But tomorrow, you all will be dead!”
He left in the night, between the 7th and the 8th, carrying off, it has been affirmed to me, the customs officer who was on board.
These days, if I remember rightly, he will probably arrive at Nantes. I would like to be there, to hear what he says when they tell him about Saint-Pierre.
And since I am still at this page of my notebook, on captains of ships, themes that could serve writers in the vein of Poe…
My notes return me to the kiosk, under which I took them, where all of Fort-de-France comes to take aperitifs, digestives, and refreshments!
I was introduced to a captain who told a fine tale of horror.
He had helmed a sailing boat to Saint-Pierre, leaving France thirty days past, touching no landing place. He arrived on the 24th, at night. This was a night the volcano did not flash, and the smoke hid itself among the clouds.
There are stories of people who, faced with the unlooked-for, the inconceivable, the impossible, conclude they must be crazy…and sometimes become so.
I don’t know what prodigy could have expected it. To see, as they drew near, a cemetery of ruins, a naked landscape. This captain and his ship’s people, with every reason to believe themselves landing before a city of green expanses, where that town well known to them must be found…
I have passed before Saint-Pierre at night. I know, if I had not struggled against the terror…the terror of a wild animal…
I would have been undone before the inconceivable. And they, this captain and his sailors, knew nothing.
“The hair stands up on my head, when I think about it,” he told me. I wouldn’t dare write he did not tell the truth.
The ship arrived at night. They knew the land. The captain went below, to sleep until the hour for coming into port. He had given orders to keep a little sail, to allow a gentle run. His cabin boy came to wake him, saying on behalf of the quartermaster that they must have been fooled.
They were probably not at Martinique, and certainly not before Saint-Pierre.
“Tell the master he is drunk.”
But the cabin boy returned. The master insisted. The captain mounted to the bridge. In the mists, he recognized the point of the Prêcheur, and that of Carbet. The rest he did not. He saw none of the lights he should have seen at Saint-Pierre. He cursed the people who had let the lighthouse go dark. Then the mists faded, and the land appeared more clearly. The captain no longer asked himself if he was dreaming, but if he had gone mad. The island was known to him; of this, he had no doubt. But in the place that had been Saint-Pierre…there was no Saint-Pierre. A tableau of terrible devastation resolved itself out of the shadow. He saw the ravaged hills, the ruins, the mud.
The mountain began to smoke and roar, and he understood. And he set out for the cape of Fort-de-France, where he arrived, “sick with emotion”.
Another captain, arriving before Saint-Pierre in the same conditions, and seeing the volcano, learning it had destroyed the city, wanted even to avoid Fort-de-France. This was the captain of the Mariette, of Bayonne.
M. Cappa, who found himself aboard the dredger, met him off the coast.
“What is that mountain that smokes?”
“Mt. Pelée. Do you know nothing? Where do you come from? Where are you going?”
“From Bayonne. To Saint-Pierre. With a load of cod.”
“Saint-Pierre does not exist. The volcano has destroyed it. But they have need of food in Fort-de-France. Go there.”
“Thank you. I also have a cargo for Guadeloupe. I will go there.”
And the Mariette turned from him, without wanting to hear any more.
On the Outskirts of the Rain of Fire
The extent of the gaseous storm’s destruction has been noted at many points. MM. Lasserre and Simonet were on the road from Morne-Rouge, making for the rise of Petit-Réduit. They were going by carriage, when, reaching the hill, they saw the cloud approach. They took their horse off at a gallop, shouting and laying on the whip. But barely had they gained sixty meters, when the phenomenon was upon them. They were burned, but still had the power to save themselves.
“It was,” they told me, “as if we’d had a jet of steam and ash blown in our faces.”
That is their only memory. They had not dreamed of observing this thing… They did not look it over; they fled. Which we understand.
M. Guillaume, of Prêcheur, saw the phenomenon of the 8th distinctly. His house is thirty meters from the limit of the devastation zone. His oxen barn was burned, with the animals and their keeper. His impression is of a great terror.
He heard what seemed a fusillade. He breathed an odor of saltpeter. His watch marked the time as five minutes after eight. The wind blew from the North, bringing clouds of hot ash, small rubble, and burning debris. This lasted a second. The sky turned red. Then two minutes of raining ash, and a half-hour of raining mud.
An Interview with M. Fernand Clerc
M. Fernand Clerc is the chief of what one calls, in Martinique, the party of whites. He is owner of a large factory, of large properties, and within his sphere commands a great influence. It was he who four years ago nominated Denis Guibert for Deputy, who was not known to anyone on the island, had never gone there, and will never come there. This year, M. Fernand Clerc thought a Martiniquais would better defend to Parliament the interests of Martinique, or, if you prefer, the interests of the factory owners of Martinique. And he presented himself.
He was a candidate hostile to the administration and to the mulatto party, and violently resisted. But just as I have said, he possesses influence. He is moreover a man of rare energy, great charm, and extraordinary activity. He was making his campaign ‘effective’…and in the initial round had come in first. The volcano at this point prevented him from facing the electorate.
Though not immediate to a report devoted to Mt. Pelée’s eruption, as we are with the leader of one of Martinique’s parties, I believe it advantageous, and necessary, to discuss the political situation. I say necessary, because when we know the situation, we can know the mental state of the Martiniquais, before, during, and after the catastrophe. Of these human events, many seem inexplicable, if we lack the key to the colonial psychology, particularly as to Martinique and Guadeloupe.
We have three classes of men: whites, mulattos, and negroes. Negroes make up the majority. They are the hands…the hands that work the soil, the hands whose labor nourishes the whites and mulattos. But the general economic condition makes this labor poorly remunerated. The colonial goods today are produced everywhere. They have fallen in price. Hence, the crisis of Martinique. The whites would like to profit alone, from the meagre benefits the island’s exploitation returns. The mulattos as well. And they fight on the backs of the negroes. The poor man is always the one who pays.
On one side are the masses, still ignorant…some a little brutal, naïve, credulous, fetishistic, passionate, manipulable, capable of being swept away, capable of a low servility, of crushing submission. And also, of a generous pride, of fearful revolts…a mass, let us not forget, who were freed from slavery barely 50 years ago. To be exact, from 1848. Those negroes older than 54, voters today, have been slaves. Of the three generations active today, one was born into slavery, another grew up amid stories of slavery, and the third has received, with their blood, all the grudges, passions, hates—all the special mindset of the first two.
It is this mass of land-laborers, this voting mass, who are at stake in the electoral battles, where political supremacy, disputed by whites and mulattos, is in reality only a safeguard of economic interests.
Behind the façade, plastered with their grandiloquent political programs, there is this. The negro can no longer feed the whites and the mulattos. The white does not want to die, and the mulatto would like to live. That is the fact, the truth, and I say it. Everything else you will be told is a joke.
Add, that in this struggle for life, since the instinct for preservation directs the actions of all living beings, the normal political fury joins itself to, and makes the racial hatred, the prejudices of color that are always teeming, more violent, and more ferocious.
This gives an idea of the island. You will understand why they fight, even upon the coffins. And why the day after the catastrophe, the first distributions of aid were made as the distributions of electoral money—and why, while the communities of the north, in an anguish of fear, cut off from flight on the edge of the earth, were clamoring for help, the preoccupation had been to promote the election in the south.
And you will understand the internecine war, wherever survivors are found. The confoundment of the whites, with the cream of the conquering mulattos, who were vanquished, decimated, ruined…
Then, the placidity of the negroes, many of whom are not far from thinking the profession of “victim” as good as any other.
M. Fernand Clerc, man of the volcano
M. Fernand Clerc is not only the white party’s political man most in view, the leader of the opposition, etc., etc… This catastrophe has made him the Man of the Volcano. He it is who “pipes the tune” for the reporters and the American geologists. It is to him they address themselves, all those wanting to approach the monster.
Great gods! I begin to sound like a Yankee reporter… I’d sworn to write this volume without ever “hawking a monster” to my readers; but, finally, it will have to do… We allow “monster”. And since monster it is, let us say that M. Fernand Clerc has become the monster’s acknowledged guide. He divines, he sees, he knows when the monster sleeps, and he tells the Americans: “This is the moment. Go forth.”
Once, however, they did not go. The monster was smoking…it spat, it burned…it was lovely. The geologists admired it, along with M. Fernand Clerc, in one of the houses, on one of the properties, of M. Fernand Clerc, from where they could readily see the monster.
“Oh, splendid!” murmured one with phlegm…who was not the monster, but the American.
The smoke, the pebbles, the ash, the fire, snatched by a gust of wind, changed their direction, to menace the home observatory.
It smoked more, it spat greatly, it burned grossly—not the American, the monster.
Then said the geologist, with less phlegm, “Oh! This is terrible!” The fire-breathing beast looked set to bury them in ashes and pebbles.
The Yankee said, “Let’s run!”
He had no more phlegm at all.
The stories of M. Fernand Clerc are the source of material for the most sensational articles published by the American newspapers.
M. Fernand Clerc owed me as well, for France, an interview. The notes taken under the dictation of M. Fernand Clerc do not constitute the least interesting chapter of my reportage…
And now, it is M. Fernand Clerc who speaks:
“At the summit of Mt. Pelée was once a plateau of around three hectares. There was beautiful vegetation, a little lake of beautiful clear water, but without fish; lower down on the Morne-Lacroix, one of its foothills, was a deep bowl of 120 meters, a dry pond, whose west wall had a great vertical notch…
“The summit of Mt. Pelée had been a walking destination for pleasure parties. We Martiniquais went there to picnic. The climb was not hard… You had only a few hundred meters to go by foot. The ladies weren’t afraid.*
“At the height was a magnificent view. You could see Saint-Pierre below. With a good glass, you could even recognize individuals.
“The dry pond was an old crater, that hadn’t smoked since 1851. However, I recall perfectly that in May of last year, there were some fumaroles. The 26th of April the volcano began to throw some ash. It spewed and smoked up to the 5th of May, the day the Guérin factory was destroyed. The dust and the water of centuries had accumulated in the volcanic chimney, of which the dry pond is the mouth. The mud made a plug.
“When, for a cause that can perhaps be explained, the power of the actual eruption was produced, the plug was projected from the chimney, which I leave it to you to calculate the length…
‘But, it had to be very long, if one is to judge by the enormous volume of ejected mud.
Author’s note: *A young man, with whom I spoke of these pleasure parties to the mountain, and the ease of climbing, told me: “There were a few places where you would have to do some gymnastics. Also, to climb the mountain, the ladies put on trousers…”
“As there was a weak place, going laterally, effected by that notch of the dry pond I’d mentioned, it gave under powerful pressure, and the heavy mud flowed along the mountain. It devastated the valley of the Rivière-Blanche, and carried away the Guérin factory, under the conditions you know. But suddenly the chimney had been swept away, released. I no longer saw mud. I saw only a constant eruption of ashes and pumice.
“The eruptions grew continually more intense. You would have to be blind not to see the danger threatened. For myself, I settled my family on the heights, to take shelter there.”
Declarations of M. Clerc
On the responsibilities of the government
The interview, you will see, was becoming interesting.
I pursued this: “So, you were dreading what in fact occurred?”
“I beg you, don’t make me say what I haven’t said, what I could not say. What has occurred is so unbelievable, so mad, so much outside all human foresight, so new, that no one would have been able to imagine it; consequently, to dread it. There had been fear of another thing, not a catastrophe like that of the Guérin factory, since the mountain had emptied all its mud, but an earthquake. Ours is a country of earthquakes. This is never forgotten, and given the activity of the volcano so near Saint-Pierre, we had not only the right, but the duty to predict misfortune…”
“So, if you had been governor, if you had been mayor of Saint-Pierre, you would have evacuated the city?”
“Completely. I would have done for the other families what I’d done for mine. I have settled mine outside the danger zone at Parnasse, at the plantation of Litte. It would be insane to stay any lower. M. Mouttet is dead. M. Fouché is dead. Many others are dead, may God keep their souls!”
And a mist is seen in the eyes of my interviewee, a mist that quickly dries, however. For he takes up again with a violence barely contained:
“Those who pretend that we were absolutely ignorant of the danger until the last moment, lie. There was a great earthquake forecast, a great tremor, and they feared the burning ash as well, that it would cause fires…”
“But, the scientific commission, their report?”
“Officially, by order…this report… It was signed by Landes, was it not? Well! Do you know what was the thought of Landes at the moment he signed it, with the other members of the commission, this report that by a terrible irony of fate was posted in Fort-de-France the same instant Saint-Pierre, crushed by the explosion, disappeared completely in flames? Here is what he thought, the unlucky professor!
“I had seen him on the evening of the 7th, and I remember exactly, that he said to me: ‘I sent a dispatch to the government saying the Morne-Lacroix would collapse under the violence of the eruption and this would constitute a grave danger to Saint-Pierre. They answered me: Thank you for your communication, but be careful of warning the public.’ I will never forget the expression of sadness, of worry and trouble, poor Landes had on his face the last evening of his life.”
“That is very interesting, what you say there. I’ve heard talk already of something like it, but I’d believed it was folklore, being aired so much following the catastrophe, and as an edgy population is always disposed to welcome…to amplify, even to fabricate…”
“No, no, a thousand times no. This is not folklore. It is the perfect, the pure truth. I am absolutely sure of my memory. Landes said those things to me. I have even seen the dispatch he received. The administration was at fault. Dissect it any way you like, search all the explanations you please… I won’t go there. They demanded reassuring signs, and they gave these to the public. I am persuaded that if they hadn’t wanted at all costs to reassure…and to reassure the same people who, if allowed to obey their impressions, their fears, or you may even say their madness…
That thousands would not now be dead. They say no human science could have predicted the cataclysm. Agreed, let’s admit this, but admit also that no human science was capable of denying the danger, of affirming there was no danger, that we were absolutely safe at Saint-Pierre—as they had done.
“One must allow the people liberty to do what they please, to go if it is their wish. Yet literally, they were forced to remain, by affirmations known to be insanity, by a veritable pressure…less strong than the electoral pressure, true, but all the same, effective. Behold, the error for which M. Mouttet has paid with his life, and his wife’s.
“Who imposed this line of conduct on this unfortunate governor? Who is responsible for this attitude the evidence condemns? Who? Look, and you will see those responsible are not among the dead. You will see, perhaps, that you must look to Paris.”
“Just so. Mouttet was only an instrument. Mouttet obeyed. You could well say that he died a hero, a victim of professional duty, if, in professional duty for a governor of Martinique, you hear absolute obedience to the minister of the colonies. And if the same professional duty consists of bowing down before M. Knight the mulatto, perinde ac cadaver… And here is how we make cadavers, many. Too many.”
(When I said to you, that in Martinique, they will fight on the coffins!)
M. Clerc, with his temperament, appreciates these events preceding a catastrophe. He lays here all the passions of a party chief who swears himself victim of administrative tyranny, the oppression of an unjust judiciary… Which is his right. All the whites in Martinique (save those of the government) say it is his duty, and that he talks sense. I publish his declarations as a reporter. I reproduce them with the greatest fidelity possible, meaning fidelity to my belief. Further, I will reproduce faithfully other declarations, other letters, other facts from proofs…
But, precisely because I do the work of a reporter, searching for and telling the truth, I must, along with the declarations of M. Clerc, publish those of others.
And you will conceive readily that they are not of the same view, that others are conscious of the appalling responsibilities that crush them—
Reflect on this a moment!
A city is threatened. Its inhabitants are able to flee. They would flee, on being told that prudent eyes estimate the situation dangerous. But no one communicates to them the views of prudent eyes… Because the voters are wanted to remain. They are wanted to vote, in three days. The election of the government is believed assured. And the government have need of all their seats; they count their majority in single digits. The chief of the colony, transformed into an electoral agent, has pressing orders, imperatives…this must be done, this must be done. To do otherwise is a disgrace. They multiply the encouragements to remain. They publish reassuring opinions. They exhort. They give example.
And forty thousand are dead!
Ah! M. Decrais, if I were in your place, at night I would fear the ghosts of these forty thousand…
The Version of the Government
I ought to write the versions, because there were two successive versions among the government people. The first, when told about the pessimistic views sent from Saint-Pierre, in M. Landes’s dispatch, etc., was denial.
All so simple…
Landes could not have sent anything at all. Landes had not the status to communicate with the governor directly. He could not have sent anything, and the governor could have responded nothing to Landes. The only assessment one might have attributed to Landes must be optimistic, for if Landes were a serious man, the point could not be admitted of him, that he second-guessed the committee’s conclusions, which were reassuring.
The only true fact, and proof, was that.
They added, not without an appearance of reason, that if the governor had received serious word of danger, he would not have escorted Mme Mouttet to Saint-Pierre. Certainly, he would have gone himself, since it was his duty—but he would have gone alone.
That makes the first explanation given me by the government. A negation.
A great man, who has made some noise in the history of these recent years, would claim he has nothing to confess. [Probably a reference to Decrais.]
The government of Martinique will not confess.
Denial is easier and far simpler. But, once the precise statements of M. Clerc were known to a number of people, it was believed necessary to speak a little, and they said this to me:
“There is some confusion in the recollections of M. Clerc. True, M. Landes had sent a dispatch to Fort-de-France saying the hill of Lacroix could collapse. But this dispatch spoke of vague probabilities. Further, it had not been addressed to the governor, with whom M. Landes had not the right to correspond directly.
“It was a dispatch addressed to the director of the cable, who, since the 4th of May, had been posting news relative to the eruption, news sent him by many people, M. Sully notably, from Saint-Pierre.
The Latin term perinde ac cadaver refers to complete obedience to a superior, to offer no more resistance than a corpse.
The photo above, taken on May 11, shows the state of the city on the day the election would have been held.
When M. Jalabert received the dispatch, in which M. Landes spoke of the fall of the Morne-Lacroix, and of the possible consequences, he had thought it best before posting this, to communicate it to the governor.
“There was nothing of immediate threat in the dispatch, sent by a man who, for being a teacher at the high school of Saint-Pierre, could hardly be considered a prophet in matters of the volcano. But as the population of Fort-de-France was nervous, as was that of Saint-Pierre, and had needed rather to be reassured than alarmed, M. Mouttet asked the director of the cable not to post this dispatch. That is all.
“It is possible M. Jalabert had cabled this to M. Landes at Saint-Pierre, and that his telegram was the one seen by M. Clerc. We know nothing of that; what we do know is that the governor had not corresponded with M. Landes. But he did not suppose for an instant that catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre. The proof of which, we repeat, is that he had taken Mme Mouttet there.”
Here, a parenthesis. In another conversation with someone from the government, I have noted this:
When for the first time we spoke of the volcano, M. Mouttet exclaimed:
“A volcano on top of everything else! As if we didn’t have enough from the elections…!”
His preoccupation was to finish the elections, and to think of the volcano after. On the 7th, following the incident of the Landes dispatch, he was telephoned by the mayor of Saint-Pierre, M. Fouché. This mayor had posted a reassuring declaration the evening before, but, “it did not take”. He declared himself powerless to constrain the population, and moreover to maintain order. It needed a higher authority…
The higher authority was M. Mouttet. He decided then to leave for Saint-Pierre with Mme Mouttet.
This is a person from the government, who said this to me.
This person did not add that the governor preferred, for his stay in Saint-Pierre, to be aboard a ship, where the chances of safety were greater, the risk less, and had asked the commander of the Suchet to conduct him to Saint-Pierre and remain at his disposal for a tour of the communities in the north.
The commander of the Suchet had other orders from the minister of the navy. He evaded the governor’s requisition.
The officer from whom I had this detail, added: “The Suchet was not made for electoral tours.”
It is for this that M. Mouttet left Saint-Pierre aboard one of the Company Girard’s boats. And also for this that he left taking with him only the Gerbaud household. He had left behind at Fort-de-France a number of persons, including his chief of the cabinet, and the Pignier household, originally invited to accompany him. The quarters at Saint-Pierre, where at the last moment he saw himself obliged to take lodgings, had only two apartments.
Let us now give the floor to the “we” of the government:
“The governor had not supposed for an instant that a catastrophe threatened Saint-Pierre, and no one could have supposed this, M. Landes no more than any other. All this story is nothing but a political maneuver, from people who cannot reconcile themselves to an electoral failure.”
I believe that some in the government have even added:
“…people who today would like to profit from the catastrophe, to restore their business losses.”
And that others even say, “…to fish in troubled waters.”
But, if this proposal is denied, I’m willing to conceded that I’ve misheard.
You see that if one side is callous, they are not less so in the other camp.
I have given one side’s version, and the other’s.
I believe it is easy to choose.
And to make this easier, here is a document I want to publish at once, a simple letter received the day after publication of the Clerc interview, in the Journal.
Monsieur Jean Hess of the Journal
It is not without vivid emotion that I read in the Journal your account of the horrible cataclysm at Saint-Pierre, where mine are forever buried, as well as the various interviews taken in the course of your travels.
Without prejudging the conclusions that will be drawn from your impartial inquiry, it seems to me that so far, and apart from a serious presumption relative to the intentions of the governor, lost to the fire, any tangible proof cannot be made.
It is my part, then, to lift all doubts and enlighten the judgment of all, not with allegations—which is always easy, but with irrefutable proofs—
The 5th of May last, I found myself in my study at Saint-Pierre together with my two neighbors and friends, MM. Fouché and Landes. These gentlemen, very worried at the negative result of their urgent appeals, decided to remit through me a confidential letter to the governor at Fort-de-France, where I would call, on business. At my departure, I had two letters to deliver instead of one. The one of Fouché and the other of Landes. I left. On the voyage, we crossed paths with M. Mouttet. You know what came next.
During the crossing from Colon to Pauillac, I had the curiosity to read the two documents, although I sensed their contents, but I had not expected an indictment from beyond the grave so thunderous, against improvidence and criminal carelessness, the primary causes of the deaths of forty thousand people.
If I have kept silent to this day, it is wholly from the cruel sorrow that strikes my father’s heart so often. I have had to watch at the bedside of my elder daughter until her death, from meningitis. Following upon the horrible vision of that place…!
I propose to publish the two documents with my notes, when they are coordinated. I am not ignorant of the importance of these two factors in the ultimate distribution of benefits, also my conscience shouts to me not to make these disappear.
Will you accept, Monsieur, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments,
Notary of Saint-Pierre
16, rue de Jardin-Saint-Paul, Paris
23 June 1902
Translator’s note: The above photograph may not seem strikingly different from others of Saint-Pierre’s disaster. But it is worth a closer look. Put yourself shipboard alongside the photographer, and consider that this approach, three days after the eruption (note the wreckage is still smoking) was one of the first that could be made to view a horror examined up to that point only to the extent the burning city and the volcano allowed.
The quality of this shot is grainy, but on the hillside you see the snowlike appearance of the ash-cover that Hess noted earlier in his account.
M. Clerc before the eruption and in the ruins
We return to the volcano. Here is how M. Clerc described to me the eruption of the 8th, which he witnessed from the height of the overlooking hills, nearest to Saint-Pierre.
“The morning of the 8th, we were in the house of the Litté residence, at Parnasse. At ten to eight, we heard a detonation, not very strong. We went outside to look. There was a second detonation…very strong, that one.
“Then I saw a river of heavy smoke come out of the dry lake, exceedingly black. It flowed and burgeoned, with a sinister noise. I sensed that it had weight and power. A gigantic battering ram, rolling… I repeat the word, rolling. We heard the creaking of everything this maelstrom was breaking and rending in its passage. The mass rushed down, did not mix itself with the smoke that continued, in clouds, to rise from the crater. We could see the horizon above the smoke falling on Saint-Pierre.
“It followed the valley of the Rivière des Peres, the valley of the Roxelane, and extended itself to Carbet, making a roar, covering everything with a shuddering black shroud. I would estimate that in a minute and a half this new sort of avalanche had flowed from the top of the mountain to the limits of Carbet. Then, quick as thought, in a clap of thunder, I saw all of the black mass flare up. The darkness was upon Saint-Pierre, and the flashes of burning.
“Suddenly, after the eruption and the explosion of the gaseous whirlwind, the summit of the mountain cleared, the crater extinguished itself, and I saw the old silhouette of the Lacroix hill completely changed. The darkness came again. Within an hour, all the region, the shoreline, the mountain, the hills, the house where we found ourselves, were in the dark. We had to light the lamps.
“When the calm and the light returned, a dull, lifeless light, we were in a country of ash. It was as though a light grey snow covered everything.
“Saint Pierre no longer existed. The Fort district was razed, and the harborfront was in flames. At ten o’clock, I went down to Trois-Points, and to the lane called Pecoul, that I followed up to the electric lighting works. Three men were with me, walking barefoot. So the ash was already not very hot.
“Everywhere there were blackened corpses. Yet the district had not been burned. The people were dead of asphyxiation. As though by a gas charged with coal-dust that, exploding, would have blackened them all to the same hue. The Fort district was not burned, but crushed. There was nothing left.
“I was still below, when, between eleven and eleven-thirty, I heard an explosion that came from the other side of the Lacroix hill. A new volcanic vent had opened itself. The first, that of the dry lake, began smoking again towards three o’clock. And so we left for our house at Vivet, to take shelter from the new eruptions.”
M. Fernand Clerc returned, afterwards, many times to Saint-Pierre, he said to me. When the volcano was calm, he had approached as near as possible. They say even—and I believe the American reporters have telegraphed this to their newspapers—that he has made the complete ascent of the volcano, that he has most closely observed the new craters, and that he has measured these…! But all that, he did not say to me. When I questioned him on this proposal, as our interview took place at the Café de la Savanne, a busybody turned up, and permitted M. Clerc not to answer me.
During his jaunts to the mountain, M. Fernand Clerc was able to estimate that the rupture of the Lacroix hill had diminished its altitude by 125 meters. M. Clerc also recounted for me a number of interesting things. His observations on the corpses were in accord with those of other persons, and of the doctors whose interviews I’ve published.
So, we pass on.
A detail, however. M. Clerc thinks that many saw the danger coming, and had time to have begun fleeing. (That does not prevent their being blindsided by a lightning-fast asphyxiation, an electric current, perhaps by both simultaneously.)
Along the rue de Longchamps he saw corpses fallen, as though while running, then crowded by the whirlwind—which had denuded and scalped them. In the rue de la Banque, he noted that the police guards on duty must have fled towards the shore. They had fallen at different distances; sabers were at the sides of the charred corpses.
Near the Knight establishment, he saw the top of a ship. A corpse was there in the attitude of a man who breakfasts, beside him remained the plate, the knife, the bottle.
The miraculous prisoner and the two gunners
Here is an extraordinary story—that of the prisoner, Auguste Sybaris.
But I do not suppose M. Clerc believes it true, for M. Clerc is not…an American. M. Clerc has seen the said Auguste, at the Morne-Rouge home of the priest. On the 8th, Auguste, having had what in Corsica is called an accident (his knife put by chance into the belly of an enemy), had been shut in the prison of Saint-Pierre, given lodgings in an underground cell.
Up to then, nothing but the very normal. Here is where it becomes less so. On the 12th, five people of the Morne-Rouge, including a municipal councillor, were walking among the ruins of Saint-Pierre. Not, as it seems, for contemplation, but with the aim of safeguarding the vault. Whatever their intention, it appears the five electors passed near the rubble of the prison.
Emerging from below the piled debris, they heard human cries. They approached, questioning.
Someone responded to them: It’s me.
“A poor prisoner forgotten in his cell, who is dying of hunger and thirst, and burned all over. For pity’s sake, save him!”
All this was in creole. But if, to be wholly natural, I repeated it thus, you would not understand.
The five strollers without hesitation flung to the task, marched to the voice. They pulled apart the ruins. They entered by what had been the walkway. They arrived before a door…padlocked, as are the doors of a prison. They blew it up. They had on hand, by providence, a few of the necessary tools for this sort of operation. Again they met a door, one simply closed by the latch. They pulled at the latch, and discovered in his cell, our Auguste, dying of hunger, dying of thirst, frightfully burned, on the head, the hands, the knees, the feet—
His state did not prevent this energetic man from following them to the Morne-Rouge, by the hard roads. Auguste was received there by the priest, who was stupefied by this miracle. However, the good priest recovered himself quickly… It was a secret known only to Providence, why in a city of forty thousand victims, where so many of the just had perished, the sole survivor was a sinner. The sinner repented of himself. His trial had brought him back to the path. And to the curé who gave him a good bed and good wine, he recounted this prodigy:
On the morning of the 8th, he meditated in his cell.
He was telling himself that, all things weighed, it pays better, far better, to do good than evil, because evil has led you to prison… Suddenly, a diabolical tumult. The end of the world. The devil’s furnace invades his cell. His feet burn; he jumps to the ceiling. Other flames burn his head. He falls back, writhing, jumping, without power to escape the cursed flames, that bite him like burning leeches. They disappear at last. It is dark and silent. The hours pass and no one comes. The unfortunate Auguste calculates a day has slipped away…nothing. Nothing but silence. No one brings him his ration. He trembles. He does not know what this is…what does this silence of the grave mean? Perhaps he has gone mad. He trembles the more. Still, no one brings him anything to eat or drink.
Happily, that morning they had given him a large loaf, and a large jug of water. He economizes. When he has drunk the whole, rain showers flood his cell and his thirst is quenched…a little.
He listens, anxious. He hears steps, a voice. He calls for help. He makes out that the people flee in fear, crying ghost, zombie!
He waits his deliverance until the 12th…! And God had pity on him, saved him from the universal destruction, conducted him after to this good house of a good priest of the Lord…
And this story has stuck!
The asphyxiating gas that flowed on Saint-Pierre, the gas that afterwards exploded, that caused a rarefaction of the atmosphere, then an inferno… All who breathed, all, absolutely all, all who were alive in Saint-Pierre, were killed at once. There was no cell that could have sheltered any being, not a rat, dog, cat, or man, for in all the cellars the gas penetrated…it is a glaring proof…
Well! That did not prevent this joke of Auguste Sybaris being taken seriously, by a mass of serious people. The good priest of the Morne-Rouge wrote to the Attorney General asking that he pardon this precious mystifier, Auguste.
(You’ll note, as everything has been annihilated at the various courts of Saint-Pierre, a farceur can make a fine game of saying he was in prison, etc…)
Now, everyone interests themselves in Auguste. They choose him; they dote on him. He becomes hero and curious animal all at once. They show him to the American reporters, who weep with emotion, listening to his joyous story. How well this will do for their newspapers…! And they photograph his face, his profile…sitting, standing, lying…in bust, in half-bust.
The joyous story of joyous Auguste is a succulent canard to suit the taste of the Americans. Let them keep him. Let them pass him along, even, to Barnum.
Translator’s note: Hess doesn’t believe the story of Auguste Sybaris. Online recountings are not very helpful, since nothing investigative seems done with the given details, and too much time has passed to verify them. You will find only circulations of the legend as told, represented (in the way of tourist attractions) as a fun curiosity, and a depiction of the cell in which the man who changed his name to Ludger Cyparis when traveling with Barnum’s circus, is alleged to have been held. I include here a link to an article on the WWII bombing of Dresden, and what British POWs, imprisoned there and forced into recovery work, discovered (warning: very gruesome details!) as to the survivability of a superheated inferno.
From the Sheffield [England] Weekly Telegraph of May 4, 1918, is a curiosity worth preserving—a fictionalized and romanticized version of the “miraculous prisoner”, with a love interest added, and the race of the participants obscured. It’s interesting to imagine the closing months of WWI, an editor thinking about what will entertain his readers, and comfort them, presumably…
Transcribed with all its eccentricities:
The Only Survivor of Forty Thousand
As I sat one May evening in 1902 with my sweetheart in the Plaza restaurant at St. Pierre, in Martinique, I little dreamt of the horror that was soon to plunge the gay city in tragedy—that of all its forty thousand inhabitants I alone should be left to see the light of another day; or under what terrible conditions I should see it. Well, indeed, it is that the future is so inscrutably hidden from us mortals!
Never, indeed, had the world looked fairer. It was an evening of glory, of blue, cloudless sky, of cool, fragrant breezes. The day’s work over, St. Pierre had abandoned herself to rest and gaiety; everywhere I glanced about me I saw smiling faces, and heard the ripple of merry laughter. It was, indeed, a beautiful world to live in; and its crowning glory was mine, for I was in love—deeply, fiercely in love with the girl by my side, the most beautiful girl in Martinique.
If I close my eyes I can see her as vividly as I saw her then—the flash of her dark eyes, the ravishing play of her dimples, the gleam of pearly teeth as her red lips parted in smiles; the sheen of her raven hair, the proud tossing of her dainty head.
Unfortunately, Julie was as vain as she was lovely. Admiration was the breath of life to her; and at times she made me suffer the tortures of the lost from jealousy. This evening she was in the most tantalising mood. She would scarcely speak a word to me, so absorbed was she in challenging the admiring eyes that were focussed on her. For a time, I bore it patiently; but at last my anger began to rise and I remonstrated with her—gently at first, then more forcibly.
A Vain Coquette
But to all my pleading and protests, she only answered a defiant smile or taunt. “I was not her master,” she said; “she would do as she pleased. I was a fool to be jealous.” So she answered me until at last my pent-up anger broke into fierce flame. I completely lost my head, and gave her a smart slap on the face. She gave a loud shriek and burst into tears. In an instant the whole place was in commotion. Men and women sprang from their seats and crowded round us with angry looks and words. One man to whom Julie had been making eyes, strode up to me and without a moment’s warning struck me a heavy blow on the head which sent me sprawling on the floor. The next moment I was on my feet, mad with rage. I seized a bottle from the table, and brought it down with terrible force on my assailant’s head, dashing him senseless to the floor.
As the man fell there was a loud outcry of rage and threats. The crowd began to close menacingly around me. I was prepared to defend myself, to the death if need be. But before a blow could be struck, fresh shouts drew all eyes to the door. I saw two policemen enter; they were conducted to me, and a minute later, I was being led away, a constable holding each arm, to prison. I went without a word—thankful indeed to escape the fury of the crowd in the restaurant—and within a few minutes found myself lodged in a cell, deep below the adjacent City Hall.
As the door of my cell clanged to, I flung myself down on the straw on the floor and tried to collect my scattered senses for I was dazed by the swift succession of experiences I had gone through. I could only recall them vaguely as one recalls a dream. Two things, however, came vividly back to me—in my insane outburst of jealousy (for such it was), I had struck the girl I loved better than all the world, and I had killed a man—for that he was dead I had no shadow of a doubt. I also recalled my last glimpse of Julie, the poor girl weeping in a corner as if her heart would break. Such were the torturing memories that filled my brain in the dark solitude of my cell and drove me almost mad with remorse and fear.
It was not long, however, before, overcome by exhaustion, I fell asleep. How long I was steeped in the blessed oblivion I know not: I only know that I awoke with a start, to feel the floor of my cell rocking under me and to hear the sounds of distant thunder. What could it mean? I asked myself dazedly. Then in a flash of recollection I remembered that while Julie and I were sitting in the restaurant the evening before, there had been similar rumblings and quaking—much slighter, but quite perceptible.
We laughed at them. It was only “Old Pelée” (as we dubbed the neighbouring volcano of Mount Pelée) at his old tricks. For days he had been restless, emitting clouds of dust which floated like mist over the city. Could he have broken out in earnest, I wondered? I was soon to know, to my terror!
An Agony of Torture
Meanwhile, I had something else to think of. My old, torturing thoughts came back in renewed force. In the darkness of my cell I saw Julie’s sweet face, the tears streaming over the red patch on her cheek where I had struck her that cowardly blow. Would to God I could have cut off the arm that had done this brutal deed! I saw, too, the strange man lying huddled on the floor, the blood streaming from his head; the angry faces of the crowd that closed threateningly around me—nearer and nearer. There was murder in their eyes; they meant to kill me. And I deserved nothing better.
Again, in my exhaustion, I mercifully dropped asleep; and again I awoke with a sudden start. Once more I felt my cell floor rock beneath me, much more violently than before. It was as if I were at sea. I heard the sound of running feet outside my door—running feet and shouts of alarm receding swiftly; and above all a tumult of sounds, like the reverberating roll of thunder and crashing of buildings. I could not see my hand before me; I was encompassed by the blackness of the blackest night. And more terrifying than all—my cell seemed to be filled with air, hot as the blast from a furnace mouth. It scorched my eyes, my nostrils, my lips, as with a breath from the lower regions; it seared my lungs, like molten iron, with every agonizing breath I drew.
Heavens! What could it mean? I was frantic with the terror of it all—blind and agonized with pain. And in my agony I shrieked aloud—shrieked until it seemed that my flaming lungs must burst. But to all my cries no answer came. I might have been the only one alive in the great city, with none to hear, none to help.
For a time, I think, I must have been mad, mad with pain and fear. How long I remained in this condition I do not know. Gradually, however, a measure of sanity returned; my brain grew more clear, and I was able to consider my position and its meaning. There could be no doubt, I concluded, that Mount Pelée had broken out into violent eruption. The thunderous sounds, the rocking of my cell, the scorching blast of air, all pointed to it.
If so, I thought, God help St. Pierre—and me! There was an ominous silence now in which I could hear my heart thumping against my ribs. Was I the only one left out of the whole city? It seemed possible; for no faintest sound of life came to my ears.
No Hope of Escape
Such were my thoughts and fears when suddenly Pandemonium broke out again—more fiercely, more terribly than before. My cell rocked like a small boat on a tempestuous sea; my ears were deafened with sounds as of a hundred violent thunderstorms rolled into one, mingling with sounds of shattering and crashing, as if the whole of the earth were being shattered into fragments. Every second I expected the enormous building over my head to fall and bury me in its ruins!
In my terror I tried to call again for help. For a time, in spite of all my efforts, I was unable to emit the least sound; my throat seemed paralysed. And when at last my voice came, it was so thin and feeble, like that of a new-born infant, that it could scarcely penetrate the door of my cell. In my agony and despair I began to rush about my cell like a madman, to beat frantically at door and walls. I bruised my hands terribly, but felt no pain.
Then suddenly came a new and crowning terror. A fierce, burning pain attacked one of my feet and then the other. It darted like flame up my legs. I stooped to feel for the cause, and plunged my fingers into what felt like blazing hot mud. In my unbearable agony I leaped and rushed frantically round and round; but there was no escape. The lava, mud, or whatever it was, became deeper. It reached my ankles. It was flowing into my cell like water! Would it fill my cell? was the horrible thought that set my brain on fire. Was I fated to suffer the tortures of hell, inch by inch; and then to be engulfed in this liquid death?
To add to my suffering, which seemed already greater than mortal man could bear, my cell now became full of fumes of sulphur. Every breath threatened to choke me. My head seemed about to burst; my body was wracked by a thousand scorching pains.
Happily at this stage I became unconscious. Human nature could endure no more. How long I remained in this state I cannot say. But when, at last, I came to my senses, I awoke to a silence as profound as that of the grave. I was lying on the floor of my cell in several inches of mud, which had now become quite cool. My body seemed benumbed, for I felt little of the pain that had so tortured me, though I knew that I had been severely burned. My only physical feeling was of intolerable thirst. My tongue, which seemed to fill my mouth, was dry as a withered leaf. Rising to my feet I began to grope desperately in the darkness for the jug of water, which, with some dry bread, the gaoler had left before my cell door was closed on me. I found it at last, and drained it, with a feeling of ecstasy to the last drop. Never was water so sweet! The bread I could not touch. I had no hunger—only this consuming thirst.
But it was like pouring water on the sands of the Sahara. A few moments later I was again assailed by the terrible thirst. I would gladly have bartered my life, such as it was, for a few drops of liquid; but there was none. Thus, in a new form of agony a few hours passed—how many I could not say, any more than I could say how long I had been in my cell of horror. And to add to my suffering the whole flood of memories came back and surged through my brain, and with them, fearful speculations as to what had become of my beloved Julie. That she could be alive seemed almost impossible.
A few hours of such agony; and again merciful sleep or deep unconsciousness came to my relief; and when I awoke from it I found that I was too weak to rise to my feet.
I was lying awake in a dazed, and what seemed to me a dying condition, when suddenly my heart gave a great leap. I heard, or fancied I heard, a sound of tapping on my cell walls. Was I mad, or was I dreaming? I listened intently, painfully. No, I was neither mad nor dreaming! The sound came again and again. I tried to shout, but my voice refused to come to my aid. I could only lie and wait, hoping against hope that at last I was to be rescued.
Louder and louder grew the noise, as of men breaking through masonry with pickaxes; and with each fall of the pick my heart leaped joyfully within me. At last the light streamed blindingly in through a small hole in the wall. I heard voices; I saw faces; my rescuers had come; and I was saved.
The rest of the story can be told in a few words. I was carried by my rescuers, more dead than alive, to a carriage in which I was taken to Morne Rouge, on the outskirts of St. Pierre, where for two months I lay between life and death, before I began to struggle back to health and strength. And it was there that I learned the terrible truth—that St. Pierre had been utterly destroyed; and that of the forty thousand people who were in it that day I alone survived to tell the strangest story that ever fell from the lips of man, and to carry to the grave in a scarred body a heart full of gratitude to God who so mercifully preserved me. And as long as I draw breath that heart will enshrine the memory of the girl whom I loved so well and treated so ill; and who perished with the tear my brutality had caused still moist on her cheeks.
And here, from the Pall Mall Gazette, October 18, 1907, an English review of an inspired French play, “Terre d’Eprovante”.
The wall falls down, revealing the petrified form of their gaoler, overtaken by lava…
And we will linger no longer, discussing the improbable, the screamingly impossible. For me Auguste Sybaris produced, simply, the impression of a pillager surprised by fire, at work on a bit of premature safecracking. He had wanted to explain his burns, to put one over on his peers, and his negro imagination made from whole cloth the extraordinary story that we came to read, as told to me by M. Clerc, and many others…
The imaginations of the whites, meanwhile, cede nothing to that of the negro. Publishing all the howlers repeated to me would make a fat tome. But one with a single interest, to prove that human credulity has no limits. I will file these away.
However, one has made too much noise, been swallowed by too many people, even officials—for whom I hardly have words.
This is the miraculous adventure of the two soldiers…the sort, you may know, who in the style of the barracks are called practical. This is the heroic odyssey of the two cannoneers, the citizens Vaillant, and Tribut. They were on duty at the camp of Colson, from where they had seen the eruption above the mountain. But they knew nothing. The town secretary of Fond-Saint-Denis, passing on horseback a while later, announced that Saint-Pierre was destroyed. The men were forbidden to go out from the camp. Longing, no doubt, to see the spectacle up close, Vaillant and Tribut bore up under the order, but they were at the edge.
At three o’clock, ordered by telephone from Fort-de-France, the camp commander sent a brigadier and mounted guide, to learn the situation at Saint-Pierre, as they had no news of the city. The two riders reached the heights and saw the burned ruins, but could not approach within 400 meters. The heat and ash-cover were too great. They retraced their path. They encountered no one on the way. But distant enough from Saint-Pierre, they found Vaillant and Tribut, by the roadside with an injured sailor. They escorted them all to the 30 kilometer post, where they slept, returning next morning to the camp.
This is the report of an under-officer. This is certain.
Here, the uncertain:
Vaillant, whom they were preparing to lock in a cell, protested energetically and swore himself driven to Saint-Pierre by a duty to humanity; that he had explored the ruins, found injured people still alive, notably a family of whites, eight persons with an old negro woman. He had given them the contents of his canteen, and that of Tribut, had promised to come back and find them…a duty he would fulfill at any cost. Many other people were still alive in the city, for he had heard many cries. He did not pursue his investigations, but hastened to search for help, and return with it.
As at the camp of Colson, the story did not take at all. Vaillant insisted he be authorized to visit Fort-de-France, to tell the commander of artillery, and the governor, what he’d seen.
He visited Fort-de-France, and was conducted to the governor, who was found with the captain of the Suchet. He, for having landed on the place du Bertin, in company with the public prosecutor, and for seeing all the city destroyed by fire, said it was his conviction no one was alive in Saint-Pierre.
M. Muller, who witnessed the scene, told me this.
Vaillant insisted. He had already convinced others. He managed to return to Saint-Pierre, on board a steamer that carried M. Lyautier. When the steamer, after many hours at the harborfront, blew the whistle to go back, Vaillant arrived with an old negro woman, burned. He embarked in triumph, saying, “You see I’m not a liar. I’ve found it at last, the house with the eight unfortunates… But, I wasn’t allowed to come back soon enough. They are dead. No one alive but this poor old woman. She recalls I’d given her water. Is it true I gave you water?” he added, speaking to the unlucky woman, who, grievously burned, stupefied, bewildered, made with her head signs of distress that might pass for a “yes”.
She died at the hospital, where they had taken her on disembarking at Fort-de-France.
And there it is, that upon which the legend rests. Of survivors of Saint-Pierre, whose cries of distress were heard by the gunner Vaillant, on the day of the disaster; on his having found in the ruins, two days after, this old negro woman who moved her head and died, unable to answer the questions he posed, other than in frightened monosyllables—
Which cannot not be admitted as proof Vaillant spoke the truth.
The old woman was not in Saint-Pierre at the moment of the cataclysm.
The doctor Lherminier, who thinks of the story what everyone gifted with the critical sense thinks, knowing it for deceit, told me the old woman was one of the mad, from the asylum at Saint-Pierre. The asylum kept a separate campus near the Litte, where the quietest inmates were interned. In the disarray of the eruption, although the fire would not have reached this branch of the Litte, the inmates fled. Hence this poor old woman, found at liberty. Directed by what impulse I don’t know, she had returned to Saint-Pierre, burned herself wandering the ruins. Vaillant found her and brought her back.
That is the truth.
It is important to say, because it would be odious to allow propagation of this absurd legend, of survivors imploring for help, and receiving none. Dedicated people—doctors, soldiers, police, the simple citizens—climbed through the ruins of Saint-Pierre as soon as the burning ashes diminished, and permitted their going in without dying. The city was anxiously explored by every means, and they found not a trace of the living. No more so at the prison of the miraculous Auguste, than on the streets vaguely indicated by Vaillant, as containing the house with eight injured.
What’s more, as I will go on saying, everything proves that all life was instantly snuffed at Saint-Pierre, the moment of the catastrophe. To claim anyone had survived is as absurd as saying the law of gravity had been modified by ministerial decree. One can blame a great many things on the Administration, and as often as the occasion demands, I will…
But, frankly, to blame it for allowing death, without aiding the survivors of Saint-Pierre, and that taken on faith, from the two crass jokers, the gunners Tribut and Vaillant, is too much!
To be able to say that no one, for the sake of the elections, had been willing to see the danger before the 8th…that is enough!
The romance invented by these two humbugs to justify their spree is worthy of the prisoner Auguste. And to believe these characters, to make them heroes of sensational articles, you must be an American journalist…one of those who planted their walking sticks on the side of the crater to pinpoint their measurements…
But let’s not joke too much about the American journalists. Ours—alas!—are not much further from reproach. And have we published fantasies, in our journals great and small?
Extracted from a newspaper of Bordeaux on the day of my arrival, is this piece on—
An infantryman who escaped the disaster.
It is the soldier Jeannin, of the 4th regiment. He was in the garrison of Saint-Pierre, at the very flank of the peak, with a handful of men, seventeen, all of them brave, who mounted guard, turn by turn, on the redoubtable mountain.
Alone, he survived. On the eve of the eruption, he had performed his accustomed task; he had gone up, gun in hand, onto the mountain. No sign caught his attention. Mount Pelée was not frightening. He and the others had walked, said the soldier, as on the hills at home. The next day, the mountain was on fire, sowing around it misery and death.
Isn’t it beautiful, these soldiers, who go up on the mountain, guns in hand…? Brave soldier Jeannin… Begone!
Interview with M. Raybaud
M. Raybaud is the managing director of the sugarcane plantations that cover the hillsides of the Saint-James properties, situated above Saint-Pierre, on the east side. Four years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting these plantations, and retain the best of memories for the charming welcome given me by M. Raybaud at his lovely colonial house, in the settlement at Trou-Vaillant. My first care when arrived at Fort-de-France was to inquire of M. Raybaud, and to search for him. Happily he and his family had escaped death. The altitude of the estate preserved it from the scourge. The torrent of flames that rolled down the valley of the Roxelane, and destroyed Saint-Pierre, had spread no higher than 120 meters—as I’d mentioned, recounting my visit to the ruins of Saint-Pierre.
The house of M. Raybaud sits at 160 meters, which saved it and its inhabitants.
Learning I was at Fort-de-France, M. Raybaud came to see me. He told me what he’d witnessed—and well, for being placed, so to speak, in the best box.
“Since the 20th of April, ash had been falling. From the foot of the mountain, we heard subterranean noises, that seemed to come from the side of the Prêcheur. I noted that the disappearance of the Guérin factory happened three days before the new moon of the 8th, which produced the terrible eruption. The eruption of the 20th also coincided with a phase of the moon.
“The phenomena occurring inside the mountain terrified Saint-Pierre. No matter anyone’s saying they doubted the danger, many people were frightened. The proof is that twenty-six of our friends came to beg our hospitality, notably the sister of M. Chomereau-Lamothe, the Deputy Director of the Bank of France*. They were saying in the city there was much less danger on the heights.”
*After reading this interview with M. Raybaud, in the Journal, where I had published a few chapters of this book, M. Chomereau-Lamothe kindly wrote me two letters, from which I extract these few lines:
“Permit me, monsieur, to thank you for what you say of M. Raybaud, to whom I owe such gratitude [ … ] Allow me to add that the modesty of our friend has hidden a great part of the truth [ … ] My parents have in fact written to me that they owe their lives to the energy, the presence of mind, the intelligent initiative, and the sustained courage of the young son of M. Raybaud…
“During the night of the 7th to the 8th, the phenomena redoubled in intensity. The women gathered in the salon, praying. We heard continually the din of the volcano. One could distinguish three sorts of noises very distinctly: intermittent explosions, like the shots of a cannon; a low and regular growling in the volcano’s chimney; and a constant noise as of a thunderstorm. During all the night, sheets of fire came out of the crater, at the foot of the Lacroix hill. There were sparks. There were jets of flame that lasted more than a minute, climbing high, straight, with flowerings in sheaves, fans, bouquets of rockets. The volcano spat, the while, smoke that rose very high. Once, pushed by the winds southeast, this reached the clouds, the smoke produced lightning at the points of contact.
“I slept for two hours, until four o’clock.
“At four o’clock the rumblings of the mountain grew in intensity and woke me. At four-thirty, the dawn came, clear and limpid. Upon Saint-Pierre, to the west of my house, I saw darkness.
“The aspect of the volcano was typical. It was putting out billows of smoke that rose straight up. They covered the west. But on the east side, they drew a line ascending, neat and regular, cut against a very clear sky.
“The smoke all at once turned back towards our side. We cried: “The volcano is coming!” Mme Raybaud, very frightened, said that we must flee. And the blackness of Saint-Pierre grew deeper. Cauliflowers of smoke, blacker and blacker, came out of the volcano, and rolled from the east to the west. These fumes rose and fell, then spread from the Saint-Pierre side.
“At seven-forty-five, we were going to set a table for breakfast, when a noise most appalling stunned us. Imagine thousands of ships letting off their steam after mooring… It was truly terrifying. Our terror redoubled when we went out to see what had caused the noise. There was no more clear sky above our heads. It was chaos.
“Below in the valley, to 800 meters from our house, and flush with the ground, we saw coming, cutting through billows of black smoke, a sea of fire.
“Instinctively, we threw ourselves into the house. What to do? We huddled against one another. We wanted to die together…we were waiting for death. There was a moment of anguish. The fear…the lack of air? I don’t know. My son, more energetic without doubt than we others, went back outside. He returned immediately, saying, “Run! We have time!” The fire had taken hold at the front of the sugar cane. We could not stay. The fire gave us legs. We ran out the back door, and saved ourselves, on the road to Fort-de-France. It rained stones and mud, pieces of mud big as rope-ends.
Translator’s note: I can’t find that “bouts des cordages” has any idomatic meaning. The comparison of a mud chunk to the size of a rope-end doesn’t put the most accessible of pictures into the reader’s head, but it seems to have been M. Raybaud’s idea.
“On foot…very quickly, I don’t need to tell you…we went as far as Fond-Saint-Denis. I installed my family and my friends at the town hall of this village. For the moment, delivered from the care their safety had caused me, I returned to my property.
“The house had been spared. The highest plantations, the larger, were intact. But those below had been ravaged. And it is below, alas! that my workers found themselves. So many victims! Seventy-two dead. Twenty wounded. I harnessed my two cars, and all the carts of the workshop, to carry the wounded to Fort-de-France. Before leaving, I looked at the mountain. It was razed to the summit. The Morne-Lacroix was partly knocked down. And of this, I am of very certain, because a peak of the west, that before I could never see from my house, I saw distinctly.”
I saw M. Raybaud on the day of my departure. He is getting his own back. He has resumed his work. He has taken courage, if he had ever lost it. He is that brave type of the strong creole race of the Antilles. A worthy son of those whites, who, sword in hand, so valiantly defended their island, their French island, against the English…and we have kept it.
And yet we understand failures, after such terrible crises!
The account of M. Molinar
M. Molinar has dictated his memories and impressions to the Courier of Guadaloupe, which has published them, and from which I print them.
Monday, the mountain smoked in the ordinary way. I went down from Trois-Ponts, and on to the home of Mme Clerc, who lives on the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre).
She put a car at our disposal. We started off. In this car, were Mme Coypel, Mlle Carland, Mme Clerc, Mme Cambeith, my aunt, Mme Molinar, and myself. We went to visit the Rivière-Blanche. The accident to the Guérin factory had not yet occurred. On the road was around 15 centimeters of ash.
Coming to the factory, near a quarter to noon, we set foot on earth, and went to the river. But as the terrain was very spongy, Mlle Carland sank to her calves in mud. I gave her my hand, and helped free her. After this mishap, and the state of the terrain, we did not push farther; we reseated ourselves.
I went home to Trois-Ponts. It was there I learned of the accident at the Guèrin factory, coming just after our departure. The wedge of mud that swept the plant away advanced itself thirty meters into the water and formed a small cape. It had passed the very place where we’d been a moment earlier. At the same hour (towards half-past noon), the sea pulled away from Saint-Pierre, thirty meters, leaving the boats dry; then came back a minute or two after. It was from that moment that some people left Saint-Pierre. These are the ones who were saved.
The end of the day passed tranquilly.
Tuesday, I did not leave the house. There were peals continually from the mountain, which never ceased to throw ash.
Wednesday morning, I went down around nine o’clock, from Trois-Ponts to Fonds-Coré, to see the state of the Rivière-Blanche. I could not cross because of the Rivière-Sèche that obstructed the way with a mud flow to the height of 50 meters. Going back, around noon, and passing the Rivière des Pères, I believed I saw, just beyond the bridge, a chasm where the sea would rush in, and the river… in any case, there was an abnormal agitation.
Around one o’clock, we heard something like salvos of cannon-fire, issuing regularly, that is to say, at equal intervals.
This lasted about an hour and a half. That evening, M. Alain, director of the Pecoul settlement, warned us that there was a fissure on the side of Trois-Ponts, setting the town in a stir. Everyone was leaving as quickly as possible. Only M. Boudet, secretary of the mayor, and we, remained. Around ten o’clock in the evening, as the mountain growled terribly, I went to the window, and saw a flow of fiery lava in the direction of Trois-Ponts.
Quickly, everyone fled on foot, towards Parnasse, a property located from two to three hundred meters altitude, 200 meters higher than Trois-Ponts. We arrived there around midnight. At that moment, the mountain was in full eruption, hurling lava, smoke, and flaming rocks.
Thursday, around six in the morning, the mountain was completely calm, and we admired the puffs of smoke and of vapor, heading towards the sea.
Around eight-fifteen, without any sign in particular to announce a new thing, the mountain opened from top to bottom, and launched, like a great flash of lightning, a jet of flame in the direction of Saint-Pierre. For a quarter of an hour, it threw flames successively, always in the direction of Saint-Pierre, and its environs.
We, who watched the spectacle from Parnasse, were not in the zone of fire, thanks to a wind blowing against the flames, and permitting us to save ourselves. Running, we saw, in the direction of the Mouillage (Saint-Pierre), that all was on fire. (Place Bertin.) Around eight-thirty, when the turmoil began to calm itself, I went down from the heights, and was going to meet my younger brother, but the air was so hot, I could not go on.
Retracing my route and coming onto the hill Saint-Bernard, that rises over Trois-Ponts, the Centre, the Fort, as far as the sea, I perceived a complete desert. The Mouillage sat in ruins. On all the trajectory followed by the flames, all was annihilated. One could see nothing but a trail of ashes. In the part of Saint-Pierre called the Centre, and as that of the Fort, nothing remained standing. All the houses were reduced to ash. There was not even a corpse. All had been volatilized. It was only in the part of Saint-Pierre called the Mouillage, or on the harborfront, that there were a few corpses among the ruins.
All, from the Prêcheur, the Abymes, up to Saint-Pierre, had been volatilized. A part of Carbet was like the Mouillage. Two or three families only have saved themselves, from this locality.
After these jets of flame, the mountain was completely calm. It no longer launched flame or smoke. At around eleven, it recommenced smoking and hurling lava. It was then that we left for Trinity, where we must take shelter. I learned, since, that on the side of Macouba, and the Grande-Rivière, fissures had formed vomiting flaming lava. The population had to evacuate by sea, and reach Dominique; the roads by land were made impossible, by the two types of lava. There was mud lava, that thickened immediately, and fiery lava that went down to the sea. The lava fell as a flaming river, to the Roxelane, penetrated the earth, and came out on the shoal.
The story of M. ODILON DARSIÈRES
This story has been communicated to me by a friend at Fort-de-France, and I publish it as it is:
Saturday, 3 May. The volcano of Mount Pelée, which for four days has smoked, has littered all the ground and the roofs of the houses, with a greyish dust, a sort of cement which is silver in the rays of the sun. At six in the morning, a light rain of it explained this phenomenon in the night. Soon this rain, still of dust, was growing and covering passersby, and the travelers—of whom women, old men, children tumbling with their oxen, horses, and the rest, from the heights of the Soufrière, from the hill of Saint-Martin, and of the Prêcheur—are all grey from head to foot. Saint-Pierre believes itself a fair enough distance from the volcano, not having to move, and receives placidly these bewildered visitors.
At eight in the morning, I go to the heights, from the lowland of Saint-Denis to the hill of the Cadets (Chabert settlement), and during my climb the volcano does not cease to detonate and to throw a smoke and dust that the wind blows from east to west on Saint-Pierre and its environs.
The hill of the Cadets is 4 or 5 kilometers, as the bird flies, from the volcano, but faces it. All the ground is littered with ashes as in town. However, it is not raining them at the moment as on Saint-Pierre. There, the phenomena of the Soufrière are easy to consider. The crater is immersed in a thick cloud.
Otherwise, the day carries on in detonations, and Saint-Pierre receives all the vomitus of the crater.
At six in the evening, the sun disappears in a night of dust that covers the horizon. The onshore wind begins, and the mountain Pelée seems to take on gigantic proportions in a dusty envelope, which goes up to the sky, and stretches itself like a phantom on the hill of the Cadets, the green hill, in full detonation.
Sunday, the 4th. This morning, the dust has thickened, but Saint-Pierre and its environs show quite clearly under their blanket of whitish grey. It is seven, no breeze, the Soufrière throws a thick smoke that rises to the clouds. The animals can then graze. This day passes without further incident. The detonations continue regularly, lasting a minute, and repeat at intervals. An east-west wind sweeps the grey dust to the sea. Many people gather this dust, believing they can sell it for cement. In the night, from the 4th to the 5th, the detonations continue. But there is no more rain of dust after this night.
Monday, 5th. This morning, flat calm, detonations rare. The top of the mountain is covered in a clear, blue cloud. The neighboring houses appear all white. We hear noises like a lava that boils and overflows. Towards one o’clock, louder detonations. The Rivière-Blanche and the Guérin factory seem in the midst of a white rocket-blast, then we see no more but part of the smokestack; the rest has disappeared in a deluge of mud. At five o’clock, the remains of the factory show nested in white vapor. In the night between five and six, the growling rises to the point that, taking a lantern, I venture out under the mangoes. What can be the state of things? Nothing has changed.
Tuesday, 6th. This morning, we learn that the detonations of yesterday have been followed by an inundation of mud that has engulfed all of the Guérin factory and its people, so that the curious come from Saint-Pierre. The mud is above the factory to the height of around 10 meters, and took barely one or two minutes to make its way to the sea. The boats of the factory (tugs) have sunk in open water; they are called Carbet and Prêcheur. M. Eugene Guérin and his wife, and M. du Quesne, the foreman, have perished, overtaken by the mud flow while running to reach the boats. These were under steam since the morning.
The day of the 6th passes in a long trembling of the mountain, which, at 11 o’clock, appears without a cloud; this permits discovering the place of the crater. Until evening, it booms. Today, many people in a panic have left the city, fleeing at random.
Wednesday, 7th. The volcano smokes with greater abandon, and the detonations resound here until evening. At midnight, thick clouds in the direction of the west bury all in shadow to the sea.
Thursday, 8th. During the night from the 7th to the 8th, the rain has entirely washed the fields, and their greenness has reappeared; one believes in a lull, for the noise of the volcano is heard no more.
Towards 8 o’clock, a horrible detonation, following a discharge of thick clouds and water vapor. It directs itself north to south, through the riverway that leads to Saint-Pierre. I throw myself into my house with my wife and children; we close everything. By a little opening, I look for death to come. All seems finished, when a breeze from the east, a true cyclone wind, rises, fights against the cloud, and pushes it back, dispersing the whole. We are saved. I look. Saint-Pierre is in flames. There is nothing left; the population has disappeared in less than thirty seconds. The rest of the day passes in a flat calm.
The ninth, we take the determination to reach Fort-de-France; we go down on the Carbet, where we are collected on a barge, with the Manavit, our country neighbors.
(Proprietor of the Chabert farm, on the hill of Cadet, face-to-face with the mountain, six or seven kilometers as the bird flies, from the crater.)
Interview with M. Cappa, Chief of the Incineration Mission
M. Cappa is the municipal architect of Fort-de-France. He has been charged with searching for and burying, or burning, the corpses. They had first given this mission to the soldiers. But duties more imperative and more professional do not permit the military commander to withdraw from the garrison of Fort-de-France, relatively weak in numbers, that needed for the chore of burial in Saint-Pierre.
The municipality of Fort-de-France gathers volunteer workers for this special task, giving the direction of it to M. Cappa. I have accompanied M. Cappa on one of these funeral expeditions, and he has served me as guide, in crossing the ruins of Saint-Pierre. In the course of the voyage, while the dredging-boat conducted us to the dead city, M. Cappa told me his memories of the terrible fortnight. They are precise memories, neat, the memories of an architect. I transcribe them as I have them in my notes.
It is as a little diary, a memento:
“On April 23, vents opened on the southeast face of the mountain. They smoked. 30 April, the 1, 2, 3, 4, of May, the overflowing of the rivers Blanche, and Pères. The Blanche ceased to flow after a day, then ran with a fury. The curious came out in great number.
“In Fort-de-France, in the night of the 2nd to the 3rd, the wind from the north brought a rain of ashes.
“The 5th of May, at noon, the Guérin factory was carried away.
“Wednesday the 7th, at Fort-de-France, from two and a half to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we hear strong growlings, then a prolonged rumbling. There is a phenomenon of ebb and flow, to a height of around 30 centimeters.
“The 8th, at five in the morning, from Fort-de-France we still see the smoke from the crater. It has rained, around two in the morning. At six, the curious depart for Saint-Pierre, on the Diamant. At 7:45, many people arrive from Saint-Pierre.
“At 8:20, a rain of stones, following a rain of ashes.
“The steamers Rubis and Topaze try to reach Saint-Pierre. They cannot approach, and return saying the city is on fire.
“They believe the inhabitants had been able to save themselves; that they will arrive by land, and they make the first preparations for receiving them. The population waits on the shore; it is dismayed. Only that evening can the Rubis, the Topaze, the Pouyer-Quertier approach Saint-Pierre, and take stock of the catastrophe.
“The boats bring back wounded, from the harbor and environs of Saint-Pierre. The victims of the neighboring communities arrive. At eleven o’clock in the evening, we give them food at the town hall, and lodgings in the school.
“On the 9th begins the rescue-mission of Saint-Pierre. We fear scenes of disorder at Fort-de-France; we put sentries in front of the bakeries.
“On the 11th, the soldiers began incinerating corpses at Carbet. They did not return. The colonel commanding the troops needs all the soldiers at Fort-de-France.
“They put together a civil mission, which works the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th. On the 17th, the disembarkment cannot work, because the rain of ash is truly too strong.
“On the 19th, the mission is at work. Towards 11 o’clock, the mountain abruptly covers itself in a black cloud, very intense, shot through with lightning. Powerful detonations, prolonged, come from the crater. Rain of ash. The dredging-boat whistles the rallying signal. They re-embark.
“The 20th, the mountain smoked as usual. The mission set off from Fort-de-France; then around 5:20, a black cloud covered the mountain. It also was shot through with lightning. Huge masses of smoke formed with a great speed of ascension. Climbing to a certain height, these clouds lit by the rising sun took on the hue of fire. The mission took ship.
“The city is in panic. They cry, ‘The fire is in the sky?’ The cloud covers Fort-de-France in a few minutes. The population is terrorized. They flee in their night-dress. The women have no clothes on but a flannel shift. A man was naked, wearing a top-hat. The screams…those fleeing want to reach the shore. Many at the church. Rain of stones and ashes.
“The 21st, the crater still smoked a great deal.
“The 22nd, the mission left and worked as usual. We recognized, as had been announced by the Suchet, that the city had changed in aspect. This time, the ruin is consumed. Everything above 3 meters in height is razed. All the walls east-west, in the Ford district, and north-south, in the district of the Mouillage, razed. Those that remain barely stand. The second tower of the cathedral has fallen. The Eiffel bridge, on the Roxelane, is carried away. The ashes and mud have leveled the districts… etc., etc.
“A search done before the old barracks indicates a height of 30 centimeters of ash. Though the rain fell in quantity, this up to 3 centimeters is still hot. We had left in the streets of Longchamp, Amité, etc., 800 corpses that needed incinerating. We can no longer find them. The have been buried in ash.
“The crater smokes a little.”
(This was in the morning, for in the evening from five to six o’clock, arriving on the Saint-Domingue, I had seen from the sea an eruption of the crater with immense glowing smoke—Hess.)
“We saw with the naked eye a great rent, which cut the mountain in the direction of the southwest; a rent that had not existed on the 19th. The shaking of the twentieth has all-in-all modified the form of the mountain. It is entirely split.
“The 24th, the mission continued its work.”
Thus said M. Cappa, who, to the date of 30 May, when I met him for the last time, had noted in his book 3678 corpses incinerated. M. Cappa told me a thousand interesting things. I have noted the summary of his observations on the appearance of the corpses:
“Nearly all are lying on their stomachs. Barely a proportion of 1 in 100 are lying on their backs. So it can be said all fell with their heads to the south. The eyes were burned. The orbit is a black hole. There is a foam at the mouth. The tongue is out. We saw that many men had died in a fit of excitement. All the corpses were naked. They had no hair nor beard. The flesh was either carbonized or reddened and peeling. The fat had melted. The bowels of many had burst. The breasts of the women were bloated and punctured. The remains seemed in pieces…
“The medical instructions given to the mission,” continued M. Cappa, “prescribed burying the bodies in accord with scientifically established rules… A load of precautions, very good when we can conform to these… But, here, it was impossible. When we found a body, or a pile of bodies—before one house in the hospital district there were twenty-three—we covered them with pieces of wood, tree branches, we sprinkled them with petrol, we lit it, and the next day, went back to see. Generally, we found a pile of ashes. All were calcined.”
(This is astonishing enough, for incineration of corpses demands a great amount of heat, as results from a serious piling of wood. What served, I think, to make all these corpses disappear, is the ash from the eruption of the 20th.)
“My mission,” continued M. Cappa, “comprises 200 men, who operate in teams of ten. We have already used 180 cans of petrol… The winds from the south have allowed us to work methodically.”
You see all the horror contained within these cold lines? I have lived this horror…a day, in the broken city, in the city of corpses…
Interview with M. LAGARRIGUE
A moving voyage aboard the Rubis, on the morning of the 8th
Lagarrigue, confessor of Saint-Pierre is, I do believe, the only man of the cloth of this city who still exists. This he owes to having been, on the 7th, called to Fort-de-France. He had the intention of returning to Saint-Pierre on the 8th. He was going to embark at 8:50, on the Rubis.
He told me the events of this crossing, which carried him within view of the burning city, where all that was his perished, where his house burned, annihilating his fortune.
“We are about to climb aboard, when a woman says to me: ‘But see!’ And I see a grey, ashy cloud that comes from the mountain and surpasses the peaks of Carbet. We settle ourselves on board. At ten minutes after eight, the sea retreats, and the moorings of the boat break. The captain takes his post, nonetheless, and we leave. We are barely 150 meters from the wharf, when over us falls a hail of ash and pebbles. The boat continues on her route. Arriving at the heights of Case-Navire, we meet with a yacht making her way opposite our own. The people on this yacht shout to us, ‘Go back! Go back!’ We ask them to stop and explain, but they fly away without wishing to hear.
“The Rubis goes aside and follows them to Fort-de-France, to the carénage. There the pilot of the yacht tells us that, arriving before Case-Pilote, he heard an enormous noise, received a fall of pebbles, saw the smoke, and that Saint-Pierre was destroyed.
“‘Have you seen this?’
“Then the Rubis left once more for Saint-Pierre. On the beach of Carbet we saw people who made us the sign of turning back. We went on.
But, scarcely outside Carbet, we saw again a vast smoke along the coast. A new vent of the volcano, someone said. It was a burning hut.
“This was a little near eleven o’clock.
“We arrive at the cove of Latouche. Everything is burned. Then we can go no further, because of the ashes and the heat. All Saint-Pierre burns, all. The city, and the harbor, and the fields. All!
“We return to Fort-de-France, terrified, anguished… Our people, are they in this furnace?
“En route, we meet with the Suchet, which will try to approach the city.
“On the 12th, I went to Saint-Pierre. It burned no more. I saw corpses and rubble. A meter and a half of rubble and thousands of corpses. My fellow citizens…naked, scorched… An electric burn…but, this is not my area of competence.
“What struck me, is that in this ruin, in this chaos of death and terror, within the buried pipes still flowed, clear and alive, the water of the Goyave. And I drank.”
The Service of the Gendarmes
It is the fashion, in France, to mock the police. The constabulary offer subject matter to spur easy laughs, in an lighthearted spirit. Oh, well! To the course of these tragic events in Saint-Pierre, they have come to prove time and again that if they have boots…
You’ll allow me to dispense with the rest, won’t you?
These boots forge the paths of brave men.
On the 8th of May, at three o’clock, a detachment of gendarmes, including the brigadier Marty, the Constables Santandréa, Patin, and Allard, under the direction of Captain Leroy, embarked aboard the Pouyer-Quertier.
After stationing itself before Carbet, of which all the north part was burned, and whose inhabitants had come to be taken away on the dredging-boat, the ship tried to dock at Saint-Pierre. It was impossible, because of the number of flaming wrecks that burned in the harbor. They took to the sea, arriving at dawn in view of Cape Martin. At six a.m., they approached Macouba. They called out. No one answered. The houses appeared intact. It was the same at the Grande-Riviére.
At Prêcheur, there were many people on the beach. A blinding rain of ashes fell. They put two cutters in the water. Impossible to land, the bad sea barring this…they then used canoes, on which the women and children embarked, with shrieks and tears. They learned that 300 people who were north of Prêcheur, had found themselves with nothing to drink or eat for three days…
On the hill La Talie, were 300 calcined corpses. The Prêcheur had suffered a tidal wave, and a rain of fire.
At 11 o’clock, an upwelling from under the sea took place. At noon, the mayor sent a letter addressed to the governor, a letter asking aid for five thousand people without food and without water…
At twelve-thirty, the rescue became impossible because of the bad sea.
Captain Leroy said:
“We could no longer make out the coast. The low rumblings gave the illusion of trains passing on metal bridges, without interruption. A strong turbulence of fumes, several, with bubbles, formed on the sea all around the ship.
“At three o’clock, we left.
“The inhabitants of the north were ignorant as to the destruction of Saint-Pierre. Two hundred people from Céron refused to embark. The curé of Grande-Rivière related to us the exodus of inhabitants towards Basse-Terre, and La Trinité.
“In summary,” said the Captain Leroy, “on this journey, the Pouyer-Quertier collected from the town of Grande-Rivière and that of Prêcheur, around five hundred people, of whom the greater part had had nothing to eat or drink for three days, following the drying up of sources, and the interruption of communications with Saint-Pierre, an interruption that began with the 5th May eruption.”
The same day, another mission, commanded by the Chief of the Squadrons Herbay, and comprising the adjutant Lagarde, the local marshal Lamfranchi, and constables Calé and Donati, embarked aboard the Rubis, accompanied by R. P. Vetgli, Father Auber, the chemist Rozé, and a few customs officers.
The priests, debarking onto the Place Bertin, gave the last rites of the dead*, and chanted the Libera. Then, they went to the treasury and the bank. The treasury was pillaged. Thieves had taken 103,000 francs. At the bank, in the first room, the safe was gutted; in the second, the safe remained intact. The vaults were surrounded by fire.
The information furnished by the gendarmes permitted the public prosecutor to go, next day, with Captain Evanno, and the treasurer Peyrouton, to carry out the salvage of the bank’s valuables.
The 10th and the 11th, the gendarmes made missions of reconnaissance and surveillance.
The 12th, they accompanied the incineration mission.
The 12th, they learned that bandits were pillaging at Bellefontaine and Carbet. Five gendarmes went to chase them.
The 13th, a surveillance post was established at Saint-James.
The 14th, they took forty-five looters.
The 15th, they made seventeen arrests.
The 20th, they were exposed to the second eruption. The post of Saint-James had to flee before a rain of stones.
Add to this the intelligence service in the northern communities, then the policing of all the regions where looters circulated in search of abandoned houses to plunder, and you still will have but a feeble idea of the crushing task charged to the brigade of Martinique, a task perfectly accomplished, thanks to the sense of the chiefs and the devotion of the soldiers.
Sad acts. Sad Accusations… Ever the racial hatreds. The prejudice of color.
Some journals, who find it easier to invent the scenes they describe or that they draw, than go look at them (it is cheaper and faster), have drawn upon the ruins of Saint-Pierre a flight of crows.
There never were. (1) Birds flee a volcano at work. In Central America, the people recognize an approaching earthquake by the panic, the flight of birds. They know there will be no more shaking when they hear the cock crow.
So, despite the piles of corpses in the air, there was no living bird hovering over the carnage. Vultures, scavengers, and crows, have too much fear for this…
But, if the menace of the volcano frightens birds of prey, it does not inspire the same terror in men of prey…
The note you have just read on the service of the police proves it.
One day, forty-five looters are taken in the ruins; another day, seventeen.
These thieves, they call the crows.
The tribunal at Fort-de-France condemns almost a hundred in the “same batch”. The punishment, uniform: five years in prison.
Now and again the volcano charges itself with dispensing justice. There were found corpses of thieves killed by the eruptions which, free of police, left the field clear to the “crows”.
When I went to Saint-Pierre, on board the dredging-boat, a hunt was recounted to me by the gendarme, the “hunter”, and a priest, who was “spectator”. This gendarme had accompanied a trader, who searched for his house-safe in the ruins. The thieves were already at work on this same objective. The gendarme took twenty. But a gang of a hundred almost gave him a bad end. They threw rocks at him, also at M. Cappa and other people.
The looters were organized into real gangs, obedient to their chiefs.
(1). The prophet of the lamentations of the Bible, has noted this.
This blog, ASK FATHER, gives the best summary I’ve found on the question of last rites for a disaster’s dead, where the bodies have been destroyed. The last rites are essentially for the living, and no living person was found in Saint-Pierre (arguably, but see Hess’s remarks). Either a type of ceremony, and the chanting of the Libera, functioned as a service for the dead, or the rites were given to some of the looters who ran afoul of the still-burning fires.
And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch.
It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up forever; from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.
But the comorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl also and the raven shall dwell in it; and he shall stretch out upon it the line of emptiness.
Isaiah 34:9, 10, 11
The chiefs carried big sticks. The priest, who had seen this, and who heard the gendarme tell his story, added:
“What was most amusing were the wives of the thieves, who prepared their meals.”
The father did not pardon the looters for profaning the tabernacle of the cathedral while stealing those sacred vessels spared by the flames, and spreading the host in the ashes. The ciborium [container to hold the Eucharist] had been brokered at Saint-Lucie, where it was repurchased by a priest.
It was not the Martiniquais alone who came to “prospect” the ruins. They came from all the neighboring Antilles. And, as by day they were exposed to unlucky meetings with the gendarmerie, many amateurs worked by night. There were gendarmes posted to guard the land routes, but the great route of the sea was open to all. And they profited.
There were “crows” of every condition. A scandalous story ran in Fort-de-France…underground. On a day of high seas and contrary winds, a canoe mounted by several young men found itself in distress on open water off Saint-Pierre. An American ship collected these young men. But their attitude and their answers looked suspicious to the captain, who passed them to the Suchet.
There, they recognized among these the senator of the colony’s nephew, the young Godissart, and the affair was suppressed.
From another quarter, the journal l’Opinion had published an article entitled: “Crows of High Flight” where very clearly, the Martiniquais saw that the people of Senator Knight’s party accused the people of M. Clerc’s party of stealing the safes from houses of commerce where they had debts, to make these disappear.
Such stories of ruins gutted, pillaged, have given the parties new weapons in their political struggles…
They do not dare to write still more, but they make up for it in conversations.
That is what I’ve heard!
It is difficult to conceive just where the hatreds of race, the political struggles and the conflicts of interest can carry men…
To have an idea, you must have been in Martinique in these days of mourning. Friends have said to me that I was wrong to write this. I ought to hide this facet of human misery, and that in my book I would be generous to speak only of misfortune, of these unhappy Martiniquais, to make everyone pity them and help them.
Certainly, I have the greatest pity for all who suffer, and I appeal to all human compassion for their aid… But, I am a reporter, and I must give to my readers the truth, all that I have seen, all that I have heard, all that I have noted down.
I cannot worry myself as to what follows my reportage.
If it plunge a minister into shame, as at one time M. Lebon, when I had published his useless barbarisms of Cayenne—
If it afflict today M. Decrais, in revealing his acts upon the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre, restrained under the volcano unto their deaths, by his order—
This cannot, must not, influence anything in the work of a reporter, which must be a work of truth, truth in its entirety.
It is for this that I owe to the public, at the same time, the most complete notes on the eruption of the volcano, the ravages of the volcano, and complete information also on the people who still live near the volcano.
And then, we have there such beautiful documentation of humanity, such noble indications of the psychology of our human species…truly it would be a crime to shut this away.
And so, read what I have read, in l’Opinion:
Like a lion couched at the foot of its tamer, that rises in sudden repressed ferocity, and eats his master, the mountain Pelée, whose terraces lay for centuries above Saint-Pierre, their verdure smiling upon its plateaus, awoke itself one day, growling and terrible.
And with a brutality reborn of former ages, the volcano—quiescent, domesticated—whose fertile flanks were laden with abundant crops, opened upon that city, confident and sweetly reposing, which stretched itself at sunrise, a horrible maw. The frightful and enormous volcano engulfed everything under its flow of lava, sulphur and fire…
We can only weep, bowed by the wind of this formidable phenomenon. Whereas, for a child who dies, our oppressed throats throw to heaven the revolt of their blood, today we bow, reluctant before a discussion of eternal justice. The child of the cradle and the adolescent in flower, the modesty of virgins and the grace of young mothers, all that smiles, all that is radiant, all that disarms, the gluttonous Moloch has taken all.
It may have been necessary…
Qui sait si l’onde qui tressaille,
Si le cri des gouffres amers,
Si la trombe aux ardentes serres,
Si les éclairs et les tonnerres
Seigneur, ne sont pas nécessaires
A la perle que font les mers.
(lines from “Napoléon II”, Victor Hugo)
Who knows if the waves that shiver
If the wail of chasms bitter
If the tumult’s talons afire
If the lightning and the thunder
Lord, are not of need
To make pearls from the sea
All this literature tells you nothing. You believe it engenders itself merely from tropical rhetoric… Well, this little phrase: It may have been necessary, and the couplet that follows: Who knows if…
…ne sont pas nécessaires
A la perle que font les mers
…has caused a great, very great emotion in the “whites”, who remain at Martinique, the Europeans and the Creoles. It is the whole battle of the races, black and white, that the whites saw in this…
The battle signalled by a victory hosanna, after the catastrophe had killed at one blow the majority, nearly the entire white population of Martinique.
It is appalling, to employ in my turn a robust adjective, that men could have supposed such an idea had occurred to other men. Ah, well! Sad as it is, so it is.
I’ve counted. Forty whites at least, of all classes and all ranks, creoles, officials, soldiers and officers, have affirmed to me with indignation, that in his writings (lines read between), the editor of l’Opinion had cleverly expressed what the blacks among the people cry brutally, to wit, that “the volcano has killed the béquets*, so the island becomes definitely the property of her natural masters, the brave blacks.”
One day, at the hotel café, many officers said this before M. Muller, the former cabinet chief of Governor Mouttet. M. Muller protested, insisting that this was not possible, that he knew of no such spirit in the black population of Martinique. The discussion grew lively. The officers maintained their own insistence. They had “heard”…
Elsewhere, there is an officer, who pointed out to me the l’Opinion article cited above, giving stress to the sensational passage…and explaining it to me.
I believe it needless to add that the men of the black party, to whom I’d spoken, have protested with an indignation just as violent as that of their accusers…
Sad, to see that despite the times, despite the new generations, the old hatreds of race and of color have not disappeared. What’s more, far from lessening, they are increasing. No one dares to say more in an official discourse, in a printed article, no one dares to flaunt in broad daylight the imbecility of which this prejudice of color is the mark…
And every day, in conversation, everyone breaks out with those hatreds due to this prejudice. I have heard the blacks hate the whites. I have heard the whites hate the blacks. The one cannot forget that he was once a slave. The other cannot be consoled that he is no longer to be master. And that is the constant clash. It is the war without truce. The parties are not disarmed even before the mournful work of the volcano!
One can write beautiful phrases of concord and of peace, of union and fraternity. Lies. I came to live for ten days in an atmosphere a thousand times more nauseating and more deadly than all the fumes of the volcano…
You would like to know the strength of this prejudice of color. The classic adventure of the white woman who cannot see a man in the negro, in the mulatto, and is no more modest before one of these beings than before an animal, is still contemporary. It is only yesterday. The mulatto employee of a tax-collector is called for some information by the wife of his boss. He arrives at the wrong time in her apartment and surprises her naked, absolutely naked. He spreads his hands, searches for an excuse, wants to leave.
“But no, stay as you are,” says the lady. “You know that for you this counts as nothing.”
*Béquet, also Béké, is a Creole term for white European settlers of the French Antilles.
And as calm as if she had spoken to her dog, without looking to cover her nudity, the young woman asks this employee for the information she had needed!
And the creoles, the white women of Martinique, admire this trait. For them, the negro, the mulatto, has less humanity than a dog.
On the prejudice of color within another order of conjecture:
L’abbé Valadier, on a mission to Martinique, had imprudently said that the blacks are the children of God, entitled even as the whites. They no longer saw white women at his sermons…!
Again, a note on these politics, these hatreds that cannot be disarmed even in the face of mournings and afflictions. This note is from Dr. Guérin:
“Senator Knight,” (the doctor told me) “went to Saint-Pierre for his personal paraphernalia. He wanted to break open his safe. They had provided him a master locksmith. They had requisitioned a boat…M. Knight is person of importance…but not so much, however, as to occupy a boat alone… I wanted to take passage aboard this boat. M. Knight refused. Is he admiral…? No. Is this not an infamy…? Tell them this in France! Especially because I was going to resupply my people in Carbet. Tell it, monsieur…”
It was on the Savane the doctor confided to me, in this way, his anger. A moment after, on this same Savane, I met a man from the other side…
“How,” (he said to me) “you speak with that old…Dr. Guérin…” (that, an expression which despite my reporter’s sincerity, my care to always repeat exactly what was said to me, I cannot decently publish…)
“…how you listen to the doctor…! But, he is a man of trumped-up noises, that’s all… Do you know what he is putting about now…? No. Well! Here is the latest… He peddles it everywhere that for the scandals of relief distribution, the Americans have been moved… That President Roosevelt has given orders to stop all new shipments, to close all subscriptions… That it seems the Americans had learned their aid profited none but the negroes… (He said it, the negroes, monsieur, this béquet!) …and had decided to send no more shipments. But it is this, perhaps, he was telling you earlier.”
“No, he told me only that Senator Knight is the tyrant of the colony, and that he abuses the authority which the government gives him too freely under the circumstances…”
“Wait…here comes the senator. Ask him what he thinks of Guérin’s complaints.”
And I tackle the senator. At the name of Guérin, he turns green:
“Ah! This gentleman complains of being bullied. He says we give everything to the negroes, for the sake of electoral politics. That we fix our agents, our voters, with this gift of American charity. That the whites are once again sacrificed, forsaken by the Capital, by our tyranny… We are perhaps the evil stepmother, as is said of France, of the homeland, Monsieur. But of what does he complain, personally…that he wants, would claim for himself? He has lost nothing, this gentleman, he is not a victim. His factory. It belongs to him no more. In three days, it would have been seized by the bank. He says he has nothing left, that he is poor. But he is rich. As long as he has worked, he has always placed his profits in the name of his wife… Ah! Monsieur, this party has no heart! But we recognize their maneuvers and we will outplay them!”
(Translator’s note: As to the charges, exchanged above, Hess’s conversations with Senator Knight and Dr. Guérin would have taken place between May 20 and June 1, by the timetable Hess gives of his visit. I haven’t so far found these stories in American newspapers, but here is a useful map, and a sampling of items that touch on the treatment of relief funds.)
Interview with M. Peyrouton
The Treasury. The Bank.
Our former colleague, Peyrouton, who was director of l’Estafette, is treasurer of Saint-Pierre. Returning from leave, on the Canada, he was to have arrived, by schedule, at Saint-Pierre on the 8th, on the day. But a delay would not put the steamer at Saint-Pierre ahead of the 9th.
Saint-Pierre no longer existed.
M. Peyrouton was charged by the governor to go forward, with counting such valuables and cash as could be recovered under the rubble of the Treasury and the Bank.
He went to Saint-Pierre on the 11th, with the public prosecutor, Captain Evanno, and a detachment of forty soldiers.
The “chore” lasted from noon to 11 o’clock in the evening.
The Treasury had been pillaged. In the gutted safe, they found an account-register, indicating the count of assets at the time this had been stopped, the evening of the 7th, was 103,000 francs. The “private mission” in operation there, of search and excavation, had not failed to seize the day.
From the two vaults of the bank, they pulled out notes, gold, and silver, worth two million and a few hundred-thousand francs. There were 1500 bags containing each 200 five-franc pieces; the gunners carried these, two on each shoulder, from the bank to the shore. Captain Evanno, who commanded the detachment, found six looters. He arrested and set them to work at the carrying. No small thing, this employment of thieves in salvaging the money they’d coveted. The captain wanted them transported to Fort-de-France, but the prosecutor declared that they must “let go” these voters.
The observations of M. Peyrouton, on the disaster, on the ruins, on the corpses, etc., are the same as those of other witnesses cited elsewhere. But, in a few neat words, precise, as must be from the mouth of an eminent journalist, M. Peyrouton characterized the catastrophe:
“The great disaster” (according to him) “is less of material losses, and the mourned, than of the disappearance of the more intelligent and more active part of the population. Martinique is decapitated. Those gone are those who produced. Dead, are more than three thousand whites, all the important trade of the island, the heads of households, their sons, their families, those who would carry on the tradition, have the financial means…
“The old and fair race of the colonial gentleman, the white creole of Martinique, is stricken at the head and the heart. Though sacrificed long since to the colored population by the law of numbers, it was this race of creoles, this race who possessed the soil, this race that kept the commerce, the bank, etc., etc. It is they who nourished the island.
“Certainly, it is to be feared this disappearance must be as fatal to their enemies as to their friends…”
M. Peyrouton is too “Parisien” to enter into the battles that desolate this unhappy country. He does not yield, either, in this prejudice of color. But the fault does not prevent him from noting, and seeing, and saying, that if the whites had no love for the mulatto and the negro; they, for once able to return this payment, will render it well.
M. Peyrouton has noted also the progressive victories of the man of color over the white…if he must he call these victories. And M. Peyrouton told me of the hold taken on the bank by the blacks. It is a negro, by order of the interior [ministry], who will be head of the bank, to replace its director, dead at Saint-Pierre. A black who has, himself, his prejudices of color.*
“And, however” (M. Peyrouton said to me) “the Bank of Martinique is legally the property of the whites. When the government suppressed slavery in the colony, it compensated the white property owners. A part of the indemnity, a sum amounting to three million francs, under the law of 1849, put into effect in 1851, was for the founding of a bank, truly the property of the former owners of slaves, who remained owners of the land…a bank intended to promote, to facilitate, their culture and commerce.”
It must further be added, that all the whites of Fort-de-France complain bitterly of the bank operating under the administration of the “negro from the interior”—thus have they designated the unlucky officer called by the ministry to direct the business of a financial establishment—in a country where for such work it is necessary to have a gift, tact, and a particular competence, as not generally acquired in the offices of the interior.
*Translator’s note: The varying terms, “man of color”, “negro”, “black”, used in this paragraph, are taken as they appear in the original text.
They even itemized facts:
They said that for the common man, the factory owner pressured by the weekly wage, the new management did not accept his documents, the receipts of deposit; the new order raised the objection, they said, that the accountability of the Bank was destroyed, that no one could know if his accounts of deposit were not annulled by accounts of withdrawals, and that only the courts had the standing to determine this.
And the whites added that each of these formalities, albeit legal, had not been observed when M. le sénateur Knight had asked reimbursement of a sum of 125,000 francs, for which he produced nothing but a receipt of deposit, going back to March…
They had immediately counted out for him the sum, in gold. Why, ask the friends of M. Clerc, why wait a court judgment for the common man, and waive this for M. le sénateur Knight, in class a simple trader like the others? Why suspect the good faith of documents produced by traders X, Y, and Z… And not that of a paper presented by the trader Knight?
Why two weights and two measures? Is this, in a democracy, the mandate of a senator, outside of Luxembourg [Palace, in Paris], and out of session, a privilege conferred to be invested howsoever…?
Is it that the dealer has to recognize the senator, bestow on him favors refused to others; and, they add (for this, perhaps, in this country of overheated self-regard, most excites his enemies), put at his disposal warships, the Suchet, when he wants to go to the ruins of his house before his other relations…etc…
Neither will they forgive his electoral tours of the 8th and the 11th, with the artillery vans.
And even those less passionate found it strange, the effacing ways of the administration before the senator, proceeding from the 11th. They say it is not quite regular, that Senator Knight boards warships and tours the shoreline, giving himself the airs of a great chief, having under his orders the governor, the army, the navy—in a word, everything…
It is he who requisitions, they said…*
I made the return crossing with M. Knight, and spoke of all this with him, wishing, as I said, to be given an exact idea of the Martiniquais mentality, and the colonial, for the occasion when I publish…everything…
“I understand perfectly,” he tells me. “It is your right and I don’t prevent you.”
“But I will publish your remarks, equally.”
“Then write that all these gentlemen who attack me are…”
“Oh! Monsieur le Sénateur!”
“It is not French. They have always been hostile to the metropolitan government. I demonstrated this in one of my speeches to the Senate, in a speech that lasted three hours…”
“Three hours, monsieur le Sénateur!”
“Yes, three hours, and Waldeck congratulated me… In this speech I had shown that the colonials believe themselves the absolute masters of the island. When royalty wanted to impose any measure that bothered them, they set themselves at open rebellion. They appealed to the foreigner… You have not seen them, now, flirting with the Americans?
“They reproach me for having ‘commanded’ these warships. This is infantile. I did have, it is true, blank requisitions signed by the governor, p. i. [par intérim], to be ready in all eventualities for the rescuing of the victims. But while the factory owners fled, abandoning their properties in the north to the keeping of poor negroes…me, I carried on with the rescue of victims. I have risked my life. I came near drowning several times. I have done my duty as a senator.”
“And your 125,000 francs from the bank?”
“It’s true, I was paid at once, but I had produced the receipt of deposit.”
“Not dated from March?”
“Yes. But I showed at the same time my account-book, the movements of the funds.”
“Countersigned by the bank?”
“No, since it was a personal book. You see it, this is an odious maneuver.”
“They contend, however, monsieur le Sénateur, that for other depositors, the bank will hear nothing, they will give nothing, unless on the judgment of the courts…”
“The other depositors…the factory owners, aren’t they? Our adversaries, the soldiers of M. Clerc. But they have only liabilities to the bank…they don’t know where to turn to renew their deadlines… They are all in debt. It is for this they cry so loudly today. There is one to whom we had to give 3000 francs, to pay his workers. Well, I made an enquiry, monsieur. He has given nothing to these unfortunates…nothing. He has eaten the 3000 francs.
“And it is these people who already are claiming vast indemnities. They have nothing more than debts. And they sign themselves on for enormous losses, hoping for proportionate settlements…”
“And you, monsieur le Sénateur, you who had a prosperous commercial house, you whose holdings owed nothing to anyone, you must have had incalculable losses…”
“That is the word. Incalculable.”
“And you yourself must have signed…”
“For a trifle. For three million.”
I affirm once more that all I have written is absolutely exact. The Martiniquais today, senator in the lead, battle for the insurance compensation. The poor devils who have nothing for their lives to eat, but the American fat…a horrible distillation of coconut oil…dream of tasting a pittance of butter…a pat, as they say there.
For others, it is a voyage, and making-do in Europe…
For others, it is the millions…
Not to insist. Human nature is truly, in all latitudes, a most dirty nature.
*Translator’s note: This comment of Knight’s enemies, left to trail by ellipsis, may, to judge from the use of the term requisitions, have been an imputation that the senator funneled relief money to his political supporters. The topic of corruption in distribution of charity had been raised by the battling factions of Martinique already. (See post number thirty-seven).
Above: From the Omaha Daily Bee, 22 July 1902, from “Too Smart for the Farmer”. Oleo spawned a political controversy in America during the early 20th century. Presumably some surplus product was sent to the volcano victims.
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 did not give me details on the eruption of the 8th, but he had a good view of that of the 20th.
“It was a black cloud. When the cloud had crossed the peaks, to advance on Fort-de-France, it appeared very black and plated in silver with patches of yellow-red. There were spirals of rolling smoke, as such that religious painters give to support their virgins. There was no storm in the air. However, after having crossed the peaks, the cloud was laced with lightning, lightning without noise. Then the cloud spread. There were two or three enormous flashes, after which a rain of stones fell, cold, with an odor of sulphur.”
M. Duquesnay is a doctor of medicine. He has thus received with a curiosity more enlightened than that of the commonality, those indications furnished by people who had observed the eruption of the 8th. I asked him if these observations allowed him to grasp the phenomenon’s destruction.
He understood. He told me:
“It was not the volcano that vomited lava, nor the rain of fire. The mountain opened itself laterally. It came out like an explosion of gas; a carbonaceous whirlwind filled with stones. It was not electrical lightning that pulverized the city. It was a huge jet of gas, a succession of jets of gasses igniting themselves in long lightning flashes, destroying and burning everything they overtook in their sphere of action.”
“Then, why nothing similar at Fort-de-France, in the second eruption?”
“Because the ‘materials’ had had in their trajectory time to oxygenate, so had arrived burnt up, at Fort-de-France. In this way the city was preserved from a deluge of asphyxiating gas. It received only cold pebbles.”
M. Duquesnay had noticed that the eruption of the 8th coincided with a partial eclipse of the sun. He had also noted the coincidence with phases of the moon, of various recrudescences of the crater’s activity. But M. Duquesnay, in the conversation, was not slow to neglect the volcano and its ravages. He is a political man. He was not reelected. He has been beaten by Dr. Clement. He represents, himself, 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 had been scheduled three days after the catastrophe, despite the catastrophe, and in a disarray of mourning that struck, particularly, the whites, so cruelly tried by the disappearance of Saint-Pierre, where had been the head of their party, their great planning committee, their printing-press, their newspaper, etc., etc. M. Duquesnay is very bitter in his reproaches against the administration. He has not much love for M. Lheurre.
If a boatman of the harbor had told me his complaints, I would not have dreamed of repeating them, but M. Duquesnay is an important person, the outgoing deputy, and his declarations are worth the garnering, as they give to those who would like an accurate sense of the Martiniquais mentality, an element typical to the course of these sad events which have stricken the island, the nature of it (and perhaps also of these men): this that they seem to devote to all their misfortunes.
It is in mourning, this unhappy island, but this does not prevent the practice of politics. I have found politics everywhere. They have them everywhere. And they keep it up everywhere, even on the volcano’s corpses. There is not a man among those I have interviewed, who has not, before, during, or after having spoken to me of the volcano, slid into his little political tirade, a tirade for the overwhelming of the enemy’s.
When I write not a man, however, I am at fault. There are in fact two, who said nothing of this to me. Two: M. Lhuerre, and M. Bloch, the director of the ministerial mission of condolence, and of 500,000 francs of relief. It is true that they have told me nothing at all, if not that they don’t know. Here are two marvelously faithful to their orders, when their orders are to keep quiet. And the orders were, indeed, for these two personages, to keep quiet.
They must not, they did not wish to speak, so to be certain they said nothing that could compromise their patron, His Excellence Decrais.
They had reason, otherwise, a thousand times over…for they knew the abominable reality: the evacuation of Saint-Pierre forbidden for the electoral cause!
And while speaking, when under this discussion, there are a few things of such enormity, that never can they be kept quiet…
This is what happened with the others, with those who on the fact of the Landes dispatch, and the affirmations of M. Clerc, gave to me two successive versions, beginning with denial, pure and simple; then admitting but the half, slanted towards an equivocation… Which was to confess doubly.
M. Lhuerre with his fat figure and his expansive smile, M. Bloch with his meagre figure and his retentive smile, both said nothing. In this way, they were certain of making no gaffes.
Here are two images of the virgin, appearing in clouds of ethereal vapors, if not smoke—the type of thing M. Duquesnay was thinking of.
Among the Experts
A Guardian of Sanitary Regulations
Protests All Down the Line
A man who truly is no longer content, not at all, with the governmental and administrative actions at Martinique, but there—through the month they are already calling “Volcanic Month”—he has been, is Dr. Lidin, director of the sanitation services.
M. Lidin does not do politics. No. That he has no regard for. He is a service officer, consequently outside and above all these relationships that butter the bread…so much on the table of M. X…. So much on that of M. Y… All this he scorns as much as the first tooth cut in the mouths of his soldiers… But, that’s the devil!
He is white. Things aren’t favoring the whites in Martinique. And have been, since the volcano, worse still.
The trinity of color that weighs on Martinique, the governor Lhuerre, a man of color; the mayor of Fort-de-France, Sévère, a man of color; the Senator Knight, a man of color…
Dr. Lidin does not say negro. He says man of color. This dark trio, he says, have undermined his task.
The director of sanitation services does not allow himself to judge the masters of Martinique for their acts, of which appreciation is not his competence. But of public health, he tells me that these three men have made an absolute mockery. And that the sanitary regulations worry them no more than if there had been none.
“However, monsieur, it is in these times when everyone loses their heads, that leaders truly deserving of the name, show they know how to keep theirs.”
And M. Lidin recites to me inconceivable omissions of regulation.
“So, when the D’Assas arrived, carrying the ministerial mission, do you suppose they would have waited for the ship to be boarded, to receive the all-clear from customs? Not at all…without a scruple…like the coloreds, although they were white, the aide-de-camp of the governor took a boat reserved for the medical examiner [it appears there is only one of these in the port—JH], and simply went aboard the D’Assas, with no precautions for sanitation… And he brought back M. Bloch and the ministerial mission, with no worries for sanitation.
“Here, we have regulations…monsieur. The regulations are not observed but when they can be used to bully an enemy. Oh! Then, they forget nothing. And at the least infraction, the magistracy moves.
“But this doesn’t concern me. All that concerns me is public health. Now, would you like another proof, of the shamelessness with which these gentlemen treat it, this poor public health?
“Look at the street corners, the notices the town hall has just had posted. You see that they sell, to profit the victims, the putrid cod, the spoiled flour, the fermented rice… Is it not a cheat, at this moment when traders complain they have no stocks, and retailers don’t know which house to supply, is it not a cheat to put on sale spoiled food, rotten, dangerous…but which can be bought for next to nothing!
“I know that they will say this is to feed the cattle, to make fertilizer. A good joke! They arrange this, for the feeding of the whites, this rottenness… And they will say, even so, that it is too good for them…
“In no civilized country, in no country that has public health regulations, is it permitted to market rotten food. But here, in a country commanded by these three men, we find it so… As you know…”
Dr. Lidin complains also that in destroying the corpses of Saint-Pierre, they had proceeded, “in the way of the negro”; an epidemic coming soon to complete the island’s misfortune, in striking the people spared, would not astonish him. He had to insist that they draw up a regulatory decree, for these “excavations” at Saint-Pierre, in a manner civilized, European.
In brief, Dr. Lidin is not content. Like all the whites, by the way!
Here, the official document, the text of the decree relative to the excavations:
The Governor, par intérim, of Martinique.
In view of the record of the medical commission rendered at Saint-Pierre, May 16th.
Considering that, in the present state, the prolonged stationing of persons in the city constitutes for them a grave danger, due to the infection of the corpses, the menaces of the volcano, and the instability of the walls which remain standing:
First Article: That excavations are, in general, prohibited in the area of Saint-Pierre.
Art. 2: That special authorization can be given by the commission of excavations for the recovery of valuables, and business papers, as contained in safes.
Art. 3: That these authorizations are given to consuls general, to establishments of public interest, to industrialists, and to traders, who can establish the existence of such safes.
Art 4: That the specific location where the safe is to be found, must first be searched to avoid the discovery of corpses in the process of decomposition.
Art 5: That any request for the sole purpose of searching for bodies cannot be admitted.
Art. 6: That authorizations to excavate are carried out at the expense and at the risk of the interested parties, and under supervision regulated by the Administration.
Art. 7: That the men making up the teams must have a change of clothing. The clothing used during the work must be washed and disinfected in an antiseptic solution of mercury dichloride, before it is returned to Fort-de-France.
Art. 8: That the corpses that may be found during the course of the excavations, are burned or buried.
In the event of persons wishing to transport these bodies outside of Saint-Pierre, this transportation cannot be effected, but under conditions provided by the regulations on the subject… etc., etc.
A later decree regulated conditions for “civilians”, as to excavations.
This decree named a commission charged with examining requests for excavations addressed to the Administration, and advising on the rights of petitioners; the authorization be agreed to by the head of the colony.
This commission (stated the decree), is to assure that the ruins where the excavations take place, must in reality prove those referred to in the requests. The searches shall take place under the supervision of an agent of the public constabulary. The commission will collect the valuables found, and deposit them in a special vault, etc., etc.
If Dr. Lidin complained that the decree of hygiene for the excavations was made tardily, and was not observed, I have heard many people issue similar complaints regarding the decree, as to the “security”, or if one prefers, the “sincerity”, of the excavations.
Warning! This segment contains a graphic photo that may disturb some readers.
Interview with Doctor Lherminier
The wounded and their care. Their burns. The state of the corpses in the ruins. Macabre scenes. The instant death. The causes of death.
Dr. Lherminier, of the colonial soldiers, had cared for the wounded collected on the shore at Saint-Pierre, and at the Carbet, by the Suchet, the Pouyer-Quertier; brought on the 8th, the 9th, to the hospital at Fort-de-France. Then, he was made part of the Commission of Hygiene, constituted to advise on measures which the presence of more than thirty thousand dead in the carnage of Saint-Pierre made necessary, for the preservation of the living on the rest of the island.
I saw Dr. Lherminier at Fort-de-France, and I made the crossing with him aboard the Canada.
Of what aspect were the wounded, what the cadavers, what lesions observed to allow the establishing of a cause of death, it is M. Lherminier, and after him, Dr. Saint-Maurice, and M. Rozé who will tell us. And if their notes contradict those of other witnesses, it is the notes of experts, of medical practitioners, that we must believe. The doctor has the expertise to see, and what he has seen is what was there to be seen, what was…on the condition always that the doctor is not an “imaginative” of the old school…
“There were,” (Dr. Lherminier told me) “two categories of wounded. The first, had general burns. It was these who healed.
“The others had burns localized to the face. Nearly all these latter were among the sailors who were surprised by the phenomenon, yet having time, however, had precipitated themselves into the bottoms of their ships. They died, nearly all, in twenty-four hours. They had internal burns. They had breathed the fire. Their anguish was extreme. It had taken the larynx and the bronchia. They wanted air, and the air could not come but painfully to their lungs. They had raking noises in the throat. They suffocated. And yet, they drank. They asked constantly for water…for water… They were burning inside. When, for trying to relieve them, were passed through the nose swabs of cotton soaked in glycerin, these brought out remnants of white mucous membranes, cooked; all the superior part of the respiratory canal was covered in blisters.
“These unfortunates were in horrible agonies.”
Why were those who had received general burns less burned on the inside?
Dr. Lherminier doesn’t know. He simply states it. The feet, the legs, the forearms, the hands, the parts uncovered were most profoundly burned. A woman had gangrene of the feet and died of tetanus. All the wounded lay curled up, their limbs in flexion. Their burns were of the second degree. By the 30th of May, they were healed.
All the wounded were collected from the limits of the zone of volcanic action. All those who were within the zone died at a blow, from asphyxiation. The fire did not come until after.
On the 16th of May, Dr. Lherminier went to Saint-Pierre and could see the corpses observed on the 9th by M. Rozé. On the report of this last, Dr. Lidin, chief of sanitary services, had reminded the administration of a few measures to preserve hygiene that public health requires. But the administration…like, however, everyone else even today…has not hygiene, but very vague notions, and confounds scientific measures of disinfection with I don’t know what fetishistic affectations.
In such cases, I have often noted that, either they mock the dangers of contamination, or they dwell on them to exaggeration.* And I have often noted also that, for their reassurance, they content themselves with the most absurd travesties. In the special case of Martinique, I am well persuaded that the little swab of cotton-wool soaked in carbolic acid and held under the nose, as a bottle of English salts, appears to many of the people a gris-gris, of the kind their forefathers imported from Africa, and which is still in use…with a few variants…Catholic…
Always this good administration denies all danger of contamination, and believes that having in their pocket the wad of cotton, treated with carbolic acid, is sufficient to equip the grave-diggers’ daily excursions to Saint-Pierre, making a shelter against all contamination of typhoid, which may be transported to Fort-de-France. Now, note that with the three thousand corpses abandoned to the free air, despite carbonization of the superficial muscles, and no doubt, also because of this carbonization, the intestines protruded intact—so many intestinal bundles, so many entryways for the culture of infectious germs, of which a single one returned to Fort-de-France is capable of giving birth to an epidemic, which, in these agglomerations of refugees, these depressed persons, would accomplish ravages terrible as those of the volcano…
But this, the administration does not comprehend. For it is of science. It is not of administration…there have been, concerning this, meetings of the commission that were epic…of which I heard some echoes… I could not ask for details from Dr. Lherminier. Not that it enters into medical secrecy…but administrative secrecy is also imperative for the medical functionary.
As this question of making the corpses of Saint-Pierre’s victims inoffensive, is what brings Dr. Lherminier to the ruins of the city, it is the state of the corpses, considered from his point of view, of which we speak above all.
“Under the rubble of the houses, a perfect burial, an inhumation sparing nothing…the mass of debris, of bricks and plaster, that covered [the dead], offered a flow of air, numerous chimneys by which putrid gasses could escape, and as, by the very configuration of the city, this gas must flow to the sea, where the winds from the east would disperse it in a fortnight, there was nothing to fear on that side. This constituted the first category of corpses, those that could not be seen; those that were placed beyond worry. They might reside where they lay…their home transformed into a sepulcher. And so untouched.
“Then there was another category. These were people the volcano had killed in the street. Some were found completely in open air. Others were partly covered in ashes. Those, necessarily, must be destroyed or buried. The destruction by incineration? as M. Cappa pretends to have destroyed them…under pyres of a few branchlets, with a sprinkling of kerosene…
“We know,” (Dr. Lherminier goes on) “how the incineration of a corpse requires heat… The pyres of M. Cappa were not enough. We saw that they had burned nothing at all. As to those where only ash remained, I would like to see what type of corpse they had been given to destroy…
“No, no. Cremation, unless with the construction of immense pyres, whose burning is carefully maintained…cremation is not possible. And in these conditions, where they had practiced it, it was a joke…
“The conclusion we came to was that we had to first cover the bodies in a layer of lime, then of earth and ashes, to form thus a superficial tomb on which, to prevent the rain exposing them, it was easy to place the sheets of corrugated iron that were found in great quantity about the rubble. What had been roofs…”
“How many were there, of corpses made to disappear…?”
“Around three thousand. Maybe more, maybe less. It is a simple evaluation…for no one counts with the same care as with objects precious to save, those under the Bank, for example…
“The state of the corpses?”
“Burned. Blackened. But those one saw at the limits of the zone of volcanic action were intact. The victims were killed by asphyxiation. The corpses I saw in the quarter of the Mouillage were partly carbonized. They were past recognition. Without studying attentively the form of the skull, one could not tell if they were black or white. This action of the fire which profoundly destroyed certain parts, is exceedingly curious, for, in other areas, they were simply scorched. Thus the sexes were respected. There was the rigidity in certain male corpses. But not all. It was rather the exception. Many women, those that were young, had their breasts intact.
“All the corpses were naked, scalped, hairless. And the intestines protruded unburned. They were of a purplish color, as wine. There was no trace of clothing, as I have said; to a few corpses, the shoes remained. I have seen a young woman’s body where the feet were blackened by the fire, without stockings, yet still fitted with pumps, whose varnish had simply cracked.
*A mayor of Guadeloupe issued a decree on measures to be taken, that his island not be poisoned by corpses brought in on the waves.
La Catastrophe de la Martinique
“The differences in burns could be explained by the explosive action of burning, of fire, on the muscles. Under this action, the most powerful are contracted, which puts the limbs in flexion; the weakest have been by force extended, and the most exposed are burned more than the others. This mechanism explains the situation of the bodies, nearly all of them, observed with the limbs flexed, the chest expanded, the head back, the neck arched.
“This action of the fire bends the knees, the wrists…I saw the bones of the forearms pointing, curling at the wrists, the flexed hands.
“The death of all was instantaneous. The bodies were frozen, acts in progress fixed at the moment of stupefaction, or if you prefer, of general asphyxiation. I saw the body of a man, in a squat…it was his hour. And the pose in which he was surprised by fate shows very well he had not guessed this to be the hour of his death. People, it was said, fled, seeing the danger to come. There is that. Others, though, were found in different, but no less significant attitudes.
“This is not to say there were none panicked, in terror, in flight. At a morning hour when recurrences of eruption had preceded the volcano’s final catastrophe, this must produce panics comparable to those we saw at Fort-de-France. The mass of bodies of women in the Longchamps quarter proves it.
“I have seen elsewhere groups of bodies, killed in an ultimate embrace, people who seemed to have wanted to die together, holding tightly. On the threshold of a house, there was the corpse of a woman, who had in her arms the little corpse of a child; the whirlwind of destruction, the torrent of fire, the explosion of the cataclysm had denuded, burned both bodies, had torn away the clothing and the hair…but she had never loosened this embrace…and in death this poor mother held forever her child, mouth to mouth.
“But,” (went on Dr. Lherminier) “it is not these sentimental observations that you ask of me, and I will not describe here all the groups I have seen of this type…of families…you can imagine such scenes in a city where are found thirty thousand people, people who had been reassured, people for whom it was judged they need not flee any danger…all this city killed surprised in the fullness of life…
“For some, the most nervous, for some women, certainly, the agony was long… It had begun three days since. It was nevertheless death in an unexpected blow. I saw the corpse of a man killed standing, in an attitude of walking, a leg in the air. He remained standing. A wall had stopped him falling. The arms were out in front. One hand held an iron can. He was asphyxiated, stupefied, carbonized, standing.
“One singularity of note, and of a nature to test the wisdom of those who work at things improbable… At the Caminade house, iron bars, one-and-a-half-centimeters diameter, were melted. This supposes a temperature no less than 1800 degrees. Now, next to this were corpses carbonized very superficially.
“And this. In the quarter of the fort where the explosion was particularly violent, since all who were on the hill were swept, cut down, carried by the wind, and they have not retrieved any bodies, even from the flank of the hill where a few sections of wall were left… In this destruction which seemed to have volatized all, in a place where had been the barracks of the gendarmerie, were some singed and blackened remains of horses.
“We have a few logical explanations of the cataclysm. We know beyond doubt some of these effects. But I believe there is a great complexity of actions of diverse natures.
“Some, though, were planned. An article in Le Temps, published the 7th, in Paris, and that we had not received until the 26th at Fort-de-France, indicated this.”
It is most regrettable (this is no longer M. Lherminier who speaks), that the minister of the colonies had not read this article soon enough to be convinced of the danger there was in maintaining the population at Saint-Pierre, the need for telegraphing M. Mouttet to proceed with the evacuation of the city whose destruction seemed fated to the editor of the article in question…and who seems to have been competent.
The Observations of Doctor Saint-Maurice
Dr. Saint-Maurice practices medicine at the Prêcheur. His family lived in Saint-Pierre. He has lost them. When Prêcheur was evacuated, the first time, he went to Saint-Pierre, to the house of his father. For all that he was not a “specialist” in volcanoes, what the doctor saw, studied, understood, urged him to not remain in this menaced city, and at the mercy of a phenomenon more violent that could come to them from one moment to another. He left the city. And he wanted his father to do the same.
“Take my example!” he had said to the unlucky old man.
Dr. Saint-Maurice returned to France at the same time as myself, aboard the Canada. We have had long conversations on the catastrophe. And all he has told me confirms what I’ve had from many other witnesses…that warnings had long been given by the mountain.
Dr. Saint-Maurice pegs these warnings to the first days of March. He had clearly sensed at the Prêcheur the sulphurous odors that came from Mount Pelée.
The fourth of April, the odors that had strengthened all through the month of March, took on a great intensity, and were accompanied by the first rain of ash that fell on the Prêcheur. A small rain.
A view of Saint-Pierre in 1929, sparsely rebuilt, from Le Courrier colonial illustré, 10 November, of that year.
A brief death notice for Jean Hess, from 26 September 1926, in the newspaper Le Temps.
The 18th, there was one more powerful, with detonations at the summit of the mountain, and quakings in the ground of the village. They collected ash and sent this to Fort-de-France, where it was analyzed by M. Mirville. And they warned the governor that an eruption, one signaling its gravity, had begun.
While M. le Dr Saint-Maurice fluttered his pocketbook, to give me the exact foretelling dates, M. Muller, former cabinet chief of M. Mouttet, added:
“Yes, it was a dispatch of M. Sully that advised the governor. And M. Mouttet seemed very annoyed. Good, he said, a volcano before the market…as if we havn’t enough with the elections. There is a volcano that would do well to wait.
“This did not prevent M. Mouttet from convening at once the ‘scientific personalities’ of Fort-de-France, the chief of the sanitation service, the doctors, the artillerymen, etc., etc., and asking their advice, counsel. The conclusion of all was that it would not wait.”
Another passenger who joined the conversation, Dr. Lherminier, said also:
“The artillerymen above all could not, did not, want to suppose the volcano one day could become dangerous.
“A captain among others, M. de Kerraoul, who had possessed himself of the topography, and “had an ear” for volcanoes, claimed that never had Mount Pelée worried anyone. When the Guérin factory was destroyed, he said, ‘It is curious. It is against all theory. But this is all the volcano can do.’
“Then, when on the afternoon of the 8th I learned of the destruction of Saint-Pierre, and I had informed him, he answered me: ‘It is not possible. It is a bad joke. It is not true.’ And now that he knows what’s true, he says, ‘Inconceivable. Extraordinary.’”
But, returning to Dr. Saint-Maurice, and his observations:
“Towards the end of April, one smelled the sulphur and there was ash in the air.
“I was at Saint-Pierre at the beginning of May. The night of the 2nd to the 3rd seemed to me particularly worrisome. At 2:00 in the morning, I went out to the boulevard, where one could see the summit of the mountain. We were receiving ashes. There was a constant shaking and unequal intervals between detonations. From time to time, on the flank of the mountain, lightning zigzagged. At the crater, it was like will-o-the-wisps, tiny flames that repeated again and again rapidly, until converging at length into one great flame that lasted one or two minutes.
“And then followed the smoke, the mountain remained covered…
“But many people did not want to hear anything, see anything, understand anything. Even after the Guérin factory was destroyed, the reassuring advice of the mayor made more than one person suppose the lava would always take the valley of the Rivière-Blanche. They did not consider that the valleys of the Rivière des Pères and the Roxelane began also on the flank of Mount Pelée. Me, I thought of it. I said it. And I left Saint-Pierre. It is not courage to fight against a volcano. It is folly!
“How much they were fooled! Alas!
“And what sorrow for my own. When the day after the catastrophe I explored the smoking ruins that were the tomb of my fellow citizens, my friends, my parents…!
“The mayor of Fort-de-France, M. Sévère, charged me with studying the best conditions for burying or burning the corpses. For this, I went many times to Saint-Pierre.”
In discussion with Dr. Saint-Maurice, who, when he speaks of corpses, speaks of the bodies of his parents, I was conscious that all these interviews offered some cruelty…and what painful memories they revived in the heart of the unfortunate man… But he had seen. He had seen well. He was one of those whose testimony, made in faith, gives faith…he spoke. And here is the page of my book where I have noted:
“All the corpses were still in place when I went to Saint-Pierre on the 10th. None had yet been touched. There were still…to estimate…around three thousand in the streets. We saw but rarely, exceptionally, those in houses. They were covered by rubble.
“Those in the street presented, nearly all, forgive me the medical term, the same “exterior habit”, black from carbonization, and also a type of coating, which studded them with black in the places spared by the flames. Naked. Scalped. The limbs flexed. Some had the intestines out, and also, among many, herniation of the thigh muscles. The rigidity of the organs, not with all. It seemed to me also, that the signs of asphyxiation, the tongue out, etc., did not mark themselves as clearly with all, because of the fire, perhaps, that came after. Many of the corpses had the extremities curtailed, mostly the hands, the feet….the fire.
“The attitude of all the corpses showed that the people of Saint-Pierre were surprised by death, that they had been killed instantaneously…”
But Dr. Saint-Maurice collects himself in a moment, searches in his memory, and adds:
“One can believe, however, that nature always wants to hamper our judgments, render punishing our search for the truth…we defend general assertions, yet beside innumerable facts, where we detach the one unique rule, absolute, the rule that pleases our minds, avid for simple cause, clarity, for the one cause, she places the fact that deranges the others, all the others, and is enough to plunge our minds into troubles…
“The general rule that comes from the observation of two thousand nine hundred and a few out of the three thousand seen, is that asphyxiation or stupefaction, perhaps the two at once, brought death as lightning, and the action of the fire came after. It was death without struggle. Oh, well…here against this quasi-unanimity, are facts which I have seen.
“I saw, on the door-stone of a house, the corpse of a man. The upper chest emerged from the rubble. The head was raised, set back. The hands were supported on the palms against the ground, clenched, arms stiff. An attitude of struggle against being crushed…
“I saw, fallen on her back, a woman, naked, but very little carbonized, barely licked, blackened by the flames. She did not present any sign of asphyxiation. She had a hand on her chest over the heart, her fingers on her breast, tearing the flesh. The other hand was flexed on an arm that seemed to defend her face. An attitude of fighting against the flames.
“I saw the corpse of a man in a shirt. The shirt was intact, not burned, only dirty, spotted with mud and ash, but the cloth whole. Under the shirt, within the shirt, the man was burned, carbonized… I have seen this…
“I saw the corpse of a woman… I saw the corpse of a man who had fine boots, and unmarred…it was by this same detail of the fine boots that we recognized the corpse as one of our friends, before whose house we were… He had always had pride in his shoes.
“These boots, thus, were intact. We removed them. They came away with the soles of the feet…cooked.
“I saw bodies completely carbonized beside thin boards intact. At the administration buildings, where the largest had disappeared, I saw a few pieces of planking. In a store crushed and burned, I saw a package of eyeglasses brand new. In the Caminade house, next to iron columns, melted, were two large books without damage…
Dr. Saint-Maurice also recounted to me the horror of bodies that came to pieces when they had wanted to pile them for burning. “The workers gathered them with shovels.” One does not insist on this scene. It is a type of reporting to me inappropriate. But however, I have seen, myself as well, these doleful pieces…I saw that the explosion had separated them, by the head, by the spine, by the limbs…very far, one from another…on the Savane. At the foot of torn trees.
But I note a forgotten detail of my walk in the ruins. All the debris of trees, all the pieces of trees were molded with a sort of red powder, of clear vermillion, and of very tragic effect. In the white, in the grey, and the black of the ruins, this was like a dew, like a rain of blood… I had brought away a few pieces. I had packed a little case with these, and the pebbles and ash of the volcano. In the disarray of departure from Fort-de-France, the little case disappeared. If these lines fall under the eyes of those who have “saved” said little case, I will be much obliged if you return it to me…at least half. This red mold on the trees did not exist the day after the catastrophe, for it did not strike Dr. Saint-Maurice.
Another detail he told me at the end of the interview. They had not found but one corpse of a cat in the streets of Saint-Pierre.
And this again: On the plaza of the Mouillage, where there had been great slabs of stone, there was a block measuring nearly three meters square, of a material whose nature he did not know. It was something hard. The consistence and the aspect of a cake of melted sulphur. Of color yellowish-grey. But cracked and raised, blistered in places, a hole at the top of each blister. Dr. Saint-Maurice had a piece cut with a pickaxe, and reported it to the town hall of Fort-de-France, that M. Sévère send it to the hospital laboratory for the purpose of analysis. It was taken to the government. And I believe M. Lheurre has made himself a paperweight.
That artillery officers were considered experts to consult on the dangers of a volcano, is not incongruous given what was understood in 1902, the local certainty that earthquakes and flows of lava were a volcano’s true perils; otherwise the flinging of ash and rock.
Near the end of the 19th century, and produced by such arms manufacturers as Germany’s Krupp, and England’s Armstrong, long-range cannons required a new science of trajectories, velocities, weights and resistances, etc., which meant, as to how far a volcano could throw its projectiles, the gunners could make fair calculations.
Below is an image from a 1936 article (click for link) on the state of volcanology, near the brink of WWII. Though the world had long been fascinated by Pompeii, the disaster in Martinique woke the science up to the threat of the nuée ardente, the pyroclastic flow. Had the real danger of Mount Pelée been grasped, politics would presumably not have held sway over sound emergency management.
An Observation of M. Muller
The equipage of the doctor. Proof of instant death.
Some persons who have observed, from the first days, the fallen bodies in the streets of Saint-Pierre; and notably, in those which were not strewn with rubble, had expected to see these dead in attitudes of flight. And from their observations, they might deduce that the victims saw death coming, had tried to escape; that the burned bodies had been burned alive.
Here is an observation wholly characteristic, absolutely demonstrative, and which proves instant death by asphyxiation or by stupefaction, and destroys the hypothesis of burning, against which these unfortunates could have fought.
I owe it to M. Muller, colonial administrator, and former chief of M. Mouttet’s cabinet.
M. Muller went from the first to Saint-Pierre. What he saw was that seen by others, and what one may read in the various interviews I publish. But he saw, further, a fact of the greatest importance in reconstructing the scene, the tragic, lightning-quickness of the crushing collapse, of Saint-Pierre on her inhabitants, to instantly strike the totality of the living, all.
It is in the street of Longchamps, before the house where a doctor had lived. The street was clear of rubble. The houses, which sat low, had collapsed on the inside. The axis of the destructive current showed parallel to the street. This street had gained thus only a little of debris.
Before the doctor’s house was his horse, his carriage, his servant. The cataclysm came at the moment the doctor had begun his run. His equipage was surprised waiting. And there it was, still in the same place. The horse, carbonized, lay on its belly, its calcined legs supporting it no longer. At its side, in normal order, the fittings of the yoke, of the harness. To the rear, in order also, the metallic carcass of the car. And before the house, the body lying, equally carbonized.
That is the fact. It rejects all theories that death had not been instantaneous, a bolt of lightning. It destroys the legend of the rain of fire, against which the unhappy inhabitants of Saint-Pierre tried to shelter themselves while fleeing to the sea, by curling up in bathtubs, in basins, in streams under overturned canoes.
More than man, an animal, seeing a phenomenon, a so-to-speak, “thing”, to which he is unaccustomed, who hears a terrible noise, who senses the fall of a rain of fire—more than a man, this animal will obey his instinct for survival…immediately, as a creature, a brute, and before him seeing no obstacle, thinking of nothing, with no weighing of what he may break…he flees, blind, deaf, mad. Nothing can make him stay. He flees…he flees…
If any fire had fallen on him, the horse of the doctor of Longchamps, the horse that was not restrained, since the coachman was near the house, would have fled, galloped, jumped, run headlong.
It would have gone to die further away. The carriage would have been broken, etc., etc. But none of that. He is dead “in place”, calm. He was killed without suffering.
And all the people of Saint-Pierre also. That this statement confirms, that this is proof irrefutable, is a consolation to those who loved them, those 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, immediately after the catastrophe, as director of sanitation to the search parties, for the burial or burning of corpses.
He was, from the 9th, at Saint-Pierre. He was, on the 11th, at the Carbet. He had thus seen the bodies of victims, on dates useful for making good observations.
Here are the most typical:
First, M. Rozé believes that any sign, be it the detonation spoken of by some witnesses, be it the eruptive column that ascended, in aspect larger and more red, be it the sight of the falling gas, which, from certain quarters had been perceived bringing mayhem down the slope of the mountain, and the valleys of the two rivers…M. Rozé believes a warning born of one, perhaps all, of these phenomena, caused panic in Saint-Pierre.
And he admits that one could have flown, a half-minute between the sensation of imminent catastrophe, which set in motion the flight of a certain number of inhabitants, and the abrupt death that struck all instantly. He cites these facts. In the street of the hospital, for example, all the personnel of a horse dealer were lying, face down, on the other side of the street, in front of the Colonial Bank.
At the hospital, a man was found in a basin, where there was no longer any water. Though 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 had wanted to shelter himself from the menacing flame of the volcano? Or simply because he’d wanted it for a bath?
In the street Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, where many women lived, there were corpses arranged one against the other, as they had been sheep, frightened in a herd. These groups were meshed together. A panic of women frozen in death. The quarter was that of the prostitutes. I have seen, in Fort-de-France, on the evening of the 26th, from this third eruption, and the cloud that threw its flashes of fire over the city, how easily the “sweethearts” of Martinique frightened themselves, and fled in tight bands, moaning, shrieking, hugging… There might have passed a thing like it, in this quarter where probably, all the night they had watched in terror.
Letters, carried by boat, which left Saint-Pierre at six in the morning, and were received at Fort-de-France, prove that in other quarters, in houses other than of this street, of Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, many women had not slept during the night, and were afraid. They must still have been afraid at 7:50. There is nothing extraordinary in this “pile” in question. It does not prove the unfortunates had sensed approaching death…
Another group seen by M. Rozé is…most impressive. Two bodies, on the threshold of a house; the one fallen in front, face to the ground. Between his spread legs, knelt the other, upper chest thrown back, head upright. This head was scalped, burned, it had no eyes, and lips without form around a black thing which was the carbonized tongue… And yet this, which had been the face of a woman, perhaps lovely, which had become a thing undefinable, nameless…this figure expressed a terror horrible to see.
The fate typified by the horse and the car observed by M. Muller, demonstrating the rapidity, the instantness, of the death of all who lived in Saint-Pierre, M. Rozé had seen also.
I asked M. Rozé what he thought of the story of Vaillant, and of the prisoner.
“Not possible,” he told me. “And for Vaillant, I have something more than speculation. The quarter of the street of Petit-Versailles, where the gunner pretended to have left the survivors, where would had been, in a house nearly intact, a family of eight persons—
“This quarter…I was with them, who had explored it minutely… There was nothing, nothing that resembled the descriptions of Vaillant, nothing.”
M. Rozé had seen no corpses with their bellies burst.
They were all scalped, without beard, without shoes, and despoiled of their clothing. They were seen completely naked, all… What power and what type of action of the cataclysm could produce in an instant this result? A power unimaginable in all the quarter of the Fort, that had covered the hill between the Rivière des Pères, and the Rivière Roxelane. The upper part of this hill was razed, swept clear. There was nothing, not a corpse, not any object, and the houses become as dust mixed with cinders.
Like any self-respecting phenomenon, this of Saint-Pierre has its contradictions. Thus, while all the other corpses were naked, and all observers had seen them so, M. Rozé saw the body of a woman on whose torso remained a bodice of muslin. Near the town hall three corpses had, fastened to the bottoms of their feet, the soles of their shoes—soles relatively well preserved.
All the corpses showed the same uniformly black color.
We note that this was seen on the 9th. In days to come, if viewed by other observers, this uniform hue seen by M. Rozé, and by M. Clerc, would have disappeared.
Among the greater part of the corpses of the 9th, viewed by M. Rozé, the charring had been enough advanced to destroy the hands. The forearms were black stumps, with at the ends coming out clearly, the radius and ulna. On the 9th, M. Rozé did not see the burst abdomens with the intestines protruding reddened, bulging, swollen, as were 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 projected against obstacles and torn, such as those on the Place Bertin amid the debris of the trees.
This permits the supposition that it was the formation of putrid intestinal gasses which burst the carbonized abdominal walls, thinned, and made the bellies open, 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. (The 26th, I found the 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 is true that later…
The 11th, M. Rozé went to the Carbet, to the little cove. Near the shore, there 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, nor even scorched. Its tongue drooped. And there was at its side, a pool of black blood.
Along the length of the coast, they noticed a decreasing intensity of the phenomenon. The trees were whole, the leaves barely singed. They found corpses wholly clothed and without burns. They had their tongues out and spatters of black blood beside them. In the house were found four victims, seized by death in their occupations of the moment, and 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, she did not bark. A little Japanese dog was unmarred. Equally, two little cats, which 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.
Thus, at the limit of the phenomenon’s action, the people had died of asphyxiation, not burns. And instantaneous death, as with all who had been found mutilated, crushed, burned, carbonized, at the heart of this asphyxiating, explosive action.
M. Rozé believes that Saint-Pierre was destroyed by a torrent of hydrocarbons that descended the mountain with the speed of an avalanche, increased tenfold in force by the volcano’s projection, a torrent which asphyxiated the people, and then exploding, burned them.
This accords well with those observations characteristic of the officers of the Pouyer-Quertier, of M. Raybaud, of M. Clerc, etc.
M. Rozé has given me a piece of news, by way of M. Thierry, inspector of secondary crops at the Morne-Rouge. With the town schoolteacher, M. Thierry had seen, “black smoke to leap the cap of the volcano, then, by seven new openings, to hurtle in torrents that covered Saint-Pierre almost at once, where they exploded.”
What caused the explosion? M. Rozé thinks electrical sparks instigated an exceedingly rapid contact among the ashes, the vapors, the hot gasses, the clouds and air of the atmosphere; that a battery of successive effects so close together completed an action appearing instantaneous.
By what to us seems a blaze of lightning, in the shortest space of time we have the power to appreciate, indeed to imagine, and that we call instantaneous, it may be rather a succession of lightning strikes that produce themselves one after the other, and one by the other. Let us not forget that there is no conceivable limit to the division of time, no more than of space…that it is infinite in every case and in every sense. Moreover, without obliging ourselves to go so far as to explain the succession of electrical discharges, M. Thierry (M. Rozé told me) clearly heard successive blows when the cloud came on Saint-Pierre.
Some people, added M. Rozé, said that the volcanic clouds were of water vapor, and did not conceive that hydrocarbons came from the volcano. It is, however, easy to explain the formation of hydrogen-sulphide and hydrocarbons. This gas can form naturally by the action of hydrogen from water vapors, in the first place by the sulphur of the volcano; in the second, by the carbon in the soil.
These streams of gas charged with a given electricity, making contact with the atmospheric gasses carrying a different electrical charge, can produce sparking. This sparking decomposes the two groups of gasses. The hydrogen of the volcanic gas is set free. The oxygen in the air also. Hence, after the asphyxiation, the explosion and the fire. At the same time, this double electrolysis has produced a gaseous rarefaction, that spurs a violent demand for air, explaining certain phenomena of whirling, tearing, etc., which phenomena elsewhere are also explained by explosion, by electrocution.
The Meteorological Observations of M. Mirville
The graphics from the registering instruments of the Meteorological Observatory at the hospital of Fort-de-France present some curious particularities.
Coinciding precisely with the moment of each eruption, were barometric jolts, high and low, or low and high, no one will ever know, with an abrupt instantaneousness; jolts marked by a vertical of a centimeter, its path cut by a dry line, a half-centimeter above and a half-centimeter below.
I explain the “no one will ever know”. The vertical line is so abrupt, so clean, so instantaneous that is impossible to distinguish the three points recorded from which it is formed. One cannot distinguish if they begin from the low or the high position of the recording stylus; thus, no one will ever know if the eruptions of Mount Pelée, in their action on the barometric pressure, had produced a sudden augmentation followed by so rapid a diminution; or, inversely, by a diminution, then an augmentation. The only thing certain is that there is an exceedingly rapid variation in the two directions, a variation transcribed by a cutting in the course of the recorded curve.
The eruptions were also recorded on the hygrometer. They are transcribed by abrupt descents of dryness, many, more rapid and more clear, than those signaled almost regularly in the middle of the day.
The anemometer carried, this also, the mark of the volcanic phenomena. Those witnesses who had observed the march of the destructive cloud on Saint-Pierre said that its path was towards the south, very quick. And it must be for that Saint-Pierre was annihilated, because Saint-Pierre is to the south of Mount Pelée. But, in strictest terms, this march of the cloud to the south, could be explained by only the laws of gravity, and the configuration of the valleys of the Rivière des Pères and the Rivière Roxelane, the cloud being formed of heavy materials and gasses. Nevertheless, the action of the wind joined that of the weight. And as the anemometer records at the hospital, the direction is marked ordinarily by a line tending to the northeast. At the hour of the eruption, the line jumped suddenly to the south, before taking, a little afterwards, its habitual direction.
And this explains: 1st, the direction of the phenomenon that overtook Saint-Pierre; 2nd, its dispersal over the sea, and the impossibility of docking which kept back the first boats arriving to land at Saint-Pierre after the fire, etc., etc.
On board the Jouffroy, similar observations were made. They confirmed, further, the craziness of the compass. Equally, aboard the Suchet. Finally, during later eruptions, when the D’Assas arrived, which vessel carried the wireless telegraphic apparatus, they noticed very complicated phenomena in the receivers of this. An officer told me the antennas of the ship were singing.
Anemometer: Instrument used to measure wind speed.
Decomposition: (chemistry) The separation from a compound of individual elements, such as a metal oxide and a gas.
Electrolysis: A chemical reaction caused by the introduction of an electric current.
Hygrometer: Instrument used to measure atmospheric humidity and water vapor content.
Rarefaction: A reduction in density, such as in the air’s oxygen at higher altitudes.
(As today’s episode records, the wireless was just beginning to be used in 1902; its role in the Titanic rescue led to a rapid adoption worldwide.)
M. Le Bris, commander of the Suchet, coordinated all the observations taken on board the warships that found themselves in waters belonging to Martinique, and brought them together in a report addressed to the Naval Minister, by the same mail-ship that returned me to France. It is to be presumed that the minister immediately published this report in the Revue maritime. I direct thereto those readers who will want to be given more precise observations, more extensive overall than my simple notes of a reporter.
The same for those who will want the complete works of M. Mirville; they will find them in the Journal officiel of Martinique.
I publish only a few statistics:
The minimum variation in temperature, before the eruption of the 8th, from 23.3 to 25 degrees; after the eruption, they go from 24.9 to 24.4. The maximum, before, from 30 to 31.8; after, from 31.2 to 33.1. [Mid 70s to low 90s, Fahrenheit.] On the 8th, there had been: minimum 22.1; maximum 29.3 degrees.
The barometric pressure noted on the 1st of May, at 6 o’clock, at 10 o’clock in the morning, and at 4 o’clock in the evening: 763 mm. 0 — 764.1 — 761.8, diminishing by stages, becoming, the 7th, from 760.7 — 761.9 — 760.1; the 8th, from 761.2 — 762.2 — 760.1, rising after, up to the 12th, where this was 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 to reproduce. They are:
Night, from the 2nd to the 3rd of May. Rain of very fine volcanic ash. The layer of it at Fort-de-France is around ½ millimeter. The state of the hygrometer is steady, during this night, at 10 p. 100 below the median.
Tuesday, the 5th of May. At fifteen minutes after midnight, the volcano threw 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, more dark at the edges, appears in the sky, covering the sun. [A solar eclipse, which occurred near the time of the Mount Pelée disaster.] Light depression of the barometer. The daytime oscillation today attains 2.8 millimeters.
Wednesday, May 7th. From the first hour and a half of afternoon, we heard at Fort-de-France low booms, followed by rumblings that seemed the noise of distant cannons. The blows were most violent from 2:00 to 2:30. The phenomenon continued less intensely into the evening. Between 2:00 and 3:00 pm the river Madame rose and fell every five minutes, a phenomenon produced by the sea, which lowered and rose regularly. The total difference in level is 25 centimeters. Sea 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 of the rocks that fell weighed 85 grams. All the city of Saint-Pierre is destroyed and burned. The destruction is complete in the quarters of the Center. The walls remain, generally, up to the first story, in the quarters of the Fort and the Mouillage. All the ships of the harbor are destroyed or burned. The catastrophe came at 7:50 in the morning, as testified to by the ambulance clock, which stopped at this hour. The layer of ash that fell today at Fort-de-France reached 6 millimeters.
17th May. Considerable mass of ashes, directing itself slowly towards the southeast, carried by upper air currents, and obscuring the 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. Height 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, going towards the southeast, apparently to Fort-de-France, at 5:30 in the morning, lightning and thunder in the cloudbank. The front of the mass lit by the rising sun, as from reflections of fire. Towards 5:45, a rain of black and angular stones, followed again by a rain of ash. Height: 2 millimeters. Tidal wave at the Carbet.
A note now, regarding M. Mirville:
This officer of the colonial health corps made part of the commission instituted by the government for the study of these phenomena, of this volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée. All the other members of the commission are dead, save him. Why? It is very simple. The commission was not to reconvene at Saint-Pierre but on the 8th. As all the members, saving M. Mirville were at Saint-Pierre on the 7th, and the governor, M. Mouttet, wished to have a communication* of a nature to reassure the public, the commission met on the 7th, in the evening. When this meeting was decided, it was too late, practically speaking, to warn 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 boat at eight o’clock, and not the one at six. The passengers on the 6:00 boat perished, all of them. Those on the 8:00 boat, when they were passing the point of the Carbet, saw Saint-Pierre in flames and returned to Fort-de-France.
*This communication was even posted the next day at Fort-de-France, when Saint-Pierre had been destroyed already! [JH]
The Observations of the Pouyer-Quertier
The exact unfolding of phenomena
Here now the observations most precise, the best and the clearest, that have been noted on the various eruptions of Mount Pelée and the events accompanying these.
They are the observations of the officers, the engineers, and the commander of the Pouyer-Quertier, the Company boat, of the French underwater telegraphic cable.
Many descriptions, many stories of things witnessed, if these have been witnessed “by eye”, can be legitimately suspected. I’ve had many I do not want to reproduce, which seem to me exaggerated. Not that I would accuse these people of lying. They were all of good faith, even those who made to me the most unbelievable representations, of that I concede.
But that does not prevent them from lying. In such circumstances, after such a catastrophe, which passes in horror all that we have ever seen, all we could even have imagined to this moment, is produced in our poor human brains such a commotion that the impressions become confused, diminished, augmented, memories distorted; and we lie, believing very sincerely that we tell the truth.
And then, there is the imagination…the terrible imagination. I do not speak of alcoholics, or of madmen. The imagination itself is enough. It is not necessary to be southern, or creole, or negro… Thing dreamed, thing believed, thing seen. And there it is. People are killed because these insane shadows become realities. They tell you absurdities against all the laws of nature, all the laws against which can prevail no saints, no gods, no volcanoes…
You speak to them gently of hallucination, and they knit their brows, they cannot comprehend that you doubt their assertions. You say to them kindly that unless it had been a salamander (and still), no being of flesh and bones, no being that has lungs and breathes, none could remain in the flaming furnace that was Saint-Pierre on the 8th—and they persist no less in swearing that the two gunners promenaded there, that the prisoner lived, and that they brought out an old woman.
After these great volcanic spasms, accompanied by all sorts of electricity, it must be believed 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.
The 7th, the Pouyer-Quertier went to look 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 the 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 upon the sea a rain of ashes very bothersome. 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 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 the black smoke coming out of the volcano enfold itself on the flanks of the mountain and on 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 course for land. A 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 the 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 at the summit of the mountain seven points of fire. From time to time, the craters lit up the flanks of the mountain. One of the craters, on the southwest part, we saw again in eruption on the night of the 10th. The streams of lava which, by day, are white, appeared 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 the Carbet.
The 9th, we resumed the rescue.
At 11:30 we were moored before the cove of Belleville, 200 meters from land. A movement underwater occurred. Bubbles, swirls, turbulence. The boat carried three times around its anchor. Pods of frightened porpoises veering off as well.
The 10th, again rescue work.
The 11th, there were clouds of very thick ash. We went slowly before the Suchet.
The 12th, we embarked still more of the victims.
We had a good view of the eruption of the 20th.
At 6:00 in the morning, we observed the same phenomena as the 8th. With this difference, that we did not see the two flashes. And that there was less ash and more of an odor of sulphur. There was in the sea a quantity of wreckage, six miles in length. We saw two corpses floating along the shore.
With many pains taken we arrived to raise our cable, to repair it, and replace the ends damaged by the underwater tremors. One hundred meters of cable were stripped of their sheathing, twisted, tangled, and disordered, like a skein of yarn pulled from the paws of a cat.
And the officers of the Pouyer-Quertier, among whom I breakfasted while taking these notes, conducted me to the front of the boat, to show me the two ends raised of the broken cable. And I saw a thing most difficult to comprehend. A cable underwater is a solid line, of spun steel, rolled into a rope of 5 centimeters in diameter and enrobed in gummed hemp. At 2620 meters of depth, there is a pressure. One end of the cable was literally twisted into a corkscrew. The other, matted with shells that encrusted it, had embedded itself around a log of 8 centimeters diameter by 1.50 meters in length.
Explain who will, or rather, who can, how this log of wood found itself at 2620 meters below the sea, just at the moment the cable broke, and just the moment to get tied up in a ribbon of steel.
What unknown power…?
The officers of the Pouyer-Quertier have told me only the fact. They state; they do not explain.
They really had no luck with this cable, which, repaired on the 20th, was broken again on the 23rd, at 1:30 in the afternoon, exactly in the same place as the first time.
The Pouyer-Quertier is commanded by M. Thirion, one of the men who has shown the greatest sangfroid during these sad days.
I had been told at Fort-de-France of incidents which occurred between the commander of the Pouyer-Quertier and the authorities, the public prosecutor, the governor, the senator…
I questioned, regarding this information, the commander of the Pouyer-Quertier:
“That’s right.” (He said to me.) “The Prosecutor of the Republic, a little gentleman… So you call him… Toilet water… Ah! Yes, Lubin! M. Lubin, then, was wrong to take us for clients of his, and try treating us accordingly. The 8th, we arrive at Carbet. We are mooring. At once comes aboard a little meagre fellow, poorly turned out, who demands of us, ‘if we had come there to spectate’.
“But, who are you?
“The Prosecutor of the Republic, monsieur… And the little man tries to grow larger. Are you, yes or no, at my disposal?
“I have received a requisition. Tell me if you have something of use to ask of me. And I will judge.
“No need for you… The population of Saint-Pierre is evacuated. The governor is dead. I am going…”
And he rattled down the ladder. It was time that he was going.
“And with the governor?” [Hess, taking up his questioning.]
“Oh, nothing… Only, on the 9th, they had sent the governor letters from the people of Prêcheur, and those of the Grande-Rivière, asking that they be rescued. And we were not sent there until the 11th. We wished to go sooner. And I have perhaps said that before occupying themselves with searching for the strongboxes in the midst of the dead, it would have been more humane to go and relieve the living of their distress.”
“And, without doubt, it was this that had you at odds with Senator Knight?”
“Of that one, if you will allow, we will not speak.”
That the reader, I pray, does not think these lines superfluous and spiteful gossip… All this is documented in the nature of fixing the human psychology, that in tragic adventures must be noted, and repeated. It is all the human record… And of value…
Bonus: The World of 1902
Two views of era fashions.
At the Transatlantic
An observation of M. Vié.
M. Vié is the very amiable and very obliging general agent of the Compagnie Transatlantique at Fort-de-France. In the course of the interview I had with him, the day after the eruption of the 26th—which threw on the capital a cloud of fiery electricity and gained us a panic alike to that of the 20th—M. Vié imparted to me an interesting observation.
To the clouds of smoke coming out of the volcano, in the form of straight, ascending columns expanding into mushrooms, the Martiniquais have assigned the most unbelievable heights. I have heard a gentleman, who occupied a pretty enough position, give to these smokes 80 kilometers in height. You have read correctly: 80 kilometers. The estimations of others, serious people, vary from six to twelve kilometers.
M. Vié himself has calculated this precisely, using as a known datum for constructing his triangles, the peak of the Carbet; its height, behind which rose the volcanic column, and then the distance from Fort-de-France of this peak. He has thus found 2200 meters, which is already a good height.
M. Vié, who lived at Guatemala (from where dispatches are coming to report two cities destroyed by a volcanic tremor*) had heard of subterranean noises at Martinique, in nature like those Central Americans are accustomed to. He compared them to steam-hammers, striking from below.
Moreover, his comparisons are truly of a type and nature for the better grasping of diverse phenomena of the May eruptions.
“In the boiler rooms, and also in great fires, one sees the flaring of flame; the fire rises, then fades abruptly and snakes along the ground. Imagine that by a lateral fissure, heavy gasses in huge quantities come flowing, following this way to Saint-Pierre; then, following that, from the summit a return of flames…”
And when I talked with M. Vié about the new condition of life in Martinique, the constant threat of new eruptions from Mount Pelée, and the catastrophes that could result…
“But, they do it to perfection,” he answers. “I have seen this in Guatemala. In the neighborhood of even the most dangerous volcano, they habituate themselves, and forget, finally, until the day…”
“When it kills them…”
“Just that. Then they are definitely and forever habituated to it.”
Needless to add, M. Vié and the personnel placed under his orders, those on the ships, and those at their desks, have given the local administration their all in organizing the relief, and that beyond their dedication, they have put at the disposition of the governor every means of action.
And, that these means were effective…
Today, various questions call attention to our officers of the merchant marine. I eagerly seize on this, an actuality from Martinique, to say, in thinking of these “fine people”, all the appropriate good ; always, and on every occasion, doing their duty, and more than their duty.
The Mayor of Fort-de-France
M. Sévère and his 10,000 victims. The American relief.
I do not have to repeat here what has been said in the public dispatches, and the information published by the dailies… I do not have, either, to reissue what has been said in the Chamber of Deputies, as to the question of Gérault-Richard, [in 1902, deputy for Guadeloupe], who, having demanded of the Colonial Minister what economic measures would be taken in the future, complained bitterly of the past.
But, I have to say what I have seen… And that to relieve all those injured, all the victims, was a very difficult task. The mayor of Fort-de-France acquitted himself as well as was possible. Because, for the most part, it was not the government that had the labor, it was the mayor of Fort-de-France.
The mayor of the capital is M. Sévère.
A lad very sympathetic. A youth. Energetic. Intelligent. He has in his eyes a fire…interesting. There are in his party many charlatans and a few repugnant individuals. I believe him, that he is sincere.
Now, you know, this is a matter of impression. And if you are current with the new theories of the psycho-physiological (which rest on facts and indisputable observations), I will add: a matter of “fluid judgment”.
In any case, I repeat, he is a youngster absolutely sympathetic, of a physiognomy frank and open. And smiling. I do not love the sad. True, there are smiles that raise your hackles, when they speak only to the adeptness of that gentleman who wears the mask…
The smile of Sévère is that of an intelligence and a force.
*Hess’s remark is contemporaneous with the preparation of his work for publication. As shown below, the eruption in Guatemala took place in November of 1902, while Mount Pelée began erupting in May of that year.
Hess refers to what was in the early 1900s a newly discussed (in the public arena) academic pursuit: the study of human psychology, with a view towards developing effective therapeutic cures; thus, in terms of identifying commonalities among illness types, and attempting to determine common origins. Below, three practitioners mentioned in a 1904 Figaro article (12 November) “La Vie de Paris, Psychologie physiologique”, about the new science.
Alfred Binet (1857-1911) Studied human intelligence; co-invented Binet-Simon scale to measure IQ.
Pierre Janet (1859-1947) Considered a founder of modern psychology. Feuded with Freud over ownership of concepts concerning neurosis and trauma-reaction.
Edgar Bérillon (1859-1948) Medical doctor and professor, École de Psychologie; pioneer of hypnosis therapy.
I have had the pleasure of seeing him several times.
And I have reckoned the crushing labor that was his to accomplish, since as we say in the navy [Hess was a Navy medic], first things first.*
It is at the town hall of Fort-de-France, that the organization of relief is centralized. Two lines, two pieces of information, suffice to give an idea of what is conveyed by this word, relief.
It was necessary to resupply, first, the inhabitants of the northern communities; then, going step-by-step with the “evacuations”, to receive these at Fort-de-France, to feed and to lodge them while they waited to be relocated, following a survey of possibilities in the southern communities, where they must continue to be fed.
A number. There are ten thousand refugees.
Then, as Saint-Pierre was the storehouse of the colony, the shopkeepers of the island not having great provisions of foodstuffs, the mayor of Fort-de-France had to make every withdrawal reimbursable, taking from the relief stocks that arrived very quickly after the catastrophe, from the Antilles and America.
Two services, one can see, an improvisation that was at no point effortless. Under the energetic direction of Sévère, these had been created, and they functioned. That they were not perfect, that it is easy to find more than one thing to criticize…agreed.
But the notable fact, and I note it—this that we must keep in mind—is that these ten thousand refugees have lived…
Sévère has the courage and youth that permits envisioning the future with confidence. He hopes Martinique will not be beaten by the crisis she weathers. And as he is the mayor of Fort-de-France, his desire for this city is that it must replace Saint-Pierre, become the commercial capital of the island, as it is already the administrative capital.
In the organization of the relief mission, in this spirit of human solidarity and compassionate charity that has moved all civilized nations, the Americans of the United States distinguish themselves particularly.
Their ships laden with food were behind only those of Trinidad and Saint-Thomas. And they sent food in quantity…in the way of Americans. They subscribed also…royally. When the cable from the Colonial Minister announced a mission carrying, with sympathies and testimonials of sorrow from the French government, a sum of 500,000 francs, the noise spread in Martinique of a monster subscription from the people and government of the Americans…
They spoke of millions of dollars.
*Actually, parer au plus pressé, something near “deal with the most urgent”, which is a French axiom; in English, translated more or less literally, it isn’t, and so I’ve chosen the closest match—SF
Then came the American consul, M. Aimé, from Guadeloupe, and at once it was known that this official, for the sake of landing soonest at Martinique, to inform his government as quickly as possible, did not hesitate to charter a little steamer and to pay 10,000 francs for the voyage of a day! (M. Aimé recounts this, as well, to whoever wants to hear it, at least ten times a day.)
And it was known equally, that to tell his government of the situation, all the situation, and relay all the miseries, all the distresses, wanting relief, he cabled a few hours after his arrival a telegram at 45,000 francs. (And this also M. Aimé repeats a few times a day.)
Then, the boats of food.
They say President Roosevelt [Teddy] summoned the captain of the first loaded boat departing for the Antilles, and that he had purchased by authority…by immediate requisition, Monsieur!…all its cargo… It was for a million, Monsieur! And that he had ordered this carried under full steam to the victims of Martinique. And this, Monsieur, was done in the half-hour after receiving the dispatch announcing the catastrophe…
For us, Monsieur, it would need three commissions, months, ten deliberations and fifteen kilograms of paperwork. Tell me about America…. When a thing needs done, they don’t worry about paperwork… But in America, Monsieur, they act, and then, if they need to, they regulate the action.
This, a rendering of how they speak now in Martinique.
And among the blacks, they add: “The Americans know how to feed their citizens in distress; it is their bread we eat. If we had waited for flour from France, we would have ashes to ‘swallow’…”
Among the whites they think, not without bitterness, that the Americans know how to “put the negro in his place”, that, “when a gentleman goes to a hotel, a restaurant, a theater, on a bus, etc., he is not exposed to degrading contact with the dirty negro.”
And whites and blacks, both, admire the Americans.
Oh! What the Americans have said, and have made to be said, in bringing their aid, has been thoroughly said.
I talked to a factory owner who was still under the charm: “Here” (he tells me) “we have not the aid of a centime. They took the Bank, which was legally, after the law that created it, the property of the whites. They want us to choke, they want us to move the earth… They do everything to prevent us from cultivating, from manufacturing; it is odious. What a difference with the American islands, what happens, in Puerto Rico*, especially! There, ready money for property owners, and they give them bonuses… The gold flows to Puerto Rico… One can work there and survive… Yet, they are truly Americans. Not to mention that there, they are protected against the rabble.”
I affirm I have heard much of this.
I affirm I have found among many persons of both parties, among the blacks of the people, and the whites of the aristocratic factory-owning creoles, an admiration for the Americans, an admiration nuanced with regrets that I fear to analyze.
*I passed through Puerto Rico in going to Martinique. And I have also spoken with a few people… Well! The American politics are not everything believed by my factory-owning Martiniquais. They favor the proprietor’s land, perhaps… But later, when he becomes Yankee… At today’s owner, they “stick out their tongue”, so that he will sell and take himself off—JH
With Admiral Servan
An explanation of the phenomenon. The ideas of the admiral on the future of Martinique.
An order of the day. The army and the population.
Admiral Servan (or more properly, commodore, but it is shorter to say admiral*) commands the naval station of the Atlantic. I had met him and I had been presented to him at Port-au-Prince. At the moment of the catastrophe, he was aboard the Tage at New Orleans. Returning in all haste, he arrived at Fort-de-France the day before I was brought there on the Saint-Domingue.
He had not seen the catastrophe. But the observations, the notes and the reports of the officers, of the Jouffroy and the Suchet, he’d had communicated to him, and he has also, though they were not under his orders, obtained information from the officers and engineers of the Pouyer-Quertier, the factory ship of the Compagnie française, of the underwater telegraph. He could thus study the phenomenon, research the causes, and form a pertinent opinion.
It was to ask this opinion I boarded the Tage, where, to mention in passing, I did not find the same commander as at Port-au-Prince. M. Bary had in effect been killed the month before. And Fort-de-France (army, navy, and civilian) still with much to say, despite the volcano. But, let it go… It acts here, the volcano, and only the volcano.
Admiral Servan, himself, practicing in his capacity of old sailor, with a mind to which always, of phenomena sighted, an explanation is necessary, had immediately found this explanation. While an astronomer would search in the stars, an aeronaut in the clouds, an engineer in the mines, underground; he, a sailor, divines in, and searches the sea. At bottom. And this, he has found.
“My opinion on the eruption,” (he tells me) “it is uniquely a question of water.”
“Yes, of water. All the phenomena reported explain themselves by the action of water.”
“All the smoke.”
“It is not smoke, it is water vapor. It is water passing over hot mud that makes the fumaroles at the base of the mountain. Although the ‘clouds’ that come out of the crater throw mud, stones, and ashes, these come from enormous quantities of water vaporized by contact with deep layers heated by the central fire.”
“And these enormous quantities of water?”
“They are caused by a fissure in the bottom of the sea. And what proves to me the existence of this fissure, indisputably, is the rupture of the cable off the shore of Saint-Pierre, and the marine phenomena observed by the officers of the Pouyer-Quertier. The action of the sea, in nature, is enormous.
“Now, in Algeria… See what occurs in the region of the high plain, after strong earthquakes and strikes of the sirocco, when the rains fall. The water infiltrates into the heated terrestrial layers, reducing itself to steam, that rises, shaking the earth… You follow my reasoning. You grasp my analogies…”
“Well! The fissure which is produced a few days before the eruption in the great depths, those where the marine maps are labeled “bottomless”…an enormous quantity of water has penetrated into the terrestrial layers of high temperature. Formation of vapors. The vapors cannot rise again by the same route. You grasp this. The weight of the sea. Then, as they cannot remain there, as they need to come out, they search elsewhere. Now, note that we are under deep layers at Martinique, where there have been six volcanoes, where there are six underground chimneys more or less blocked. Which is the least obstructed? That of Mount Pelée, which smoked in 1851. It is this chimney that takes our water vapor. Out jumps the plug. And we have the mud of the Guérin factory. It is loaded with heavy gas, with ashes, and we have the whirlwind, which falls rolling towards the city of Saint-Pierre, and destroys it.
“I have designed a theoretical map of volcanoes of the Antilles that explains this.”
(And the admiral has me look at a schematic map, most amusing, of which he has sent me a tracing, for which I am most thankful to him, because he has given me the occasion of joining to my articles of a reporter, a document of a general officer of the Army of the Sea, a document which will be, I hope, most appreciated by the professionals in volcanoes, if one at any time gives to my notes of a reporter, the honor of reading them.)
*In English, not so much shorter, but the French term here is contre-amiral.
The matter of Barry [Hess spells the name with one “r”] obviously asks to be found out. Here is a paragraph from Figaro, that explains the scandal. As to Servan’s culpability, if any, for evidence we have the sympathetic editorialist’s concession, nonetheless, that Servan’s character was difficult. Then Hess, who gives us a sample of this personality, and records—a mild hint—that rumors were rife in the Antilles.
As to the first complaint invoked, we will hardly hear of it. We have said already that it was absolutely false, not to say ridiculous, to attribute the suicide of the unhappy commander Barry to the tense relationship he had with his admiral. First, the relations of the two officers were cordial, to which the last letter written by the commander to his parents, a letter that has been read to us, gives full witness. The truth is much more simple. The tragic death of commander Barry was due, in fact, to a crisis, sudden and precipitous, of a grave disease from which he had suffered a long time, that had previously forced him to disembark from a ship, to take a leave that had become imperative. It is therefore absurd and dishonest to all at once account to the difficult character of the admiral Servan, a suicide caused by a very deep and very great pain.
Figaro, 30 July 1902, Marc Landry
(The article, going on, ascribes to tropical conditions in the Antilles the epidemics of typhoid fever on French naval ships, the political necessity of having the naval division stationed in the Antilles during this history-packed summer of 1902, with the uprising in Haiti, and the disastrous volcanoes, both in Martinique and St. Vincent. The article describes the great misery, in tropical heat, for the sailors below-decks.
Camille Pelletan, a socialist, was Naval Minister during this period. In 1904, with his support, the sailors of the French navy went on strike.)
Then the admiral, still in his capacity as a practical man, adds:
“But this is not all. The catastrophe is a fait accompli. One hews to the present. We have buried the dead. We have saved the survivors. We have fed them. We act now for the future. Martinique has lost her commercial metropolis. It is necessary to provide another. We must make these waves rise to a better shore, a New Jerusalem! Yes, Monsieur, a better shore. And it is here that I intervene with my ideas, my ideas of the hydrographer-sailor.
“Let us see a marine map. There, look at the west coast of Martinique, where Saint-Pierre was… Impossible, the great heights of the land and the great depths of the sea. There, see, bottomless, a new tremor.
“Eh! Eh! The mountain smokes, the mountain is working… This is not an unbelievable hypothesis… This can be. And then, everything, away to the depths. No security for the New Jerusalem on this coast.”
“Bad, monsieur, bad, very bad, very dangerous in the hurricane season, the ships are not safe, they must take to the open sea…”
“And the hurricane season lasts, admiral?”
“Half the year, monsieur.”
And despite myself, I murmur: “Charming harbor and choice of preference for the spending of millions, so as to make a ‘solid’ base for our fleets.”
“You speak,” said the admiral.
“So, you follow me, nothing to be done with the West of the island. No more at Lamentin than at Fort-de-France. All the harbor is military…and to want, in the same shelter…and you can see what shelter… A port of commerce and a port of war. No. A port of commerce is a port of commerce, and a port of war is a port of war.”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it. So, it must be that one searches the East, the coast where Martinique is well seated on the ocean floor, on the side where there is no risk of sliding into the ‘bottomless’ sea, at the first new tremor of the volcano. And one does not have to search for a long time. There is only one possible place. That, I have pointed out to the American reporters, for I have already received a few. You, you are the first French journalist I see here, but of Americans have come to me already about fifty; they have found my ideas and my volcanic map very good.
“There was even one who told me that this piece of paper was worth $1000… But we return to our port to create our New Jerusalem. We will build it in the bay of Caravelle. And the city will occupy the isthmus that goes from the bottom of this bay, actually, to the town of Trinity. I know well that the access is difficult. But, we will drag, we will build, we will clear away, we will make a dyke. This cannot exceed three million francs…a trifle.
“Then, making a start with the factory railroads that already exist, we connect them without excessive costs, and link the new city to Fort-de-France. And this will be very good, the commercial interests in the East, the military in the West.
“Ah! Monsieur, the more I think, the more I see, the more I believe, the more I feel that it is our duty, your duty as a journalist, and my duty as an old sailor, to bring forth from the ashes that cover Martinique, a New Jerusalem.”
The admiral is not only an ingenious man, a practical man, he is also an eloquent man. Now, if someone, peradventure, is tempted to believe I preach a little too much the eloquence of a brave sailor, of whom I have faithfully rendered this…biblical conversation; here, to convince that someone of my sincerity, is the letter I received from the admiral at the moment of my departure:
Cruiser Tage, 1 June 1902. Fort-de-France.
The innumerable occupations and preoccupations of the moment, have not permitted me to see you again. I have, however, thought of you, and I send to you the tracing of the map that you had asked of me.
Help us to undertake this task, help in the material and moral uplifting of this unhappy country.
I have shared with you some views from my deepest reflections.
Help us to bring forth the New Jerusalem.
There are difficulties. The campaign of absolute discouragement has begun already.
In hearts of steel, mourning and memory engrave themselves, and vigor is restored.
In hearts of wax, impressions melt.
The sailors of the Vengeur sang the Marseillaise while sinking.
The wanted to affirm that nothing of what is, or what has been France, must abdicate the work of eternal renewal.
With my wishes for a good crossing, take care, etc…
The Vengeur de Peuple went down in battle with the HMS Brunswick in 1794; the captain’s actual name was Renaudin, and he was among those rescued. The event was used by the First Republic as a propaganda tool. The slogan the doomed sailors cried, and the singing of the Marseillaise are thought by historians legend, or semi-legend.
While researching this allusion, I found the following bit of interest, on the censorship of Napoleon III’s regime. That we can smile at the censor’s work is proof of the freedoms we have, and mean to keep, in publishing.
Figaro, 23 February 1868
We read in the Journal de Paris, under the signature of M. Noir:
On the subject of the Vengeur, they worry themselves a great deal about the cry the actors hurl when the ship goes down. Some pretend, having logic on their side, that the cry is: Vive la République! Others assert, having for themselves precedent, that the cry is: Vive l’Empereur!The censor has found an angle: the Vengeur will be engulfed to the cry of: Vive la France!
We believe that it is not without interest to place before the eyes of the reader the end of the last scene, as it is written by the authors, and to show it to them after, as corrected by MM. les censeurs.
Before the Censor
THE ENGLISH CAPTAIN (with his bullhorn): Bring your flag!
RICHARD, captain of the Vengeur: No! Never!
ELOY, to Richard: Captain, we’re sinking!
RICHARD: Vive la République!
ELOY: Vive la République!
THE ENTIRE CREW, hanging on everywhere to escape the waves, at the rear of the ship: Vive la République!
(The ship sinks more and more and disappears. The orchestra plays the first measure of the Marseillaise.)
After the Censor
THE ENGLISH CAPTAIN: Bring your flag!
RICHARD: No! Never!
ELOY, to Richard: Captain, we’re sinking!
RICHARD: Vive la France!
ELOY: Vive la France!
THE ENTIRE CREW: Vive la France!
(The ship sinks more and more. The sail falls.)
We do not know yet what the orchestra plays.
During this historical lie, why not accompany the disappearance of the Vengeur with the air from Reine Hortense, or, if one cannot be political, replace the Marseillaise with the Chapeau de Marguerite; one being permitted in the Vengeur to change the verses of the Chant du départ…
Here it is, admiral; I have exposed your “views from deepest reflections”. I address to the “hearts of steel” your appeal for “bringing forth the New Jerusalem”.
Since I cite from the documents of the admiral, this as well:
Order of the Day
The Commodore, commander-in-chief of the Naval Division of the Atlantic:
Attach to the Order of the Day of the Naval Division, this testimony of satisfaction, which he is pleased to address to the commanders, officers, petty-officers, and sailors of the Suchet, of the defense stationed at Fort-de-France, and of the Jouffroy, for their good conduct in the course of rescue operations, of evacuation, and of resupplying, in which, from the 8th to the 22nd of May, they have participated, following the catastrophe at Saint-Pierre.
The orders by telegraph of the admiral and the commander-in-chief: “Bring relief by all means possible”, could not have been better understood or better executed.
From one end of Martinique to the other, united to the Navy by so many memories and sympathies reciprocated; in all this colony so dear to France, more beloved than ever, which has come to be decimated by the most striking and the most inconceivable disaster, with one voice is recognized and celebrated what all the French sailors present at Fort-de-France have spontaneously done in these unforgettable days.
Under the energetic direction of Commander Le Bris of the Suchet, by the side of their brothers of the army, of elite citizens whose names are on everyone’s lips; by the side of the Danish cruiser Valkyrien, with the steamer Pouyer-Quertier, they have, by their audacious initiative, their tenacious devotion, their indefatigable ardor, supported by their measureless compassion for the unfortunates, proved time and again how much they carry in their hearts the highest feelings of duty, of all duties.
Time and again they have shown how much, whatever the trials, the Nation can count on them, how they are worthy of her love and her confidence, to what extent they are penetrated by the virile and fundamental military virtues.
The Commodore, commander-in-chief, requests the commanders of the Suchet, of the permanent defense; and of the Jouffroy, to address to him, by the date of 5th June, in the regulation form, the final outlines of propositions which they believe must establish favorably those officers, petty-officers, and sailors, who have particularly distinguished themselves. The councils of promotion are meeting in a special session, before the date above. A copy of the present Order of the Day will be pinned to the minutes.
Aboard the Tage, Fort-de-France, 26 May 1902,
The Commodore, commander-in-chief of the Naval Division of the Atlantic,
N. b. The present order will be read before the assembled crews and posted in the batteries for twenty-four hours.
The army has also their Orders of the Day, as to felicitations. Here is a note from l’Opinion that summarized them:
In the catastrophe that has befallen us, all have done their duty. We endeavor here to recognize those acts of devotion brought to our awareness, and to express, in the name of our country, our admiration for all these valiant hearts. But it is with a patriotic satisfaction that we record the names of the military personnel who have more particularly distinguished themselves. Our army, in fact, has given its full cooperation, under its chief, the sympathetic Colonel Dain, who spares nothing, to the ordinary enlisted men, who, knapsack on back, have guarded our stores and patrolled our streets.
We especially cite:
Captain Evanno, of the colonial artillery, who saved the cash of the Bank, notably assisted by Sergeant Bœuf and Private David;
Lieutenant Roussel, who, at the Carbet, buried more than 250 corpses, and in the midst of the successive torments that have fallen on this unlucky town, has reassured the population, and by his courage revived them;
Lieutenant Lemaire, who, under the direction of the pharmacist Rozé, presided over the burial of corpses by the soldiers, at the Carbet on May the 10th;
Lieutenant Teissier, who distinguished himself, on that very day of 8th May, in going to bring back the wounded at the Carbet;
Brigadier of Artillery Fress, who has resupplied Fond-Saint-Denis, and saved from the worst dangers the family of Albéric Godissard, at the Morne Rouge;
The gunners Vaillant and Tribut, who, the day following the catastrophe; that is, the 9th of May, left Colson, having crossed the whole of Saint-Pierre still burning, and brought back one of the wounded.
All our felicitations to these brave men.
This passage contains, within quotes from interview subjects, some strongly racist opinions.
The journal that represents the radical socialist majority of Martinique voters, the organ of the people of color, of negroes has printed, therefore, these beautiful compliments to the army…
Perhaps one is curious to read, not what was printed by the army, since the army printed nothing, but what was said by the mouths of its officers.
I ought not to write its officers, since I have not heard from all its officers. But I’ve heard many, whether they spoke in groups where I found myself…or, well…nearby.
Here is a summary of what they say:
“It is shameful to make us work for these dirty negroes, for these pigs, who, since they are victims, want to work no longer, and rest themselves. White soldiers are not meant to be servants to those people, and the drudgery imposed on them makes them servants. They are made to unload food for the victims, as though the victims could not unload their own…but this fatigues these gentlemen.”
A sailor said:
“Happily, the commander of the Navy has said he no longer wants his men hammered with these chores. As a result, the negroes have let the rains damage several tons of commodities.”
A gunner said:
“Now you have to pay all these loafers double when you need a man for heavy labor. The mayor feeds his voters.”
Another who, before being an officer, had been an enfant de troupe [fairly analogous to the term “army brat”], a Breton, said: “It is shameful to see the bread they give to these negroes, of the first quality, white bread such as thousands and thousands of Bretons have never eaten and never will eat, such as they never give to a soldier…monsieur, up to the age of twenty-five years, I had known there was bread like that, but I had never eaten it. And all these negroes are having it for nothing, without working…is it not shameful?”
This tirade, I guarantee it absolutely exact, not only in substance, but in form. It is the same officer who said to me, while showing the Schoelcher library: “See there, see the great gentleman thief, him whose busts and statues we ought to send to the prison hulk, because for him we must see the negro here dominate the white. That was him, who wanted it.”
When I then told this officer that for a long time I had worked with the master, and that the ideas of the great emancipator had been simply to want justice for everyone; that forbidding the white to oppress the black was not at all to deliver the white to the oppression of the black, he supposed I was joking. He did not want to believe.
The army, in Martinique, hates the black. It is still under the blow of the events at Le François. It still has not forgiven the black the disgrace of M. Kahn. And it lets itself be blinded by the prejudice of color. A white officer does not admit that a black man can be a citizen…
I say all the officers with whom I have spoken, or that I have heard speak. Perhaps there are others with whom the passions of race, of caste and of class, have not obscured their reason. But those, I have not yet known.
Article excerpt, Figaro 3 March 1900
The Troubles of Martinique
The journals of Martinique arrived here yesterday carrying to us different versions of the sad events, occurring for a month in the colony; and particularly of the deplorable clash, which, pitting a troop of marines against the strikers, has bloodied the town of Le François.
We know the origin of the conflict. On the 8th of February a detachment of twenty-five soldiers, commanded by Lieutenant Kahn, arrived at Le François, at the request of the mayor, to occupy the Liottier factory that the strikers threatened. The next day, at five in the evening, a band of several hundred strikers presented themselves before the factory, now closed by its director, but before the door of which Lieutenant Kahn had posted his men, with crossed bayonets, while the mayor, M. Clément, spoke to the crowd and tried to restore calm.
On the facts, the different versions are in accord. Where they differ is on the manner of the fusillade which exploded, felling, alas! to the ground nine dead and fourteen wounded.
Senator Knight Again
I made the return crossing in the company of M. le sénateur Knight. I have mentioned already, in the course of this volume, some of the “political views” of the senator, and how, violently attacked by his enemies, he defends himself no less violently.
But he has spoken to me also of many other things…not of the eruption of the 8th, because he had not seen it, but on the state of the ruins.
His observations accord closely with those I have recorded and published. One, however, seems to me strange.
The senator did not see any ashes at Saint-Pierre. And this should be noted, only to show how in these sorts of inquiries the truth is difficult to disengage, how at times the most perspicacious are able to not see…the same evidence. Saint-Pierre was covered in ashes. Everyone saw them. I saw them. The moist ashes made a thick carpet. All the photographs show ashes.
And that does not prevent M. Knight, important personage, big businessman, chief of a political party, senator, perhaps tomorrow statesman, from often, very often, repeating to me that there were no ashes at Saint-Pierre!
It is not, however, a question of political interest. There is no advantage to anyone to deny or to affirm that there were ashes at Saint-Pierre; it is a simple question of fact…and we do not yet agree on this question.
And I have observed, as long as I have been reporting, that never, on the facts, on the evidences, can one find agreement among witnesses.
Judge what this can do when any interest is in play.
Thus, M. Knight, elected by the majority of color, has an interest in presenting his electors as a people of superior humanity. He has always been very annoyed when I’ve spoken to him of pillages, when I’ve spoken to him of distributions of relief, etc. The panics he does not remember either. He knows only one thing. He is the senator of a population heroic…and even so, if you push him a little, without reticence he will tell you amiably that he has himself, like others elsewhere, accomplished a few heroic actions.
He recounts, for example, that passing with the Suchet before the communities of the North, a town threatened, so that no one on the Suchet dared risk a landing, the state of the sea breaking terribly, he went there himself, for the sake of reassuring the population with a few good speeches. That, I will remember he told this us, Marcel Hutin and myself, when on the day of our arrival at Bordeaux we dined at his side.
Marcel Hutin has not published it in his interview with the senator. But he has published this [Senator Knight, speaking of himself]:
I have the advantage of enjoying a certain reputation on the island; I had arrived a few days previously, to add my influence to the Republican candidates. Already the volcanic phenomena were in process, though no one could foresee the danger this threatened.
If I wanted to recount to you all that has passed, I could not. I have assisted at heroic scenes, because, it must be said, all the population of Martinique have done their duty admirably. The mayor of Prêcheur, the brave M. Grelet, a man of color, has given the example of self-abnegation, remaining among his charges throughout all the times of danger; he was the last to save himself. The first day, when I went to Prêcheur to bring aid, no one wanted aid; what they wanted was to flee before the peril, for the flames were everywhere.
When I came from the Suchet, I said that I could bring back only about 250 people; tomorrow, I told them, I will come to save you all; and I then had taken back to the Suchet, by canoers of remarkable skill and disinterest, that have no equal in history, I am sure, all the women, all the children of young age; the others remained, asking that the next day we come back for them again. God wanted us to find them, happily, for these brave people would have perished from a death most terrible.
Now, see what I have read on the people of Prêcheur, in the journal Les Colonies, on the 7th of May.
The state of mind of the unhappy population of Prêcheur is deplorable. The morale has very much collapsed, and the mayor, M. Grelet, despite all his efforts, has not managed to raise it. Yesterday, on the order of the governor, a new convoy of food was brought to Prêcheur under care of M. Pignier, local service agent at Saint-Pierre (6000 kilograms of salted meat, beans, cod). The representatives of the administration met to effect the distribution of the food, the greatest of their difficulties. Barely arrived on the shore, the barge was overrun by the crowd, and the official assigned to that service had all the pains in the world to make the unfortunate inhabitants understand that it was necessary for them to show vouchers with the mayor’s stamp, acquired beforehand.
“M. Grelet, the mayor of Prêcheur, for all his activity, is overwhelmed and overworked. The steamer sent by the administration has brought to Saint-Pierre a great number of families of Prêcheur, who do not want to stay longer in this locality. Many others could not find a place on board, the boat needing to take to sea suddenly, not to be exposed to sinking with all its passengers.
This occurred on the 6th, after the small eruption of the 5th. Imagine the state of mind of the unfortunate people having to strengthen itself after the terrible eruption of the 8th. Heroes are not persons who run on the streets, no more in Martinique than elsewhere. Men are the same all over, whatever their race. But one does not see, in this, reproach to M. le sénateur Knight. He is within his role presenting his voters as heroes. And I am in my role also, my role of reporter, in putting forth again what exceeds a little too much the permitted measure.
There are in our French character some disconcerting aspects. We have, for a few years, lost the sense of measure. In matters of heroism especially. It must be heroes for us, always and everywhere. A gentleman is attacked on any point of our colonial domain…and defends his skin. He is a hero. In this present case of Martinique, people go by boat in search of others…they are heroes. But if one reflects a little, the feeling goes off. Truly, this is an exaggeration…
Note that I do not particularly look to quibble with anyone. But assigning blame for exaggeration and bluff on the Americans, it is right that I do not keep silent about our own.
Of information available, the National Library of France has:
Born in 1869, died in the 1940s.
Editor-in-chief of l’Echo de Paris.
Est arrêté le 10 juillet 1942 à Paris (10e arrondissement) pour “refus de porter l’insigne juif.”
Arrested on July 10, 1942 (10th Arrondissement) for “refusing to wear the Jewish insignia”.
And I come again to M. le sénateur Knight.
He has lost one hundred and four members of his family, and all his belongings, all his fortune (save the 125,000 francs given him by the Bank), but, he says, this personal ruin does not preoccupy him. It is nothing. He thinks of the citizens.
In quitting Martinique he made for them, through the channel of the journal l’Opinion, his adieus, which are worth preserving.
See them here:
“On the eve of leaving Martinique in mourning, I send to my fellow citizens in brotherly salute, not a goodbye, but a brotherly until we meet again. Evils without precedent have stricken our dear country. The catastrophe of the 8th of May weighs as an anguished memory on our hearts forever wounded.
“Saint-Pierre, the soul of our colony, the hub of activity and intellect, and of all aspiration, was annihilated in a few minutes, burned, wrenched, crushed by the devouring flames of the volcano, and the ruins still smoking cover thirty-five thousand of our fellow citizens, at rest in the eternal sleep. Death has mown harshly: old men, women, adults, children, the past, the present, the future, all have perished. What family does not weep over the loss of a dear one!
“What misery for the lucky survivors for whom the brutal eruption has consummated their ruin!
“What can I say of the environs of the great city? The Prêcheur, Grande-Rivière, Macouba, all the places, yesterday so animated, now to stunned eyes a heartbreaking tableau of abominable destruction?
“The populations of Prêcheur, Grande-Rivière, Macouba, of Basse-Point, of Ajoupa-Bouillon, of Morne-Rouge, and all these twenty-five thousand inhabitants, have of necessity, to escape death, abandoned the places they were attached to by so many ties, and sought refuge in others less threatened.
“Everywhere the worry and the anxiety are great, and yet you do not despair, for you believe with me that the evil volcano has finished its work of desolation; and again, with courage, energy, and the patriotism also that you have never abandoned, you envision the possibility of reconstructing what has been made to disappear, by the pitiless forces of nature. Moreover, are we not fortified in our hope by great universal demonstrations of pity, by those spontaneous acts of human solidarity, of which we have received so many comforting testimonies?
“Thank you to all the peoples who have sorrowfully taken in the news of our disasters!
“France, like a mother bereaved, who has lost her beloved children, sends us the cry of her poignant distress. It has been my part to assist through trials without name, to have shared with you the same joys, and to have known with you all the mourning. I remained in the midst of you, to lend without striking bargains, my contribution to all those who, in a magnificent outpouring of generosity, have exerted themselves to organize the relief.
“We must give homage to the unflagging activity, the devotion, the total competence of our acting governor, M. Lhurre, to whose responsibility fell, in these tragic circumstances, the heavy burden of facing every difficulty.
“You have seen Sévère, the mayor of Fort-de-France, make his deployments with a zeal that touches upon his great qualities as leader, aiding the governor in warding off the miseries that threaten us.
“We hold them in our gratitude, as well as all who were employed by him, among others, those under the direction of M. Cappa, who have ceaselessly risked their lives in the dangerous work of incinerating the corpses of Saint-Pierre.
“You do not forget the admirable contributions of the Danish cruiser Valkyrien, the Pouyer-Quertier, and the cruiser Suchet, whose commander Le Bris, his officers, and all his crew, helped to rescue the menaced inhabitants with a spirit of abnegation above all praise, and tireless good will.
“We hold a sentiment of gratitude for the valiant soldiers of the garrison who, under the direction of Colonel Dain, have rendered invaluable services, risking at times the greatest dangers.
“You will remember the outpouring of charity which animated the neighboring republic. [A reference to the United States.]
“We hold the comforting memory of the beautiful characters revealed in the course of these trials. We have seen Grelet, the mayor of Prêcheur, remain for twelve days under the rain of ashes, in the midst of his charges, at prey to the worst sufferings, the worst pains, assisted, up to the last moment, by the curé of his parish, l’abbé Després, who did not leave the community until after the last inhabitant had been placed in safety.
“The mayor of Grande-Rivière, Emile Théophile, that of Macouba, Marelo, the deputy mayor of Morne-Rouge, and the mayor of Fond-Saint-Denis had each, in his moment, a heroic attitude.
“Finally, you will give homage to the officials of Basse-Pointe who are named: de Montaigne, conductor of the bridges and causeways; Lodi, receiver of records; Mamor, of contributions. Under the direction of de Montaigne, these devoted citizens, without an instant of repose, have insured the resupply of the population and the police, after seeing to the rescue of families threatened to be carried away by the flooding rivers.
“With you, I send a salute filled with emotion to the memories of Governor Mouttet and Mme Mouttet, of Colonel Gerbaut and of Mme Gerbaut, and of so many others who have found death in following the idea of duty. Before all the bereaved families, I bow with sorrow and respect.
“I join with you in saluting the memory of all our cherished dead.
“And now, my task is complete; I separate from you, having other duties to accomplish in France. These duties you know. There is nothing more imperative to me, than to prescribe safeguards for the interests of our unfortunate country.
“I will put into the accomplishment of my mandate, all my energy, all my heart.”
M. le sénateur Knight is in fact preoccupied with filling his mandate to the best interests of his voters. Here are the statements Figaro accorded him on 13 July:
I intend to ask that the Minister of the Colonies demand of the chief of the scientific mission what is the exact situation of Martinique vis-à-vis the volcano. I want him to tell me what steps he will take for placing the population in safety.
As to the inhabitants of Fort-de-France, who are in full prosperity, and believe themselves in safety; is it necessary to introduce doubt in their minds? These people are relatively happy. Must they be frightened by being told they are presently in danger? For my part, I would not attempt it.
Before embarking on this question, it is necessary that we have ascertained the imminence of danger. If the danger persists, evacuation of the whole island is imposed within forty-eight hours. If Martinique is still habitable, I ask the government then for 40 millions that I will distribute; fifteen millions for public works, and 25 millions for permitting the inhabitants to repair their fortunes.
When I think of what England did for the island of Maurice [Mauritius], during a cyclone of 1889, I am truly saddened. At the news of the catastrophe, which was nothing compared to ours, the English Parliament convened at once, and voted to send 25 millions to the island of Maurice. Compare. Finally, in 1891, when an eruption came upon Martinique, and which destroyed vast properties, the metropolis—I said that they have never done anything for us; it is an error—we had at our disposal 3 millions—without interest, true—payable in ten annuities. We have already reimbursed 1.5 million francs.
The foreigner, notably the Americans, who have sent us 3 millions, must smile with contempt, seeing the small enthusiasm of France for the rescue of her children!
In 1891, Martinique was badly damaged by a hurricane, which also damaged a stretch of the Caribbean, and reached Florida. Senator Knight uses the word “eruption”, but the event was weather, in that case.
The scientific mission spoken of by M. Knight has sent, by a letter of 8 July to the Minister of the Colonies—a letter received the 20th of July—its advice on the situation of Martinique vis-à-vis the volcano. This letter, communicated to the newspapers, said there is nothing more to fear from the volcano. It conducts itself well. It keeps quiet. It has allowed the members of the commission to make the ascent of the mountain. There is no further danger…none.
It would not take much for them to entice the speculators to hurry in, not to miss this opportunity of acquiring, at a good price, excellent land on the flank of the volcano.
These excellent, good, brave, worthy savants of officialdom… However, they did not have time on their side, as by force M. Decrais demanded the optimistic note… At least the smile of M. Lhurre they had not engaged to show optimism, still following the old tradition…
But look at the indiscipline!
The day of the 9th having barely sped this reassuring letter, the volcano set itself again to throwing ash, stone, smoke, vapor, and fire, on the unlucky country.
No lava, no. These perfections of official wisdom have written that there will no longer be lava.
It was the dew, the beneficial dew, that once again, on the 9th of July, covered the island with an atmosphere of death…
I propose that they create a new and special decoration for these good experts who, on the 8th of July write that all danger has disappeared, and on the 9th the volcano inflicts this burning denial…
The adventures of others, the unfortunate Mouttet, who died…with the forty thousand…for wanting to certify what no man can know…
But it must be they have learned humility.
It came from official experts on an official mission…
The Official History of Martinique During and After the Eruption
It is in the telegrams sent by the government, first by M. Mouttet, afterwards by M. Lhurre. These telegrams, communicated by the press service of the ministry, have been published.
I will not revisit them.
But as today we discuss this question, of knowing whether the administration could be reassured to the point of maintaining…as they had done…by force, these officials at Saint-Pierre, and by this, the inhabitants…
As we pretend that all the public knew it was natural, asking them to stay under a volcano, the menaces of which could not be taken seriously…
Without searching for proofs to the contrary, in information received, in conversations which can be denied, I reproduce simply the dispatches, as posted on the door of the French cable bureau at Fort-de-France, then printed by the Journal officiel of the colony:
Fort-de-France, 3 [May]: Last night, the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée took on great proportions. The city of Saint-Pierre and the surrounding fields were covered by a thick bed of greyish ash. Numerous detonations were heard, and they saw the summit of the mountain rent by lightning.
Finally, towards two in the morning, the volcano vomited flames and projected stones of heavy enough volume that some fell on the district called “Montagne d’Irlande”, near the Prêcheur, situated as the crow flies more than 2 kilometers from the crater.
This morning, the road to Prêcheur is nearly cut off by thick smoke and very strong odor of sulphur.
At Saint-Pierre, an intense fog prevents circulation of the tramway at Fonds-Coré. A strong panic reigns, and the districts of the Prêcheur, Morne-Rouge, Saint-Philomene, are deserted by the inhabitants.
At Fort-de-France, the roofs of the houses and the streets are covered in a light bed of ashes.
Saint-Pierre, 8 o’clock this morning. New information furnished by M. Sully: At Prêcheur, they report tremors well defined, and underground rumblings.
At Saint-Pierre the rain of ashes, which stopped for an instant, came back with greater intensity. It is probable the eruption will increase in violence.
The thickness of the ash fall this night is 1 millimeter at the Mouillage, and more than 2 millimeters at the Prêcheur. The population is very disturbed.
Fort-de-France, 4 [May]. The volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée continues. Yesterday, near 6 o’clock in the evening a breeze carried the rain of ashes towards the west, forming a black cloud very opaque that extended to the horizon. From 6:30 to nine o’clock in the evening, this rain of ashes fell on Saint-Pierre and environs, and a thudding was heard all night.
This morning the rain of ashes continues, but falls no longer on Saint-Pierre.
Saint-Pierre, 9 o’clock a.m. New information furnished by M. Sully: The eruption continues with the same intensity, the ashes continue to fall in abundance downwind of the crater. A new crater has opened to the north of those already existing.
At Saint-Pierre have fallen 2 millimeters of ashes, at Fonds-Coré 12, at the Prêcheur very great quantities.
The Rivère-Blanche, whose run had increased considerably has completely dried up.
Saint-Pierre, 5 [May]. Information furnished by M. Sully on the volcanic eruption: This morning, a period of calm; ash continuing to fall on the Prêcheur and other places downwind of the crater. Ash fall this night at Saint-Pierre, 3 tenths of a millimeter. They count today 4 millimeters of ashes at Saint-Pierre, 5 centimeters at the Prêcheur, and 25 to 30 centimeters on the middle slopes of the mountain. Fields abandoned by the population, complete shortage of food and water; animals dying of starvation and thirst; tree branches breaking under the weight of ashes. Last night, intensity of the eruption, with deployment of considerable atmospheric electricity, lightning, thunder, tongues of flame. The inhabitants of Fonds-Coré have deserted the place.
Last night, ashes fell in equal abundance on Macouba.
In the past hour, they have announced that the Rivière-Blanche is overflowing in an extraordinary manner that threatens the Guérin factory. M. Guérin has left his home and reached the city with all his family.
Saint-Pierre, 5th May, last hour.
12:35. Rivière-Blanche becomes a furious torrent rolling with muddy lava. “Rivière-Sèche”, which had been dry these past days, rolls with a small quantity of blackish water.
1:22. At present, a very powerful eruption, the sea rises, a shop has, they say, been flooded, the boats are on the shore. They have closed all the stores; a tidal wave has broken the wharf. The Rubis is on the shore, this is no doubt due to an underground tremor. Information very grave; terrible panic.
1:27. Sea withdraws 25 to 30 meters before returning to shore passing the normal level by several meters; numerous formations of fumaroles and crevices in the valley of the Rivière-Blanche from the mouth to the volcanic crater. Situation very grave; terrible panic.
1:35. At ten minutes after one o’clock, a flow of lava escaped the dry pond with an enormous amount of smoke, and descended to the sea in less than three minutes by the valley of the Riviére-Blanche. There are very probably victims.
Saint-Pierre, 3:00 in the evening. Near one o’clock a flow of lava precipitated from the crater and directed itself towards the valley of the Rivière-Blanche. Guérin factory partly collapsed; under the ruins all the personnel of the factory.
Victims, in view of the suddenness of the disaster, would seem to be very numerous.
The lava, arriving at the sea, produced a retreating action much accentuated, the waves returning again to the shore produced a surge that engulfed the two steamboats of the factory. Terrible panic; inhabitants make for the heights.
Saint-Pierre, 3:29 in the evening. The volcano smokes strongly, the earth trembles lightly. The tidal wave has ended; it had not lasted longer than a quarter of an hour. The boats in the harbor did not suffer; the surge of the sea had simply brought them closer to the shore. At the moment, the boats appear ready to raise anchor.
5th May, 5:00 in the evening. The Guérin factory no longer exists. Along a course of over 600 meters, all has been covered to around 10 meters thickness of muddy lava. A huge trench has been opened by the passage of lava.
8:30. The route to the district of the Rivière-Blanche no longer exists; it is covered by a bed of mud around 28 meters.
9:30. They report from Fonds-Coré that the Isnard distillery, the hill of Saint-Martin, the factory of the Rivière-Blanche, and the stores of the Furnon distillery have completely disappeared. The Bernard distillery is greatly damaged. The mail carrier to Fonds-Coré, Sainte-Philomene, and the Prêcheur, could not continue and had to retrace his route.
The departure of the American steamer Korona has been set back to Thursday, the 8th.
Fort-de-France 6th [May]. Information furnished by M. Sully. Last night, eruption continued, very strong. Towards three in the morning, a loud rumbling, due probably to the overflowing of the crater, making itself heard for around twenty minutes. This morning, the overflow of mud is quite abundant.
Information furnished by M. Landes:
Mount Pelée was partially discernable this morning. The dam of the dry pond broken at the foot of the Petit-Bonhomme no longer exists. We saw roll from the heights, onto the side of Petit-Bonhomme that faces the Morne-la-Croix, blocks of incandescent lava. A few moments afterwards a fall of new lava and enormous blocks on Morne-la-Croix that mount to the wall of Petit-Bonhomme.
All this made a fair set of terrifying phenomena.
So terrifying they permitted no more of it on the 7th, of posting anything other than reassuring communications. This is proven; this is sworn to.
And they had it said by M. Landes:
“In my opinion, Mount Pelée presents no more danger to the city of Saint-Pierre than Vesuvius offers Naples.”
And, M. Sully:
“To go by outside appearances, the intensity of the eruption has decreased markedly. The height of the column of ash, which in the night from Sunday to Monday reached 5000 meters, went no further in the forenoon today than 2500 meters. The eruption of smoking mud in the valley of the Rivière-Blanche went no further into the sea. Many tourists have gone to the crater.”
Then, as these notes were not sufficient, as they were reminded that in 1851 the population had not been reassured, but for the declarations of experts convened in commission, on the 7th, they posted:
Fort-de-France, 7 [May], 10:00 a.m. The governor will name a commission to effect a study of the characteristics of the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée. This commission is composed of MM. Lieutenant Colonel Gerbault, director of artillery, president; Mirville, pharmacist-in-chief to the colonial troops; Léonce, sub-engineer, colonial, of Bridges and Roads; Doze and Landes, professors of sciences at the Lycée of Saint-Pierre. The results of the commission’s work will be made known to the public.
And then came the supreme irony of fate!
Two hours after the annihilation of Saint-Pierre, when they knew nothing of the catastrophe, they posted this at Fort-de-France:
The commission named by the administration of Martinique, to study the volcanic phenomena of Mount Pelée, convened the 7th of May at Saint-Pierre, at the Intendence building, under the honorary presidency of M. le Gouveneur. After reviewing the stated facts since the beginning of the eruption, it recognizes:
- That the phenomena produced up to now are nothing abnormal; and that to the contrary, they are identical to phenomena observed in other volcanoes;
- That the craters of the volcano have largely opened due to expansion of vapors, and that the muds shall continue as they are produced already, without provoking earth tremors, or projections of eruptive rock;
- That the numerous detonations which are heard frequently, are produced by the explosion of vapors, localized to the chimney, and which are in no way caused by collapses of the terrain;
- That the flows of mud and of hot water are localized to the valley of the Riviére-Blanche;*
- That the relative position of the craters and of the valleys, which empty themselves into the sea, allows assurance that the security of Saint-Pierre remains complete.
- That the blackish waters agitating the rivers Pères, Basse-Pointe, and Prêcheur, had kept their ordinary temperature, and their abnormal color was due to the ashes they carried.
The commission continues to follow attentively all the subsequent phenomena, and will keep the population current with the least observable occurrence.
Is there anything more tragic…and do you know of anything more macabre, than this official statement, of six official recitations of official encouragement, drafted by official experts, under the honorable presidency of the governor?
When those who had written it were themselves afraid.
When, while they swore the phenomena of the volcano were nothing abnormal, they felt themselves sinking into the unknown, and they were afraid…
And they lied…! !
*This was an official lie from the commission officially presided over by the governor. On the 6th (I cite a later article from the journal les Colonies and from private letters that say so) there had been a flow of hot mud in the Rivière des Pères, and the Roxelane, that is to say, in Saint-Pierre itself. The governor knew it, the mayor knew it, all the members of the commission knew it…and however, to keep the voters, they spoke to the contrary. Abominable lie! [JH]
The Korona was a ship of the Quebec Line, so American only in the broader sense. She was not harbored at Martinique, but as the article below tells, at Barbados, arriving at Saint-Pierre on the 9th, the day after the disaster.
Steamer Roraima’s Fate
The Korona arrived at New York with two survivors
(The Houston Daily Post, Thursday Morning, May 22, 1902)
New York, May 21—The steamer Korona has arrived from Fort-de-France, Martinique, having on board two survivors of the steamer Roraima, lost in the St. Pierre disaster. There are Ellery Scott, chief officer, and Charles Thompson (colored), assistant purser. Both decline to discuss their experiences. Neither show much evidence of hard usage.
G. Johnson of St. Louis was traveling in the West Indies, and was at Barbados when the eruption occurred. He also came up on the Korona and made this statement.
“About 4:30 in the afternoon of May 8th, in Barbados it suddenly became intensely dark. The people were panic stricken. All the lamps had been lighted in the houses. A shower of volcanic ashes covered the entire place to a depth of three inches or more. The noise of the eruption was plainly heard and sounded like cannonading. When the Korona arrived off St. Pierre on Friday morning, May 9th, the town was still afire. The place was a picture of absolute desolation. We went in until we were about 500 yards offshore and did not see a living thing. We could not see Pelée for the clouds of smoke that obscured it. The water was full of floating bodies.
Captain Jean W. Carey of the Korona related how he reached St. Pierre, and on learning of the destruction of the Roraima put back to Fort-de-France.
“On the way up,” said Captain Carey, “Scott told me the story of their terrible experience. He said the Roraima got into the harbor about [illegible] a.m. and about 8:00 or 8:30 a terrible explosion came from the mountain. In an instant it began to rain fire and mud over the harbor.
Here is a story from the same page of the Houston Daily Post, on the Goliad, Texas tornado of 1902, notable here for the example it gives of strict racial segregation, even in reporting of casualties, that some of the whites in Martinique admired about the United States.
Negroes Tenderly Cared For
A fact very noticeable is the kind care and attention given the colored people. Everything that can be done for them is being done. It is an object lesson for some of the critics of Southern people. Everything that skill and attention can do is being done to save both white and black as well as Mexicans who were injured in the storm.
Never before has this section been visited by a cyclone. Gulf storms have occurred occasionally which have resulted in the uprooting of trees or unroofing of houses, and Indianola and Galveston have suffered. But a dipping, whirling, forceful cyclone has made its first appearance in this section. Only one man was prepared, and taking his family into the cellar, witnessed the destruction of his home—not even the foundation was left.
No Additional Deaths Have Occurred
No additional deaths in the hospital wards of the whites in the last twenty-four hours and all the patients are considered on fair road to recovery with one or two exceptions. Among the negroes there are several who are in very serious condition. The Mexicans are all getting well. No sign of lockjaw or blood poison.
Bonus clippings, World of 1902:
An illustration from The Houston Daily Post (5/22/1902), showing an effect of the tornado.
The disaster (hurricane) of Indianola, Texas, referenced in the article above, showing that names for storms hadn’t been standardized in that era.
The metropolis at once gave testimony to the lively interest she bears for Martinique, and how sorrowfully ring in France the echoes of the catastrophe where forty thousand Martiniquais, forty thousand French, found death.
M. Decrais, Colonial Minister, and official interpreter of French pain, addressed to the acting governor a whole series of telegrams, that l’Officiel de la Martinique has published. Here is the first:
Paris, 10 May, 1902
It is with the most poignant sorrow that the Government has learned of the catastrophe in which the population of the city of Saint-Pierre came to be the victims. I pray you will communicate to our unfortunate fellow citizens of Martinique the expression of profound sympathy felt for them in this great adversity, by the entire Nation.
Never has the Metropolis felt more strongly the powerful ties which have attached us through centuries to the old and faithful colonies of the Antilles. Tomorrow morning, the cruiser d’Assas departs on a mission charged by the Government, for the distribution, as you determine, of the sum of 500,000 francs she carries.
Then, after the telegrams, arrived the embodied mind of the minister, M. Maurice Bloch, the Chief Comptroller of the Pavillion de Flore. He brought 500,000 francs and some consolations aboard the cruiser d’Assas.
I stood by at his arrival. I did not see the 500,000 francs distributed. But I heard pour out the consolations.
It was to the mayor of Fort-de-France, before the Commission of Relief, and here, of what this speech consisted…as to consolation:
Gentlemen, (said the eloquent interpreter of thoughts ministerial) I come in the name of the government of the Republic to bring testimony of the heartfelt and profound sympathy of France.
At the news of the terrific catastrophe which, in falling on one of our oldest and most cherished colonies, annihilated a population of nearly thirty thousand souls, and erased a city great and prosperous from the map of the world, shock and anguish gripped the entire nation.
From the moment he learned of the destruction of Saint-Pierre, M. le ministre des Colonies, who was in the Gironde, returned precipitately to Paris, deciding to go himself to Martinique to distribute the relief and the necessary consolations; but the imperative duties of his charge, the very importance of the measures to be taken, which commanded his presence in the capital, triumphed over his ardent desire, and it fell to me, delegated the great honor of representing him; in me was confided the care of bringing some assuagement to the miseries. Nevertheless, as a clear indication of the personal part he takes in your sufferings, the minister has attached to me his own secretary, the depository of his thoughts, the intimate confidant of his painstaking care.
I have not the eloquence of M. Albert Decrais, I do not possess the inimitable charm of his speech. I do not know how to find the words that he would have said to you, but I will at least follow his instructions and give all my strength and all my soul to softening the misfortunes that have met you here. I will not fail, believe it, at this sacred duty.
Gentlemen, I have learned on this voyage that a superb movement of emotion and of confraternity has taken possession of nations, who run in crowds to your aid, and if it were possible to conceive today of any compensation to your sufferings, it must be found in this magnificent and powerful demonstration of human solidarity.
Before concluding, gentlemen, I give to you in the name of the government, and in my own name also, a last salute to those who are no more. I address a final goodbye to M. le gouverneur Mouttet, who died a victim of duty, to Mme Mouttet, that wife gracious and strong, that French wife who went into danger in all simplicity, to take with her husband the risks of his high mission, as she would have partaken in the honors.
I address a final goodbye to Colonel Gerbault, and to his wife, who, like Mme Mouttet, had not wanted, at the hour of combat against revolting nature, to separate herself from the companion of her life.
I bow before M. Michon, the director of the Bank, before the sisters of charity, the priests, the officers, the magistrates, the functionaries of all ranks, before the youth of our schools, today cut down, before the children and the women, before all our fellow citizens, before all the dear departed; I bow, and I weep, confounded before the magnitude of this disaster and by this desolation.
I have come here to present to you the heartfelt condolences of the government. All the nation felt a poignant sorrow at the news of this catastrophe, which, in a few moments, made the flourishing city of Saint-Pierre, the most important center of the colony, a mass of debris and ruins.
From my arrival, stories have been told to me of the devotion they have shown in carrying aid to the victims, in the rescue of these, the officers, their troops, the officials and municipal magistrates who, like soldiers on the attack, have been the first to place themselves in danger.
I have no need to recall the heroic conduct of the Suchet and of her admirable commander; the memory of all done in the circumstances by the crew of this ship is too present in our minds.
I have no need to insist upon the courageous attitude of your devoted senator, who, forgetting his family misfortunes, and his particular interests, gave himself immediately to the bringing of aid to his fellow citizens in distress.
Last, since the mayor of Fort-de-France is before me, may he permit me to pay homage to the activity, and to a spirit of sacrifice truly admirable, that he has shown in these sorrowful circumstances through which we pass. He has given the administration of the colony the most complete, the most absolute, support.
M. le Gouverneur, thanks to his brilliant qualities as administrator, his always vigilant solicitude, has found the resources necessary to answer the most urgent needs of the unlucky victims of the 8th of May. In the name of the government, I address to M. Lhuerre, who, abruptly deprived of his chief in a critical period without precedent, has ensured without faltering all the services of the colony; as well to the mayor of Fort-de-France, my most sincere felicitations.
For my part, I will strive to bring assuagement to all the unfortunates, and to all the pain that we have sadly witnessed. I am charged by the Ministry of the Colonies with the distribution, in the name of relief, of a sum of 500,000 francs. If the funds are insufficient, I will impart this to the Metropolis, and I am convinced that its heart will not rest insensible to my appeal.
I leave you, gentlemen, to your work. I will be happy to at times revisit your commission. Your unfortunate compatriots can count on all my devotion.
Is it beautiful!
The unfortunate Martiniquais can count on all the devotion of M. Maurice Bloch…
Which does not, otherwise, mandate anything. Anything but consolation.
Death freezes laughter. A decoration of tombs is not appropriate for satire.
But you will agree with me that for the macabre joke, the abovesaid Maurice Bloch and his lord our Ex-Excellence Albert Decrais hold the record…
I have a negro among my friends who jests on the verbal diarrhea that characterizes the people in the Antilles. I saw this negro again after the speech of Bloch.
“You don’t believe we are rehabilitated!”
Let it go. Let it go.
The Life in Saint-Pierre Under the Menace of the Volcano
Documents and interviews
Of what life was in Saint-Pierre, during the days leading up to the catastrophe, one can form some idea by reading the previous articles of my reporting. However, still, a few more documents are needed.
At first, we take the eruption of Mount Pelée for an amusing curiosity. We imagine a vaudevilliste who makes one of his characters say: “What! These imbeciles had a volcano and they let it die down!”
The volcano flares up, the volcano smokes. Much better. This gives a new attraction to the mountain Pelée. The crater becomes a goal of “sensational” excursioning. As often as they’ve gone there, and always the same thing, they begin to be bored. The smokes of the volcano give, at length, occasion for the organizing of lovely tourist parties, and they insert in the number of the Colonies dated 2 May, the following notice:
We remind you that on the coming Sunday, 4 May, will take place the great outing to Mount Pelée, organized by members of the Gymnastics and Shooting Society.
Those who have never had the enjoyment of the magnificent panorama that offers to the eye of the spectator astonishment, at an altitude of 1300 meters; those who wish a nearer view of the hole still gaping, by which these recent days escape the thick smokes so frightening to the hearts of inhabitants on the heights of the Prêcheur, and of Sainte-Philomène, must make profit of this fine opportunity and come to register at the Society’s headquarters, rue Longchamps, no later than this evening.
The meeting of excursionists will be at 3:15 in the morning on the Marché du Fort, and depart at 3:30 precisely. On reaching the Rivière-Blanche, settlement of Isnard, they will find their drivers.
Those who do not want to occupy themselves with food, will need to pay a fee of 3 francs; they will not regret being unencumbered by the care of procuring their meals.
According to our information, the company will be very numerous. If the weather is beautiful, the excursionists will pass a day long to be held as a pleasant memory.
It is understood that this day there will not be shooting at the botanical garden.
The worry did not appear until rather late. They busied themselves preserving the gaiety, the insouciance with which they’d welcomed the first smokes, the first ashes. Had they made levity enough of them, these first warnings of the volcano! Yet on this, the creole mind found refinements that are worth preserving.
Such as the end of this unsigned chronicle that appeared in the Colonies, 30 April:
For us islanders of Martinique, April, if it has not been comic, will be tragic, doubly tragic. We will have seen here two eruptions, the one in spirit, the other in Mount Pelée; the one electoral, the other physical; the one of speeches, of propaganda, of rum, of money and ballots, the other of smoke and ashes. The one is not finished, for the electoral volcano fumes yet and will not extinguish itself for twelve days; the other continues, for our Pelée is still active and extinguishes her fires we know not when. Neither of the one, nor the other, do we know what will result. We hope it will be nothing evil.
Yes, in truth, memorable it will be, our April 1902, above all from the point of view of the physical or volcanic eruption, of which one shall speak as one speaks of the 5th of August, 1851, date of the last before this. When we heard talk of that one, we would have liked to be there; this one appears an extraordinary phenomenon, and so much the more piquant that, having believed our Pelée extinguished, we had never hoped to see an event of this type. Why, what was not our surprise, when they came to tell us the mountain Pelée smoked! We took it at first for an April Fool’s prank, and had not believed until we had seen.
Great masses, sometimes blackish, sometimes white, coming out of the earth and mounting rapidly and vertically in the air, turning about themselves. Afterwards, a lull comes on, then the same merry-go-round recommences. If we live for another hundred years, we will keep this memory intact. As a precious thing, we keep also this mysterious ash, issue of mystery and the flaming entrails of the globe, vomited to kilometers of distance by the mouth of our volcano.
No doubt, it is ash much like any other, but unless deprived of all imagination, one will swear this ash takes from the nature of the phenomenon, something of particular interest. We will keep it as a relic. It is fine, light, minute as cement, of a color resembling that of cement, but a little more bluish. This ash is for us a poem. It is done already, in imagination, and if we write it, we will entitle it: The Ash of the Volcano!
And what flames, friends, we would make to fountain from this ash!
We will not omit, for example, to celebrate the beneficial virtue for the cultivation of cocoa and coffee. The inhabitants of the Prêcheur claim that it destroys the microbes on their plantations, and favor it for this. They attest that the sulphurous exhalations which for some time have escaped the mountain, have hastened the flowering of their cocoa plants, and that they have never seen so many early flowers!
Perfect. Provided that it stops there, and that the mountain contents herself with smokes and showings of ash.
But for God! That she does not quake! For at this outburst hearts will quake and dance also! But we do not ourselves expect this evil outburst on her part. Mount Pelée, seeing that the good customs were leaving us, wanted simply to make us eat an April fish. Amiable April! So long as you go to bed, sleep well! And you, May, greetings!
These lines were no doubt a great pleasure to the clowns, the author certainly winning compliments when it appeared before the artistic circle… Read after the cataclysm, it appears to us macabre.
And the anxiety came all the same.
The 1851 eruption of Mount Pelée produced ash and vapors, and no fatalities. The poisson d’avril, the April fish, is an April 1 tradition in France, involving now for some time the sticking of a paper fish on an unsuspecting person’s back.
I read in the last number of the Colonies, this of the 7th:
The panic at Saint-Pierre
The migration from Saint-Pierre continues to be more and more intense. From the morning to the evening, and all through the night there is nothing but a rush of people, carrying packages, trunks, children, making for Fonds-Saint-Denis, the Morne d’Orange, Carbet, etc, etc. While the steamers of the Compagnie Girard could not be fuller.
And the paper calls it a “movement of fear”.
I have published in other chapters, the declarations of M. Clerc, and the letter of M. Riffard, on the apprehensions of M. Landes. Here is an interview with the professor in the paper of the 7th.
The morning of the 5th, M. Landes saw torrents of smoke escape the upper part of the mountain, at the place called, “Terre Fendue”. He noted that the Rivière-Blanche swelled periodically and produced a volume of water five times above the normal volume of the largest flows. It carried blocks of rock that might have weighed up to fifty tons. M. Landes was at the Perinelle settlement, and looked at 12:50 at the dry pond; he saw a whitish mass descend the slope of the mountain with the speed of an express train, to push into the valley of the river, marking its passage with a thick white smoke. It is this mass of mud and not of lava that submerged the factory. Later, at the base of the Morne-Lénard, it seemed to M. Landes that a new branch existed, and that it could be filled by lava. The valley received the contents of the dry pond, which broke its dam, allowing the muddy waters to fall from a height of 700 meters. If, a surprising thing, there was no earthquake engendered by this enormous fall, it is because the sea acted as a buffer.
It can be taken from the observations of M. Landes, that yesterday morning the central mouth of the volcano, situated at the upper vents, vomited more than ever, but intermittently, pulverized yellow and black material.
It is necessary to flee from the valleys, and live at a certain height, to avoid being submerged, as were Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Vesuvius, added M. Landes, had but rarely produced victims. Pompeii was evacuated in time and they found only a few corpses buried in the city.
Conclusion: Mount Pelée does not offer more danger to the people of Saint-Pierre, than Vesuvius to those of Naples.
But the journal adds:
However, this morning, the mountain is uncovered. The Morne Lacroix shows now at its base, at the side of the full pond, a notch of 100 meters long, at 40 meters high, making possible the partial collapse of this imminence, that could lead to an earthquake.
And I take again from this same number, this account of the phenomena of the 6th:
The 6th, around 7 o’clock, the outflow of the Rivière des Pères swelled. The river rolled with black water. They believe it was a simple increase in volume caused by the rains. Suddenly, a torrent arrived carrying a very great quantity of bamboo; then afterwards trees, and enormous rocks, that one can still see in the bed of the river. The bridge at the Perinelle settlement has disappeared, so they say, under these blocks of rock. If not for a wall of the property strong enough not to give way, the stables would have been carried off by the torrent.
This first overflow lasted until ten o’clock, diminished little by little, and began again around 2 o’clock in the morning. The Roxelane overflowed in its turn, around 7 o’clock in the evening. The water carried ash. At the mouth of the river floated dead fish.
Would it not be normal that such phenomena give rise to “panic”?
On the 6th, the north quarter of Saint-Pierre was threatened…
On this same day of the 6th, a resident of Saint-Pierre, M. Berte, wrote to his son the two letters that follow:
Saint-Pierre, Tuesday, 6 May, 3 o’clock in the morning
Joseph comes to wake me, and I learn that a great part of the population has carried itself onto the boulevards, going in the direction of Fonds-Saint-Denis. It seems that the Rivière des Pères is invaded by a flow of mud. I distinctly perceive an odor of swamp. The sky is clear, however. Before making a decision, I consult upon the following: It has rained in the night, which explains the sickly odor that pervades the city; the detonations have not grown in intensity, they are more frequent and call to mind thunder. The mists of the mountain have disappeared, which allows me to observe well that the crater has above it neither ash nor flame.
The weather to the east is rainy.
Rue Castelneau is in a stir. It is a dance of lanterns quite original; many people carry bundles on their heads, and walk quickly. The electric lights haven’t worked since yesterday, the machinery was stuffed full of ashes. For all this weight, I do not believe that the moment has come to follow my affrighted fellow citizens…and I remain, despite Joseph Claude, and Pauline.
Yesterday, a 1:30, the Guérin factory was engulfed; a wave 2 meters high overtook the Roxelane, mounting along the river and stopping at the Pont de Pierre. The tide pushed itself as far as Carbet. Some time after the morning, the Rivière-Blanche rolled with a great mass of boiling mud. Two mounted patrolmen leaving Saint-Pierre for Prêcheur around 6 a.m. were easily able to cross this river; around nine, they were stopped by the violence of the overflow, and returned to Prêcheur. As of now, the current rises before the eyes, and on the boulevards one could follow, by the steam it releases, the avalanche of mud hurled in prodigious leaps onto the factory… The factory has been completely covered. All this part of Saint-Pierre is no more than a plain, a horrid, stinking, hot plain, fuming abundantly. From a distance, you would say that a crater is forming itself in this place.
[then, bad explanations of the phenomenon]
It is 4 o’clock, my dear Émile. I dress myself and run to post this note. Keep this. Needless to say to you that I have not yet lost my sangfroid. When I can no longer take notes, I will know that the danger is imminent.
6 May, 11 o’clock in the morning
I went to visit the place of yesterday’s disaster. The factory is buried under a mountain of mud. From where the factory had been, up to the settlement of Neuilly, it is a plain of black mud. The houses that border the road on the right have disappeared. Mud from side to side. I made my way to M. Isnard’s, and I was able to witness the fall of mud. We hear a detonation in the mountains, then a trail of white vapors run with dizzying speed from the place where the explosion is produced. For a half-minute, we track these vapors, then they are lost to our view, and abruptly you see surge before you a sea of smoking mud merge into the sea. This happening with a formidable rumbling, perceptible as far as Saint-Pierre. The bed of the Rivière-Blanche, since the gorge that flowed into this river has been filled, it is to be presumed the mud will invade the Rivière-Sèche.
Where does this mud come from? It is the Morne Lacroix, and all the parts of it rising to the mountain that, when the boiling water and the gas of the crater come out, are flung into the new lake. The volcano shrugs off all this mass of earth by its quakings. The result is a new configuration of the mountain. The ridge will be divided into two parts at the summit: on the one side, the Prêcheur; the other overlooking Saint-Pierre.
The volcano is still in full activity; I believe there is even a strengthening. The columns of smoke grow gigantic from the crater; they are more and more compressed, and lighted freely by the fire of the interior. Never have I seen them rise so high and in such mass. The effect is riveting and puts you in a trance, despite yourself. If I had no children, I would have been in Dos-de-Mulet, in the company of some friends, standing watch at the marvelous spectacle that must be cooking in the oven of the furnace! I can unluckily see only from a distance.
The wave, that has made itself felt in Saint-Pierre and its environs, has reached the road at Fonds-Coré. It damaged all the houses in this village; now the appearance is the same as what a tidal wave leaves in its passage. The sea of mud is a thing hideous to see. Phlegmatic as one is, it provokes a certain emotion when seen. The sinister noise that surrounds you, and spreads through the earth, these naked testimonies that offer themselves to one’s sight, the absolute change in things, yesterday so alive, all this throws you into a deep reflection.
One returns from these desolated places, in soul, or spirit, I don’t know, preoccupied. The phenomenon is beautiful, sublime, because so great, but how sad as well! I cannot compare it to a typhoon, for I have never seen one; it must be more grandiose, and more horrible, at the same time.
The population is frantic, the women above all. There are prostitutes who have, in their youth, burned bamboo and reeds, who will accost you without a stitch or reason. They cry in your face, without knowing you, “Oh, well, there is no God.” They see everywhere the work of the occult. If their daughters find a man, thank God! If the volcano goes into eruption, thank God! If they break their leg, thank God! Curses on the men, then, who exploit the ignorant credulity of the crowd.
M. Landes, in 1902, had the idea of the death toll at Pompeii that the state of excavations had led the world to assume. It is now estimated to have been in the thousands.
And so the people were afraid. They felt the danger. They had a presentiment of something which would overwhelm them. People with scientific pretensions spoke of the collapse of the mountain, of an earthquake. Others did not speak of the dreaded catastrophe’s nature. They thought quite simply there would be one, and they were afraid. And they wanted to flee.
This is indicated in the notice the mayor of Saint-Pierre had posted on the 6th, of which here is a copy, the original being lent to me by an inhabitant of Fort-de-France, M. Josa, who had received an example in Saint-Pierre.
Dear Fellow Citizens:
A new calamity comes to strike our unlucky country, already so tried.
The community of Saint-Pierre, and that of the Prêcheur are most affected by the eruption of the mountain Pelée. This event has brought consternation to the whole island.
The inhabitants of the heights of Saint-Pierre, neighboring the mountain; those of the quarter of the Rivière-Blanche and Sainte-Philomène are without shelter, and without bread.
Aided by the top-level intervention of M. le Gouverneur, and of the highest authority, the municipal administration has provided, as they were able, first aid and food. Lodgings are furnished for those emigrants of interest, those workers of the soil whose products feed Saint-Pierre, and who, in one night have seen the fruits of their punishing labor buried in ashes.
It is your part, dear fellow citizens, in these painful circumstances, to show that your hearts hold generosity and solicitude for these victims.
May these evils not leave you indifferent, and may your well known solidarity find, in this moment, an occasion to manifest itself.
The calm and wisdom you have shown in these few days of anguish make us hope that you will not remain deaf to our appeal.
In accord with M. le Gouverneur, whose dedication always rises to the challenge, and whom we yesterday accompanied to Sainte-Philomène, and to the Prêcheur, we believe we can assure you that, in view of the immense valleys that separate us from the crater, we have no fear of immediate danger, and that the lava will not come as far as the city; the events are localized to the places already proved.
You must not allow yourselves to break into panics without foundation. Do not be discouraged, and let us advise you to redouble your ardor, as in 1890 and 1891, and to take up again your usual occupations, so as to give the necessary courage and strength to the people, so impressionable, of Saint-Pierre and its environs, during this hour of public calamity.
The mayor, R. Fouché
At the same time as this notice, Mme Josa received a letter from the sister of the mayor, her relative. This unfortunate woman who died on the 8th, waited for death on the 6th.
Saint-Pierre, 6 May, 1902
My dear Marguerite,
We thank you very much for your gracious offer, but cannot abandon the house. We await with resignation and submission to the will of God, premature death. We embrace you all, perhaps for the last time.
Your devoted cousin,
Signed: H. Brindis de Salas, née Fouché
And from this date, the women had fear, terrible fear. On the morning of the 8th, their fear had reached its paroxysm. Fear of what…they did not know exactly…but they were afraid, the unfortunates, they sensed death.
Aboard the Canada, which returned us to France, had taken passage two nuns from the hospital of Fort-de-France. One told me that on the 8th, in the morning, their superior received a letter from Sister Providence, superior at the high school of Saint-Pierre. This nun had written her letter at 5:30 and carried it to the 6:00 boat.
I repeat the words of the sister of Fort-de-France.
“Our mother read the letter in the refectory. It was a letter of agony. She said:
“Terrible night. We could not go to bed. We walked all night in our dormitory. We hardly dared look at the sky on the side of the mountain. Thunder, lightning, detonations and fire in the volcano. A great storm. We are dying of fear.
“Pray God for us. How will this day pass… Pray for us.
“At the moment Mother showed us this letter of anguish written, or rather, scribbled, in pencil…writing that trembled, writing of terror that in turn filled us with terror…at this moment we had already received the fall of pebbles, the rain of ashes still was falling, and we prayed, and we wept also, for feeling, for knowing, that the prayers were for the dead.”
Aboard the Canada were found also three little girls; their father, a teacher at Saint-Pierre, and their mother, had perished in the catastrophe. They were going to live in France at the house of their grandparents.
The eldest, twelve years old, told me all there had been of anguish and fear in Saint-Pierre, “in the days before”.
“The volcano, at night, I saw it was making fire. And everyone in Saint-Pierre was afraid, in our quarter. The people slept at least fifty in the same house, all the neighbors came together, to be less afraid. And they prayed God through the whole night. But that could not stop the fear. Some were crying.
“Now it was the common people, because the school was in a quarter of the common people. Other places, I don’t know. But Madame X… Madame Y… And others…friends of my mother whose homes we visited when we went to the Savanne to see the volcano, all those ladies also were very afraid.
“And papa too. He said that it was stupid being obstinate against a volcano, that there would surely come evil. He wanted to go with us. Other colleagues of his as well. But they did not want it. They only allowed him to escort us to Fort-de-France, and he must return at once. He had brought maman with us… But when he was leaving, because he was sad, and maman did not like to see him sad, she went with him. We were left all alone. And they were both sad. They did not come back.”
And when this child dressed in black told me this on the deck of the mailboat that made its way merrily to Europe, she was sad.
One of these little sisters, very small, who did not know, and did not understand, but who saw herself in black, and did not like this black, and who remembered the tears, and I do not know what terrors, and perhaps also what sights…one little one played with my beard and called me Ogre.
No darling. The Ogre is the other. It is the other.
I have still other letters, other notes, but those above, I believe, suffice to show in what terrors, in what fearfulness, perished Saint-Pierre… And above all, serve for proof that if they had let the people be free to obey their instinct, the number of victims would never have been counted in the thousands.
Before death, before the great menaces of nature, there is an instinct that warns its creatures, gives them a sense of fear.
The animals obey this instinct and flee.
The simple people listen to their fear, and want to flee.
The over-civilized people despise this fear, no longer understand it, and stay.
You must flee… All nature cried this out. The earth spoke it. The earth quivered under the bodies of the living. She shook them. She put into their legs a trembling as though forcing them to march, to take themselves off, to fly…
A teacher who arrived from Saint-Pierre, at Fort-de-France, on the 8th, by the 6 o’clock boat, Mlle D…, who could know nothing of the last menaces of the volcano, those between 6 and 7, said to a friend:
“It will come to something… for certain… I am in a state… The earth was shaking all night… No one could stay in place… My legs still shake… I couldn’t remain. Some power seemed to oblige me to go…and I went.”
Is this necessary?
Of all things seen, heard, noted, and that are there to be read, can there be a truth to bring out?
Ought one insist?
One point, however.
It has been said that since M. Clerc had the majority, in the first round, it was not in the interest of the government to have a vote by ballot, and that dispersing the population of Saint-Pierre would have worked for the administration, while keeping them under the menace of the volcano, worked for its adversary…
One of two competitors of M. Clerc, M. Lagrosilère, after having secured his official place, withdrew at once in favor of M. Percin, who, thanks to this appointment, held the majority.
Thus fell the only argument of the defenders of…the negligent homicide…of M. Decrais.
I would wish that this lesson of the volcano, which has killed blacks and whites without worrying about the color of their skin, would have taught to the irreconcilables of that place, that outside the republican law, to which they wish not to submit, there are other laws before which all men are equal—those of suffering and those of death.
Go recognize in the charnel house of Saint-Pierre, the blacks from the whites…
But the passions of men are more powerful than their reason.
The future now.
The future that the misery of the present shows so dark.
The recourse of charity?
One cannot admit charity. Nor indemnities. Nor does one beg. Nor degrade himself politically, followed by everyone.
The beggar who weeps, and whom they heed, that is not a remedy, that is not a solution.
The dead have no more need of anything.
Those who survive are owed the right to work.
It is the organization of work in Martinique that is necessary.
It is from the soil that these survivors must draw their subsistence, from the work of their hands, and not from charity.
The land is clement in the tropics.
One lives here without great effort.
The program is simple.
—Assure, by the repartition of free lands, and by advances of staples, and of seeds, the cultivation of the substance of life, which allows the man to live, on his land, from his land.
—As encouragement, as relief, lift the duties on importing into France the products of Martinique, actually restricted by laws.
And that’s all.
Illustration from The History of Vesuvius from AD 79 to 1907, T.A. Schneer
Notes and Documents
To complete my reportage
Catastrophe, Religion, and Superstition
All great catastrophes, the terrible mourning, the appalling fears that follow, provoke a reaction of religious faith among the survivors, whether the religion is of African fetishism, or of Roman Catholicism.
Here this phenomenon was not lacking.
A correspondent from Fort-de-France wrote the next day to the Courrier de la Guadeloupe:
It’s horrible! Imagination and human reason are confounded. Under the smoking ruins, in this silence of a necropolis, we do not believe the reality. I do not believe it, and I wept upon the ruins of a city so animated, so full of life… Yesterday I did not believe in God. Today I believe!
A consul general of Fort-de-France, his mind strong enough in ordinary times, affirmed to me in all seriousness that among the notable victims of the catastrophe were found three persons, highly placed as well, who had advertised their impiety by eating fat on Good Friday. And he concluded that their impiety had been punished by the Lord, who for this had drawn them from Fort-de-France to Saint-Pierre, on the very day of the catastrophe.
The laundresses of Fort-de-France soberly swore that the city of Saint-Pierre had been annihilated because they had danced there during Lent. And one of them, whom a soldier had invited to come out with him on a Friday, answered that this was not “a day for carousing” [jour à bêtiser]. The Lord would certainly punish them with a new rain of fire.
Others reported that in leaving for France, following “political persecutions”, Monseigneur de Cormont had hurled a malediction on the impious city, and that the volcano was fired by the sanctity of this malediction…
Pliny relates to us that the people of Pompeii heard and saw, in the mountain’s fire and smoke, infernal giants, which in the kindling air the priests showed to their faithful as vengeful demigods.
There was no shortage of this in Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France.
I heard a woman say that at the time of the two eruptions she had seen devils in the clouds of smoke, and that these devils were given liberty by the Lord to punish the sinners of Martinique. And the poor hallucinator added that her confessor had told her this was true. People who take themselves seriously have told me without laughter that the clouds from the second eruption took the forms of infernal demons.
A teacher told me the priests in all the communities of Martinique knew well the arts of profiting from the terror caused by the annihilation of Saint-Pierre, stoking the religious zealotry of their flocks.
“It is in punishment for the faults of the island, and the faults of France, where evil-mindedness triumphs, that God in vengeance has stricken Saint-Pierre.”
And for softening the legitimate anger of the Lord, to implore him not to choose Martinique again for His expiating sacrifices, the priests prescribe not only prayers and offerings, but also penances, at times very strong. Notably, that they must remain on their knees in the sun, for an hour or more.
A legend also creates itself, and perhaps tomorrow will be spoken of as a miracle…
A plaster virgin had been marvelously transported by the fall of fire to a shelter, without being damaged.
Here now, two documents, most typical of the mentality of the clergy, regarding this occurrence.
The priests of Martinique were officially very reserved. Those of Guadeloupe were less so. It was among them we found the reminder of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities destroyed by the anger of the Lord.
First, the pastoral letter from the bishop of Guadeloupe. This is interesting enough that I publish it nearly in its entirety.
Our very dear brothers,
We do not have to inform you of the horrible catastrophe that has overthrown the city once so flourishing, of Saint-Pierre (Martinique). The hundred voices of fame have already brought the sad news to the ends of the world, and We are convinced that an immense cry of sorrow and pity lifts itself at this moment from all shores, on behalf of the victims consumed, on behalf of their relatives and friends who survive. We abide utterly appalled and devastated in the presence of a seeming calamity, and we come to ask at the same time, whether we are not played upon by some frightful nightmare? But no: the reality confirms itself implacable and terrifying!
Yesterday, the great commercial city of the French Antilles, was standing and full of animation; today, it is no more than smoking ruins and a vast cemetery! All is fallen, cathedral, parish churches, public establishments, colleges, boarding schools, hospitals, dwellings particularly, without any exception, and all who breathe are dead; not one person able to escape!
What is it thus brought forth, Great God! And what gigantic destruction has passed there, preceded by terror and followed by mourning!
You know, N. T. C. F., that above what was the city of Saint-Pierre, standing nearly equal to our own Soufrière, is a high mountain, strongly buttressed, designated by the name of Mount Pelée, no doubt because no vegetation grows on its flanks. Well! It is from the deep entrails of this boiling monster that the plague escaped its long prison. We believed the volcano extinct, as for 50 years it had given no sign of activity. But barely heard, it prepared, in the mysterious work of an irresistible and unconscionable force, the great blow it came to strike.
In fact, after a few isolated tremors that marked the first of these months, after a timid essay which had consisted of detonations more or less loud, and intermittent vomitings which, despite their lamentable ravages, had divided the population between fear and hope; the flaming furnace suddenly enlarged itself, the earth shook violently, and a storm of fire was launched with a mighty noise, following a precise direction; with an incredible fury falling upon the defenseless city and its surrounding districts.
Indescribable moment! To crush from above, to change for ashes all of a green region, to ruin in flames all the ships moored in the harbor, to lay in death more than thirty-five thousand human victims, fifteen minutes sufficient ! ! !
Oh, dear Martinique, the morning of the 8th, May 1902, remains forever indelible in the annals of your misfortunes!
They even say that the homicidal mountain, as if she were ashamed of her terrible victory, has sunken on her foundations, and lost two-thirds of her proud altitude!
The pen falls from our hands, N. T. C. F., and we ask ourselves if we should not break it, after such an account.
Ah! It will need another Jeremiah, to depict this disaster without precedent, which cannot be compared to the ruin of Sodom, except that it have the same determining causes.
“I have seen the mountains, and they trembled; I have seen the hills, and they were all shaken; I looked around me and nowhere were found men; and all the birds from the very heavens had withdrawn; I saw the most fertile fields become desert; and all the cities destroyed before the face of the Lord.”
“How is this city so full of people now empty and desolate?”
“Oh, you who pass on the road, stop, and see if your affliction seems as mine!”
“Remember, it is by the Lord that this arrives upon us.”
“We have purchased water at the price of silver.”
“We have sought bread at the house of a stranger, and our skin burns at the touch of fire.”
N. T. C. F. stands for nos très chers frères. The Bishop’s exclamation that “fifteen minutes was sufficient” seems an arbitrary conclusion. The pyroclastic cloud traveled in about a minute from the mountain to the city; whereas the fires that burned Saint-Pierre afterwards kept rescuers away until the 9th.
Let Us at least permit, after the eminent and sympathetic Gouverneur de la Guadeloupe, the bestowing on the new necropolis of our most feeling memory. Oh, formless jumble of so many calcined corpses! Oh, equally, height of cruel irony ! ! ! Yes, We incline Ourselves towards you, the numberless disappeared, chief in honor of the Government of our sister island, officials of every service and every degree, officers of our army, soldiers full of youth, families of all ranks, obscure artisans…
But who could reproach Us for evoking most particularly the eleven Priests of the Martiniquais clergy, the fourteen Fathers of the congregation of the Holy Spirit, the thirty-three nuns of Saint-Joseph de Cluny, the twenty-eight nursing sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres, and the eight sisters of the Délivrance, who lie pell-mell in this mass of corpses? To all who are no more: peace and rest in the Lord!
But to those who remain: energy and courage!
We have wanted to offer without delay to the colony so tried, the tribute of our affection, and from the first hour, we have deputed to her two priests of generous soul and high heart: M. l’abbé Duval, our vicar general, and M. l’abbé Amieux, Archpriest of our Cathedral. The arrival of our envoys, we know it already, has quickly touched the clergy, the communities, and the families of Martinique, and both were able to speak in the beautiful cathedral of Fort-de-France, to the great consolation of the faithful, gathered from all parts. The distinguished and pious administrator who, in the absence of the venerable Mgr de Cormont, now in France, carries the weight of the Diocese, and wants himself to give Us this assurance, by a letter that breathes the sweet scent of sincerity, and that We communicate to you:
Fort-de-France, 11 May 1902
These gentlemen, whom Your Eminence has kindly willed to send me, in my misfortune, and in the midst of an entire nation’s mourning, are testimony of the regard carried to the sister island, so horribly tried, and to its poor shaken administrator; you will know better than I the story, and the scope of the immensity of the catastrophe. For me, full of appreciation for this mark of your high sympathy, I do not know how to express this to you. But I feel myself comforted before so much benevolence, and I say to myself: If the Bishops of Jesus Christ are moved before our misfortunes, it is not possible that the Chief of Bishops in heaven [Saint Peter], remains deaf to the supplications of his people who, despite his faults, return to him. Yes, he has pity on us, and we withdraw from the abyss where we are: I have for pledge your heart, Monseigneur, and the hearts of your two representatives, who have lavished on us all the marks of brotherhood, most moving and most touching.
To Your Eminence, Monseigneur, and to them, my most heartfelt gratitude and the recognition of Martinique.
Please accept, Monseigneur, the assurance of these respectful sentiments, with which I am,
To Your Eminence,
The very humble servant,
Signed: Parél, administrator
However, N. T. C. F., our task is not yet complete, since the souls that animated all these burned bodies have appeared before the Lord, and they certainly will need our prayers and our support. What use will be our sterile tears and our superfluous regrets if we do not implore for them at the same time, mercy and pardon? We will to them be far more useful if we beg of the Sovereign Master of men and things, the why of these cataclysms that confound in the same crucible the innocent and the guilty, and that could at times be disconcerting to superficial minds. Since we do not possess, that we might pronounce upon this, all the necessary elements, why recriminate and perhaps blaspheme? We have a sufficiency of knowledge that there are general laws of physics to explain certain phenomena, even certain natural upheavals; equally we have sufficient knowledge that God does nothing without reason, that His judgments are more enlightened than ours, and that future reparations will redress the contradictions and apparent injustices of the present. And so humbly we bow ourselves under the hand of the Lord, who strikes us in this world to spare us in the next.
Finally, N. T. C. F., envision with generosity and resolution the duty which, today, imposes itself on us. Plagues, it cannot be ignored, carry always after them misery and famine, and when the social and religious life of a country is profoundly troubled, she can only regain her course and her vigor with material and abundant aid. Now Martinique can no longer find this in her heart, and she addresses herself to Guadeloupe, her less unfortunate sister. Dear diocesans, you hear her weeping voice, and in the face of the immense tribulation that embraces her, you remember the largess that she lavished on you, in the hour of your own calamities; you will not content yourselves with giving the token of your superabundance. You know how to take from your own necessities, to relieve, in excess proportion, an ill that passes all proportion. We do not forget that God is all powerful, and that He cannot be disarmed, nor His reach shortened; and if you want His protection, you are more assured of it, if you recall that Christian alms are the redemption of sins, and become for the individuals, the families, and the nation, the best guaranty of the benedictions of Heaven, etc., etc.
Imagine the effect produced by this reminder of the power of God, who, “cannot be disarmed, nor his reach shortened”, on the brains of poor blacks panicked by the terrifying stories of the catastrophe.
The bishop had spoken of Sodom. One of his priests, the curé of Point-de-Pitre, pronouncing a sermon on the 10th of May, dared only make allusion to the cursed cities…
But what allusion.
Here is the sermon, taken from the Courier de Guadeloupe:
Neither faith, nor religion forbids us tears… This alone is the reality for us below… Nor does mourning, that divine and secret religion of the heart!
Ah! Before such a disaster we should make excuse for the human being, the being of reason and feeling, who with a dry eye can contemplate a spectacle of desolation and death; such as that we will listen to the telling of for a few hours, and of which we will ignore long afterwards, by the grace of God, the horrible reality in its atrocious details. Does it seem to you, as you read again the 29th chapter of Genesis, after the fire from the sky has destroyed down to their last foundations, I know not what cities guilty of such monstrous disorders, that these appear to us legendary? Far from us be the thought of a similarity all here reject; but how striking the coincidence, in its terrible results!
From the place that yesterday still occupied green fields, rich of habitations, the cities peopled, Abraham saw ash rise from the earth, as smoke that escapes a furnace. (Verse 27.)
And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace. KJV 19:28. The numbers given above are from the text, and may be due to numbering differences between the KJV and the Catholic Bible used in 1902.
The mourning! But those engulfed alive in the burning flames of this furnace, they who, still in the fullness of life, of youth, of health, were smothered in the whirlwinds of the ashes, they were our brothers! Your sons, your children, and your wives, the blood of your blood! The heart of your heart!
And then, had you dreamed of it? All have perished to the height of the fiery lava…all!
Did they deserve this horrible agony? Was there not one in this crowd, I ask of you…known to you, esteemed, loved, was there not one righteous man? Not one innocent?
Oh! Certainly not! And God has struck them down. Ah! Our days are short and evil. Our good works falter; our will is unsure. The future escapes us; but little does the past instruct us. The present disconcerts us, and nature guards her secrets well. Despite our science, she obeys no one but God!
God alone! For it is always to Him we must return; to Him who is never cruel, never unjust! Listen to the words of Jeremiah:
They will come to me in their tears; and I will take them back in my mercy.
Let us remember these words.
To the cries of sorrow, to the tears of our eyes, to the mourning for our brother souls add, for those who are no more, prayer. For they who survive, alas! In such distress, compassion, the general relief of charity, in all its forms, but let us engrave deep in our bleeding hearts this lesson that God gives us:
Watch! Pray! You do not know the hour or the day!
There were to be, in the host of victims of Saint-Pierre, people who “had deserved this horrible agony”. There you see the terrifying menace the ministers of the God of Abundance and Forgiveness allow to fall from their high seat onto the Antilles…
For not much, I would be tempted to write in French as bad as the Bishop of Guadeloupe’s, and repeat his phrase:
The pen falls from Our hands, N. T. C. F., and We ask ourselves if We should not break it, after such an account.
So far, they fall short of blaming the gods for devils or zombies…!
But they go further. What attracted to Saint-Pierre, what attracted to Fort-de-France, the fires of the volcano, and of the heavens? We do not know. The populace has found the answer. It is the electricity. It is the electric lighting. The good people of Martinique have always believed and always will believe, that there can be nothing but sorcery in this inconceivable thing, of iron threads…some of which are in the air and carry nothing, others which are in glass and burn, making light…
It is not possible that this can be a human thing, a Christian thing; it is diabolical, it is of another world.
I made a visit to the home of a good person, where the daughters of Béhanzin come at times, whom I wanted to greet. This confidante, an all-around friend of his Ex-Highness, was disappointed and spread bitter complaints against the white government, that exposed poor blacks to such a catastrophe… Without a doubt, they had brought on this loss…
“How, or why so?”
“For having their electricity, of course…!”
And I don’t think she was teasing me. During my stay Fort-de-France went many nights without electricity.
The mayor had to obey the demands of the population… Moreover, even at the town hall, I heard from serious people who told me the electric lights had brought on the volcano.
That people had this belief should not seem so strange. In 1902, electricity was new within the lifetimes of many adults, who were finished with whatever education they had once received. It was an initiative of the government. A day came when poles began to be raised, wires strung…and the new marvel had arrived, whether or not people felt they’d had much say in it, wanted it, or understood it well. And, notably, the state of the art was not perfected. Computers didn’t exist to regulate flow. Lights dimmed and burned brighter.
Imagine the psychological effect, just when you’d said some negative thing about the government, if the lights suddenly went out. Already you are suspicious, and these suspicions seem sinisterly to have confirmed themselves. The authorities have some means of monitoring and constraining the public. And again, early lightbulbs often exploded. That people intuited some dire power underlying this phenomenon of electricity, something connected to the shocks of the volcano, in not altogether nonsensical.
The Catastrophe and the Seers
It was to be expected. The catastrophe must have been predicted by the seers, and above all, by one seer.
The creoles have not failed to do their research, and on the 20th of May, the Courier de Guadeloupe published this curious article:
One of our readers would have us accept, and prays that we will publish, a page of the prophecies of Mlle Couédon. Here is the page extracted from the Echo de Merveilleux on the 1st of August, 1899.
Charity Bazaar and a Second Similar Disaster Announced:
Third booklet, page 142.
A danger from the sky menaces the Champs-Elysées, which will burn, and be destroyed.
Echo, 1897, page 135.
Near the Champs-Elysées
I see a place not high
Which is not for piety
But is approached for use
In a goal of charity
Which is not the truth
I see fire rise
And the people shriek
Their flesh burnt
Their corpses charred
I see, as a shovel sweeps
The other is nothing next to this
For long veils of crepe
I am seeing thousands
There the fire will pass
And this not long delayed
A catastrophe for the rich
Of which they’ve no idea
Men will be charred
More than a thousand, I see
And then as the next
I see icy flesh
A fever of the past
I see, again revisiting
I see the flames rise
In a place of ease
Which is not far
From that which has been
Echo, 1897, page 234 (Tilly)
Louise Polinière has seen the details of the second catastrophe, the men who twist in the flames. A landslide that will accompany this disaster. The name of the street or place begins with, “Mar…”
Echo, 1897, page 257.
Marie Martel in an interview says: The fire at the Charity Bazaar was the first warning. If France will not make herself penitent, another more terrible warning will be given her; it will be a terrifying catastrophe produced again by fire, and will kill far more people than the Charity Bazaar fire. If, after this last warning, men do not return to God, then the great punishments will begin.
Echo, 1897, page 279.
Save the little children… It comes near… What catastrophe…that destroys the world! What will the other side be like, if this is only a trial? Before the end of the year…spare the little children! They will be the little martyrs…make them not suffer the fires of the earth.
It will be still worse… Again, for the little children… It will be nothing compared to the other… I beg you, spare them all… Again, for the little children… Spare them, it is not their fault…
Echo, 1898, page 140.
This will come to you
Flames will arrive
A fire will rise
Children will be burnt
The other compares to none
I see weeping mothers
In a place of ease
Which sits not high
Echo, 1897, page 14.
The wind will assail
And the water fail
The flesh fall apart
Many books will be burnt
And rich parchments
It is disastrous
Children will have gone
In velvet dress
For it is a rich feast
Wealth being given
God, they accuse him
Jesus is angered
Jesus is blasphemed
They are made to remember
That His blood was for them
This was much talked about in the Antilles, where belief in miracles is widespread.
If the lovers of facts that could pass for predictions would like me to serve them one unpublished, here it is:
I had the intention of going only to Haiti and Saint-Domingue. When I took my passage with the Compagnie Transatlantique at Paris, I told them: To Port-au-Prince, from Port-au-Prince to Saint-Domingue, from Saint-Domingue to Port-au-Prince, and from Port-au-Prince to return.
Going out to Port-au-Prince, I sailed from Bordeaux; but coming back, one would sail from Port-au-Prince to Le Havre. To return by a transatlantic steamer from Port-au-Prince and disembark at Bordeaux, it is necessary to take at Fort-de-France the next scheduled mail-boat of the Colon-Bordeaux line.
Now on my return from Port-au-Prince to France, the ticket taken at Paris in February, the employee had recorded Port-au-Prince-Bordeaux… At that time I had the firm intention of returning from Haiti directly to Le Havre, without making a side-trip to Martinique.
Knowing this island, I believed I would never have anything new to study there.
I had reckoned without the volcano.
But by the distraction of an employee, my ticket was labeled a regular one, for me to take passage from the island of the volcano.
Think on that, if you will…
As much as I like this brave Méry, don’t believe I had the intention of working alongside Mlle Couédon for L’Echo de Merveilleux… No…
Gaston Méry was a sort of early-model fascist, a virulent anti-Semite, who expressed a preference for Northern European bloodlines, and disdain for France’s Mediterranean population. He published the Echo de Merveilleux, a vehicle of mystical propaganda. He was a frequent figure in news stories of 1902.
The 1897 Charity Bazaar fire, in which 126 victims are known to have died, took place in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, in a barn-like structure, festooned (like Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942) with flammable decorations, to create a festive environment. The decorations caught fire due to a malfunctioning cinematograph. Photos below.
An excerpt from a journal of spiritualist news, that offers a somewhat different translation than mine taken from Hess’s transcript, taken in its turn from the Courier de Guadeloupe. I have tried to stick with the literal sense of the verses, not to add any quality to their “prophetic” nature, but to give the reader a feel for the naive rhyming.
MODERN SYBILS IN FRANCE. ‘L’Echo du Merveilleux,’ for May, contains a few remarkable predictions made by different clairvoyants some years ago, and which the disaster in Martinique appears to verify. Two of these prophetic statements were made by a couple of seeresses who live and work under the protection of the Church in a small country town called Tilly-sur-Seulles (Calvados). They are known to be Marie Martel, religious ecstatic, and Louise Polinière, normal clairvoyante. In 1897 both of them made noteworthy predictions, probably influenced by the psychological effect induced through the terrible Charity Bazaar fire in Paris, and which gave rise to many cryptic utterances on the part of mediums and seers. Marie Martel at that time was known to have said: ‘The holocaust at the Charity Bazaar is but a first warning. If France does not grow penitent, another warning far more terrible will be given her. This will be an awful catastrophe in which fire again will play the chief rôle, and many more people will succumb than in the Bazaar calamity. If after this later sign man does not return to God, then further punishments will begin.”
Louise Polinière prophesied in still more precise terms. She said: ‘I see details concerning the second catastrophe. People in contortions engulfed in flames. An eruption appears to accompany this event. The name of the place or country where this happens begins with Mar—.’ The third voyante to predict disasters which seem to foreshadow the one in Martinique, was Mlle Couédon, who some years ago was the sensation of Paris. Her oracular utterances at that time ran to some length in a species of doggerel rhyme, the sense being something as follows:
I see long crape veils—hundreds of them. One has no idea how terrible will be the next disaster. Human beings are roasted alive. I see more than a thousand, and nearby I see bodies transfixed as though frozen to stone. ‘When the earth trembles a war between three nations is at hand. Volcanos will become active, and from one high mountain surrounded by the sea something will happen. It seems to burst. Sulphur falls. This will take place in a foreign country. A city will be engulfed. All to pieces and the sea sweeps away the débris.’
Concerning the sad fatality which happened to the latest flying machine inventor, M. Severo, Madame Lay-Fonvielle, the well-known medium, predicted this misfortune on December 15th of last year, as follows : ‘And then, dear me, I see a man who wishes to raise himself from the ground, and fly with a machine. You will understand—he will fall—he is killed. It will cause a great stir.’ This same lady, on being asked what foreign sovereign would visit France in 1902, replied that she saw the Shah of Persia would arrive. He is now, or soon will be, at Contrexéville.
From Light, A Journal of Psychical, Occult, and Mystical Research, No. 1116. May 31, 1902.
The Crater Before the Catastrophe
In the course of various interviews I have published, various information has been noted, on the state of the crater of Mount Pelée, between the days where it began to manifest its activity, and the 5th to 8th of May.
In the last number (7th May), of the journal the Colonies, which was published in Saint-Pierre, I have read an interesting account by MM. Boulin, Waddy, Décord, Bouteuil, Ange, and Berte, of the 27th of April.
It was published under the title of:
Notes, in the service of history, of the eruption of 1902.
Here it is:
Coming to the place called the Petite-Savane, or Morne-Paillaise, the tortuous road that conducts one to the summit of the mountain divides. From here there are two paths: one goes to the lake situated on the mountain of Morne Lacroix, the other to the Dry Pond. The path to the Dry Pond is not frequented; only those individuals who harvest palm kernels sometimes go that way, but not so far as the Dry Pond, where there is nothing to see. The tourists, conducted by numerous guides, graciously put at their disposal by M. Emm. Isnard, were directed to this former pond. They had to spend more than an hour climbing down, to arrive there.
The path was encumbered by tangled trees, absolutely barring passage. With hands aiding feet, they were able to cross on bridges of branches, rotting trunks in bizarre heaps; here they breathed air tainted by a nauseating gas. Suddenly, after an hour of walking, a clearing appeared before their eyes. A spectacle unlooked for stopped them cold, mute with admiration. They gathered instinctively before the magnificence of the scene offered to their view. They were in the presence of an immense lake, and an active volcano.
Before 1852, the Dry Pond, as the elders tell it, was filled with water. Following the eruption of this period, the pond had been desiccated; yet by a few fissures in the soil, fissures that could barely be seen until the current eruption, emanations of sulphur made themselves detectible at this time or that. It was all that remained of the pond, and so not long afterwards the place had been designated, “La Soufrière”.
From 1852, no one went any nearer, apart from a few hunters and a few farmers; the road leading there was abandoned. Grasses had replaced the water in the pond; even trees of the upper forest encroached in certain places. When the tourists found themselves before the crater, they were literally stunned with surprise. Imagine a giant basin that measures approximately 300 meters in diameter at its base, 800 meters at the top.
Along the walls of this excavation, were trees uniformly covered in a black coating, with a metallic reflection; a lake 200 meters in diameter at the bottom, lapping the walls—and towards the east, a cone, ten meters in height, fifteen meters in diameter at the summit, somewhat overhanging the lake! It was then eleven o’clock in the morning. The sun struck the circle perpendicularly; all was strangely illuminated. The lake, swept by a strong wind, black ash floating on its surface, had the appearance of molten lead or quicksilver. The trees sparkled with the dust that covered them.
The tourists stood at a point facing the crater. They could hear distinctly a tumultuous movement, the sound of boiling liquid. Fat puffs of smoke flew from the mouth of the volcano; water rushed in cascades down the sides of the crater, spreading itself from the base into the lake.
The water of the lake is at body temperature. Plunging a hand into the water, one feels no sensation other than of liquid itself. It is in the environment of 37 degrees. There is reason to believe it boils coming out of the crater, but the surface of the new lake meeting the violence of the wind accelerates cooling. Elsewhere, at a point lower than that of the lake, one finds hot water. One could suppose that the center of the crater communicates by a conduit passing under the lake, and at a great depth in the soil, with this source of hot water.
The water of the lake is grey. Captured in a bottle well stoppered and kept from all agitation, it leaves a fine powder and becomes clear. This delicate powder is slate-grey; it resembles a compound of lead, or manganese dioxide. This is what floats on the surface of the lake, on the trees of the circle, and that lightens the ground, producing the strange illumination spoken of earlier.
This water contains also a great quantity of gasses, among which seem to dominate the sulphurous [sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide]. The stopper is expelled with force when we uncap the bottle. Silver buttons are blackened under the influence of this gas which comes from the crater of the lake.
The above is a speculative drawing, that may have not much to do with the real-life appearance of the crater lake, as seen by the tourists, but because the figures given are a little difficult to picture, I offer what I think may be the answer (measurements not proportionate): that the 200 meter measure is considered the bottom of the lake, the 300, the surface level, and the 800, the top of the crater.
The above is a photograph of author Jean Hess, (born at Courtavon, Alsace region, March 16, 1862; 40 years old during the events of this story), which I tracked down once I thought of asking Google the right question.
Despite all their efforts, the tourists could not approach the crater. For that, they would have needed to cross the lake at one of its widest points, 300 meters. They thought they had found a ford, and would cross it, when the voices of the guards warned them. Here and there, in the middle of the lake and on its perimeter, even in the water, could be seen floating leaves, still and green. The tourists believed they could go by foot at these places. But, pointing to one such tiny islet, the guides suggested this was simply a case of a tree, twenty meters or so in height; the top barely emerging as a tuft of leaves.
Had the volcanic cone existed before the eruption? The tourists did not think so. It seemed to them of the same material as the cinders. These, coming out of the crater, suspended on the water, and accumulating around the opening, formed a mound around 10 meters high. The cone will probably collapse, as the material inside diminishes.
The lake has no visible outlet, and though they stayed an hour along its shores, they did not see the level rise. However, the flow of the Rivière-Blanche having increased, one can suppose there are fissures at the bottom. The tourists did not find lava or stones in the surrounding area. The black cinders are everywhere.
In the night of Friday, the 2nd of May, the eruption was made palpable by all the ashes that spread over Saint-Pierre and environs, ashes that were absolutely different in their exterior aspect, than those found by the tourists at the very place.
Wednesday, the 30th of April, there were three earthquakes; the first shock at 3:40, the second at 5:05, the third at 6:10. These shocks were not perceived by everyone, and moved horizontally.
From Saturday morning, MM. Boutin and Berté noted all the while that the column of ash, and flames rising above the mountain, were produced just at the point where the new crater had formed.
From the same issue, I clipped another curious piece, entitled, “Towards the crater”, and signed E. G.
The phenomenon produced Saturday at 1:00 in the morning, enveloping Saint-Pierre under a great, thick mantle of ash, was at the time too attractive, too interesting to the curiosity of the individual, not to excite a climb to the place, and the approaching as near as possible to the explosive cauldron.
At six in the morning, we departed in a car, leaving Saint-Pierre in a mad agitation, and in the midst of a rain of ash, dense and incessant. Before the Ex Voto, the horses stopped, the rain redoubling in thickness and violence, penetrating into our eyes and our lungs, despite the handkerchiefs masking every face. The coachman, in terror, declared he could not go on, and would return to Saint-Pierre. We continued on foot, up to the property called Le Pommier, where we began to suffocate, our clothes dusted in a thick layer, transformed where the arms and legs bend, into black mud, from the effect of sweating.
The atmosphere is grey and the view goes no further than 10 meters; intermittent winds whistle violently and cause solid beads of black to fall from the trees; this resembling the first drops of an indecisive rain. The lowing of abandoned cattle, the cries of distress of birds fluttering blindly, are mixed among low groans and terrible detonations from the volcano in eruption.
At 7:30 our walk began again. We follow the road to the dike, along the course of which great numbers of laborers are grouped around their shed, unmoving, frozen with fear. We predict certain failure in this business of our climb. The growling stops momentarily, but the rain of ash is no less abundant. We follow a road that leads to l’Habitation Isnard, and find that their outbuildings are completely abandoned. The flight must have been precipitate, as the doors of the cabins on the left side of the settlement all stand open. Only an old woman, distraught and shrinking, is before the door of one of these cabins, and points us the route to follow, to reach the mountain.
The cane fields covered in ash unfold before our eyes; but the saturation is less intense and the range of view longer. The mountain is invisible, as it projects now and again a column of thick black ash that rises vertically and conceals everything from sight. The ash falls continually, but in lesser quantity; what comes to us now is from the trees and neighboring fields, and peaks still invisible at the higher elevations, ash which the wind sweeps and carries in a westerly direction, that is to say, from Saint-Pierre. The immensity of shadow and ash clears itself little by little as we measure our approach. The wind whistles and buffets from time to time, and we receive a fine dust. The thickness on the soil and foliage is one-and-a-half centimeters; the walk is punishing, but at last we reach the summit of Morne Saint-Martin. It is 10 o’clock.
Everywhere there is ash. The Morne-Bardury on our left is covered; the trees are very tall, and their branches curve down to the ground.
Suddenly a detonation is heard, accompanied by rumblings, subdued and prolonged; then a second, then four others at different intervals. The sky is obscured all at once and the crater, which is not far from us…in the area of 800 meters…throws out a thick black dust in the direction of the Prêcheur. Distant lowings come to our ears, the cries of frightened animals rising in the midst of a profound silence that follows the detonations. There are cows fleeing in all directions; they are covered in ash and dust, these moaning sufferers. The little water pipes are dry; the water is absorbed and replaced by a bed of ash 2 centimeters thick. A number of small birds lie on the soil, grey; not a drop of water to revive them. The summit of the mountain is clear. To the right, the sun’s timid rays grow stronger, showing the piercing whiteness of the ash against the green of the trees and the peaks.
Nature is sad and monotonous, no birdsong, no sound but the lowings of wild cattle, and the subterranean rumblings of the mountain.
A curious phenomenon which will not fail to surprise those of our readers who haven’t been to this place, is that the access becomes easier the nearer one approaches the crater. The ash at the foot of the mountain is found only on the trees and the ground, and we believe the organizers of this excursion to Mount Pelée are wrong, to think we must return now.
The mountain is absolutely accessible; we propose to come back soon and offer to our readers an account more interesting and more complete, upon a new ascent.
Ex voto means a thing done to fulfill a religious vow. The context here suggests a roadside shrine where offerings are made by passing travelers.
Hess ended this chapter on the word “ascension”. (Shortening this to ascent is more in keeping with English usage.) A conscious choice by Hess and his editor, no doubt, as the volcano exploded on Ascension Day, and as the tourist/reporters in this story died before they could fulfill that last promise.
That Which Was Saint-Pierre
In the course of this volume, I have given a few brief indications of what Saint-Pierre had been, before the catastrophe. There is also a very beautiful photograph by M. Sully that shows the splendor so animated, so lively.
Some additional details will not be out of place.
On the first of January, 1902, the city counted 26,011 inhabitants, of which 6164 were voters. The suburbs and outlying towns had a population equal in number. The business directory published annually by M. Hurard, described this city disappeared:
The city is built on the seaside, along a beach of sand, and its elevation on the terrain of the hillsides, in the way of an amphitheater, is a little steep. The streets are regular enough, but not as large as those in the capital. A river, the Roxelane, crosses the city and divides it in two parts: making the one, the Fort district, in memory of the fort that was raised by Esnambuc on his arrival, and the other, the district of the Mouillage. Today, the city is divided, from the religious point of view, into three parishes, that of the Fort, the Centre, and the Mouillage, to which they have added a very narrow parish, called the Consolation. The river is the limit of the Centre parish, on the north side, and the rue du Petit-Versailles, even numbers, the limit on the south. The houses of Saint-Pierre are nearly all built in stone. A municipal order forbids construction in wood. The houses are beautiful and the greater part of them enjoy the precious advantage of fountains in the interior apartments. These particular fountains, and those of the city, are fed by the waters of the Roxelane, and one of its tributaries, augmented with the waters of the spring called Morestin, captured around seven kilometers from the city. Three canals distribute this water, namely: the canal of the Fort, that pumps 300 liters per second; that of the Mouillage, which pumps 400, and the water-pipe of the Morestin, which furnishes 100; total, 800. These lively and abundant waters temper the heat, and purify the air.
The topographical position of the two districts of Saint-Pierre has the greatest influence on their greater or lesser salubrity. In the district of the Mouillage, the winds from the east are intercepted by the neighboring hills, which results in a heat increased still more by the rays of the sun reflecting from the escarpments onto this part of the city, where the population is the most dense, and where are clustered the commercial establishments.
The other district, on the contrary, is not dominated by neighboring heights on the east side; the winds from this direction blow over them freely, and tend constantly to refresh the atmosphere.
The topographical situation, the harborage, does not permit Saint-Pierre to be a fortified city. Thus there are found only three batteries or forts: the battery of Sainte-Marthe, the battery Villaret, and the battery Saint-Louis.
On disembarking at Saint-Pierre, one finds oneself on a vast, paved plaza, called the Place Bertin, on one side of which rises a round tower. This is the semaphore; and there is a fountain that plays continually. On the other side is a square structure in the form of a chalet, with galleries all around the walkways, and on the pediment is found a clock that gives the hour to the boats; this is the chamber of commerce building of Saint-Pierre.
The Chamber succeeded, on the 17th of March, 1855, under the government of Commodore de Gueydon, to the Bureau of Commerce, which was instituted July 17, 1820 under the administration of M. le lieutenant-général comte Donzelot. The first president was M. Paul Rufz (April 9, 1855). M. Gustave Borde succeeded him April 25, 1860.
Let us say in passing that this city so important for its commerce is not the home of the Court of Commerce. The Court is the first venue of commercial judgments.
Two semaphore posts situated, the one on the Morne-Folie, the other on the Place Bertin, signal to all the ships passing at sea, and correspond with them by means of commercial signal codes.
The bay of Saint-Pierre is illuminated at night by the lighthouse of the Place Bertin, a fixed red light of the fourth magnitude [a measure of brightness], which carries for nine miles.
The battery of Sainte-Marthe is situated at the extremity of the hill that dominates the Mouillage district, having a white light at the upper mast and a green light at the lower, which carry four miles. These lights are mounted and placed on a vertical plane. They indicate the direction to follow to reach the center of that place in the harbor called the Plateau.
The Plateau is so named because the depths, in this part of the harbor, are less sloping than the others, and form relative to those before the city, a raised area that permits dropping an anchor at 24 fathoms, and holding a position at two cables [a nautical measurement of distance] from the coast.
Saint-Pierre is the seat of the Court of First Instance [analogous to a Court of Common Pleas], the Court of Assize, and two justices of the peace; the Bank of Martinique, and the colonial Credit Bank. It is, since 1853, the residence of the Bishop of Martinique.
We note a certain number of establishments worthy of mention:
The Lycée colonial, established 1880-1881, and installed in the Mouillage since 1883, within the premises of the old convent of the Sisters of Saint-Joseph de Cluny.
The Séminaire collège diocésain is situated in the Fort district, above the Roxelane river and a great part of the city.
The Pensionnat colonial, located on the rue Victor Hugo, near the battery d’Esnotz, in the old Jacquin building, is bounded by the rue du Théâtre, the boulevard and the rue Pesset.
The Théâtre, as it presently exists, dates from 1831-1832. A decree inserted in the Bulletin de la Martinique, of the year 1831, authorized the acquisition of a building, to enclose a “Salle de Spectacle” at Saint-Pierre. But Moreau de Jonnès speaks of a “Salle de Spectacle” in Saint-Pierre, having been there since 1802. In that era, it would have contained around 200 people.
The military hospital, sited near the Place Bertin, was founded in 1685 by the brothers of Saint-Jean-de-Dieu. It contains 100 beds.
The civic hospital, which contains 200 beds, is in the Fort district. A decree of June 16,1854, ordered creation of a civil hospital in the colony. By the letter of December 16, 1854, the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies approved the provisional concession which had been made on the 11th of the preceding November, by the governor of the municipality of Saint-Pierre, that the old artillery barracks seated on the rue Hurtault, be transformed into a civic hospital.
The church of the Mouillage, was a provisionally instituted cathedral church, by a decree of April 29, 1851, of the Governor of Martinique. Additions were undertaken in 1853 to 1885, the period when the towers were constructed that compose the façade. The height of these towers is 42 meters.
The church of the Ursalines was erected in the church parish of the Centre, by a decree of the governor dating August 8, 1851. Closed in 1847 for a lack of sound construction, it was not opened for worship until 16 March 1852. It was enlarged in 1878-1879,
The church of the Fort seems to have been built in the 17th century. The first service in this parish would have been in 1640, if one is to believe certain documents, under Father Bouton of the Jesuits. The bell tower is of more modern construction. Its height is 30 meters.
The botanical garden is situated outside the city, at the place called Trois-Ponts. The various features of the terrain where the garden is located, the multitude of indigenous and exotic plants that are cultivated there, and the forested hills that rise above them, combine to give the most agreeable aspect, and the most picturesque. We note a very beautiful fountain. M. Garoud, in his work Trois ans à la Martinique, says that this, “…garden is one of the marvels of the world, but a marvel undiscovered.”
Among the establishments worth calling attention to, we cite again the Government House, the Town Hall, the Bank, the Bishop’s Palace, certain rum factories, the Perinelle sugar refinery, the Bethlehem Asylum, the Customs Warehouse, the Navy Barracks, and the Colonial Hospital that normally takes in 150 psychiatric patients.
Saint Pierre is crossed by four bridges; it counts three cemeteries, two savannas*, two covered walkways, of which one is entirely under iron; a slaughterhouse, four public plazas.
The oldest bridge in the city is of stone. One can read there today, on the side facing the sea, the following inscription, graven on a plaque of marble.
In the year MDCCLXVI , of the reign of Louis XV, this bridge was constructed under the generalship of the Count d’Ennery, and the superintendence of Thomassin de Peynier, by the care and under the direction of Brother Cleophas Danton, monk of the Order of Charity, who rendered this service to the public, paid for by the parishes of the Fort, of the Mouillage, and the Prêcheur.
At the right and left of this inscription, are graven the arms of the Count d’Ennery, and of President Thomassin de Peynier.
The area of the city is around 75 hectares. It counts 103 streets, squares, courts and lanes, of which the total distance represented is 19 kilometers. The number of houses comes to 2985.
The principle altitudes surrounding Saint-Pierre are: the Morne-d’Orange, 124 meters; the Morne-Abeille, 140 meters; the plateau of the former seminary (Trouvaillant), 153 meters; the plateau of the Tricolor habitation, 195 meters. The parapet of the battery of Saint-Marthe is at 43 meters; the end of the Pecoul alley, facing the Chapel of Consolation, is 45 meters in altitude.
Saint-Pierre, with its “habitations”, the factories and the plantations on the outskirts, the rum distilleries and the industrial suburbs, has contributed the greater part of the commercial advances of the colony. The Annual of 1902 gives only the complete statistics for commercial activities of the year 1901.
And here are the numbers most significant, relative to exportations of “the latest vintage”:
*In Martinique they call promenades and boulevards planted with trees, savannas. [JH]
488,000 kilograms of cocoa, valued at 880,000 francs.
39,748,590 kilograms of sugar, valued at 15,723,410 francs.
14,447,964 liters of rum, valued at 4,229,973 francs.
Add to this coffee, campêche (1), casse (2), molasses, sugared fruits, rawhides, ambrettes (medicinal mallows), liqueurs, vanilla…
To obtain an exportation of 26,973,431 kilograms of products, valued at 24,016,649 francs.
Nearly all of this, one could even say all, is processed through Saint-Pierre. All importation equally comes through Saint-Pierre, where are found the great consignment houses of the island.
The First Public Notice of the Eruption’s Beginnings
In the journal les Colonies of the 26 of April, this article said, under the title:
The smokes of Mount Pelée
For a few weeks, the inhabitants of the Prêcheur district have been constantly inconvenienced by a strong and disagreeable odor of sulphur, which comes from the crater of the extinct volcano. The odor is so strong at times that the horses passing on the coastal roadway balk at it.
Since this night, a white smoke, very thick, has come from the crater. From all sides, this attracts curiosity seekers. In the heights of Point Lamarre the ground is thickly covered with ash. From time to time the smoke stops, to be followed by the expulsion of an enormous mass.
Without doubt that is when the solid matter ejects, which apparently they can make out with the telescope from the Chamber of Commerce.
Are we expecting an earthquake? A catastrophe?
So, with anxiety, some people are asking.
The weather is heavy, lowering; we breathe with difficulty, and by noon the temperature has not passed 28 degrees. [82.4 Fahrenheit.]
The Eruption of Mount Pelée in 1851
In the course of this volume, I have had occasion to speak of the eruption of 1851, which was benign, and constituted for a number of persons a precedent, “optimistic”; a precedent which made them deny the danger, however evident, of the present eruption.
Here, the eruption of 1851, the account of it published in the Bulletin officiel, of 1852:
A tradition, without historical foundation it is true, since it grew before the establishment of Europeans in these islands, recounts that Mount Pelée is the seat of a volcano. The conical form of this mountain, peculiar to all those at which great phenomena manifest themselves, the epithet of Pelée [bald], the existence within this peak of a lake that could pass for a crater, the sandy nature of the terrain that radiates for several leagues, all come to the aid of this tradition and surround the mountain with that respect men pay to things they fear. It is also known that in the gorges of this mountain, there is a place where sulphur was found, and for this is called by the inhabitants la soufrière.
From the 10th of May, 1851, Martinique was not shaken by the earthquakes, but learned Guadeloupe had not ceased to be, and lived in continual fear. Si mens non laeva fuisset [if our minds were not deceived], if human foresight was not very limited, we must then ourselves await some great cosmic phenomenon, and were seeing the infancy of something extraordinary.
However, on the 5th of August, Saint-Pierre slumbered peacefully. The city was in its first sleep, calm and deep, that assured by daily labors and the monotony of a life of habit. If anyone dreamt of a volcano, it was certainly not the volcano of Mount Pelée!
Towards eleven in the evening, a loud noise, distant and sinister, began to be heard. In its first moments, the noise was confounded by each hearer with the familiar; one with the sound of thunder, another with the roar of steam when the valve of an engine is opened, and still others with the rolling of a river that overflows. But the noise did not stop; on the contrary, it grew louder. Many were roused and started to worry.
I was on my plantation of Fonds-Canonville, which of all the sugar mills is, from the bird’s eye view, nearest the source of the noise. For a few moments, half-awake, I also took what I heard for thunder, but I found its continuation very strange, when I heard my cultivators call from outside.
“Do you hear that noise?” they yelled to me.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s thunder.”
“No, it’s the soufrière that boils…”
I studied the sky, the mountain, the earth, and saw nothing, but continued to hear what everyone heard.
1 Campêche is a shrub or small tree that grows in sunny dry places, not native to, but common in the Antilles. It has been used historically for furniture making, and to produce a red dye.
2 Casse, so far as my research shows, is a local shortening of the name canéficier, a tree or shrub that looks like Laburnum. Laburnum is a member of the Fabaceae (legume) family, and produces a seedpod that looks a little like a vanilla bean; the seeds are poisonous, but have been used in the production of medicine and pesticides.
The rest of the night passed in great anxiety. We saw flames coursing over the hills, illumination enough to see the flight of numerous persons, while others were passing on the main road, announcing they would go to the churches in the city, to beg divine mercy, all without knowing any more than ourselves, and answering our questions with these mournful words: “The soufrière is boiling!”
We finished the night at the foot of one of those mission crosses that, for a long time, have been planted at the entry of nearly all the houses of the Prêcheur.
Came the dawn, and we learned that Saint-Pierre was no less frightened than we were; the noise had been heard by everyone, and waking they’d found on all the roofs of the houses, the pavements of the streets, and the leaves of the trees, a light layer of greyish ash, which gave the aspect of a European city covered in frost in the first days of autumn. This ash covered all the fields located between the city and Mount Pelée, and the Morne-Rouge, stretching all the way, they said, to the Carbet.
The river called Rivière-Blanche for its waters, no longer merited the name. Its waters rolled black, seemingly a solution of ash and slate, the trace of which, at the mouth of the river, could be seen far into the sea, as after a great flood.
These lines were written by M. Leprieur, in collaboration with MM. Rufz and Peyraud, the first, pharmacist-in-chief at the hospital of Fort-de-France, the second doctor, and the third ex-pharmacist of the navy, all three on this subject charged by the governor with a mission.
Mount Pelée, at 1350 meters, is the highest of the island; at its summit is found a lake, as report the palm-kernel harvesters, and which is the crater spoken of in the preceding notes. This lake measures 150 meters in circumference. It is the only one known in Martinique.
The Seismic and Volcanic Movements in the Zone of Least Resistance
It was Humboldt, I believe, who qualified the zone of least resistance to the expanding mass of a liquid core, in Central America, and the Antilles, where he’d calculated that the Earth’s crust is thinnest.
The eruption of Mount Pelée has not been an isolated phenomenon. It makes part of a series of manifestations that have agitated all the zone of “least resistance”. There were earthquakes and volcanic eruptions successively at Guatemala, at Martinique, and at Saint-Vincent.
The eruption of Mount Pelée commenced in April, just at the time of eruptions and earthquakes at Guatemala, which were announced as follows, by Reuter and Havas:
New York, 21 April: A dispatch from Guatemala to the Herald announces that three earth tremors took place Friday evening, destroying the city of Quesaltenago, and shaking Amatitlan to its foundations.
Five hundred people have been killed at Quesaltenago, but the number of victims cannot be precisely determined at the present hour. (Reuter)
New York, 23 April: The Herald publishes a telegram from Guatemala, saying that the greater part of the cities, villages and plantations situated in the western part of the Republic have been destroyed. The volcanoes of Chingo, San Salvador, and Santa Maria, are in eruption.
The center of recent earthquakes seems to have been in these last-named volcanoes.
The island of Saint-Vincent was also very cruelly tested.
Two thousand five hundred victims and all the northern part of the island ravaged by the volcano, whose eruptions seems to have been of the same nature and producing the same effects as that of Mount Pelée.
A friend, who came from Saint-Vincent, and whom I met in Fort-de-France, said to me that this was the same volcano, the same eruption. Here are some details, according to the Tidende:*
The eruption began on the 7th, at 9:00 in the morning. The Soufrière thundered and launched bolts of lightning. At one thirty in the afternoon, there were powerful grinding noises and enormous columns of smoke. At 2:40, a hail of pebbles and a rain of fine dust. The ashes fell at Kingston. The earth shook. Many plantations were destroyed.
At 4:00, complete darkness.
On the 8th, the dead, and the damage.
On the 9th, the Soufrière in full eruption.
On the 10th, all the island is covered in a particular fog, and the inhalation of noxious vapors spreads illness.
On the 16th, there are 5000 persons in misery, and 2000 dead.
New craters were formed at the Soufrière of Saint-Vincent.
A Wesleyan minister, who made an excursion to within 8 miles of the crater, on the Wednesday, saw rising a 13 kilometer (?) column of smoke, then a huge cloud descending on the road, forbidding any further advance. The bank of smoke and sulphurous vapors had the form of a gigantic promontory, that transformed into a collection of clouds turning rapidly, culminating in efflorescences of admiral form, lit brilliantly by reflections of electricity.
The official information says that one could not approach further than 5 miles of the volcano, due to the intense heat. The lake at the summit seems to have disappeared. All the Caribbean country is covered by a volcanic landscape.
On the 7th, until 7:00 in the evening at Barbados there had been lightning in the northwest. After 9:00, the darkness became heavy. The tramways suspended their service at 8:00. The next day the dawn arrived sad and grey. The surface of the earth was covered in a fine greyish-brown dust. The roofs and the trees all were laden with it.
“A gentleman calculated that 2,252,120 tons of dust had fallen in 12 hours, which came to 50 tons per hectare.” (!)
This dust came from Saint-Vincent.
*There was an American Norwegian newspaper named Tidende (Nordisk Tidende), and there was a small number of Norwegian coffee planters living in Guatemala. Why this paper would be a source for Hess, is a question that raises the possibility the name given is a typo. In Spanish, the word tienda means store or shop, which is conceivably the name of a Caribbean newspaper of 1902.
Fear of the Corpses
It was not only fear of eruptions like those of Mount Pelée that affected the neighboring islands; it was also the terror of contagion that might be carried by corpses taken up in the currents…
Read this proclamation posted by the Mayor of Grand Bourg following the beaching of corpses at Marie-Galante:
Residents and Dear Citizens
The corpses of the unfortunate victims, of the terrible and inexpressible catastrophe of our sister Martinique, which have come to beach on our shores, and which I have had the satisfaction of giving a place in our cemetery, among our own dead, have for good reason thrown fear into your hearts.
In this punishing circumstance, you have shown the extent to which you understand and bear the highest sentiments of human solidarity; each of you has done his duty, and on this occasion I send to you the grateful expression of my heartfelt recognition.
The history of the Antilles since time immemorial has never yet recorded such sorrowful events.
And despite that, the state of the atmosphere, the considerable elevation in temperature, the appearance of powerful pressure that exerts itself on the waves, all seem to indicate that the Antilles are not yet finished with the cosmic phenomena which have come to our sister island, and which, perhaps, wait for us, if not with these consequences, at least those of an epidemic.
Consider that numerous corpses, such as those of yesterday, may still be found in the waters of Martinique, to be transported here by currents, and may be of a nature to give rise in our poor island to calamitous diseases.
However, we must not be alarmed; to danger we must know how to oppose courage, and I have full confidence in yours.
It is incumbent upon, in the grave circumstance of the moment, a foresighted administration, careful of its responsibilities, to take urgent measures for the safeguarding of public security.
In consequence, I have the honor of bringing to your awareness the decision that disinfectants, which are: tar, phenic acid, ice pellets, or others, are to be burnt every day in the four corners of the town.
I am grateful to you for doing the same around your houses, but taking all necessary precautions to avoid accidents.
The courts and outbuildings of houses, the stables and other establishments, must be maintained in a perfect state of cleanliness, and the waste thrown in that part of the Fort downwind of the town.
Cruises will be organized for the surveillance of our coasts; thus, we may, perhaps, avoid this danger that threatens us.
Mayor’s House, 5 May 1902
Marie-Galante is a tiny French island in the Antilles chain 145 kilometers roughly north of Martinique. The date almost certainly is a typesetting error, as May 5th was the day of the Guérin factory disaster, but May 8th was the day of the catastrophic eruption, and so by the 14th (or some later date), the bodies from Saint-Pierre might have been carried to Marie-Galante.
It is written that the English let no chance escape of demonstrating their sentiments regarding France in general, and Paris in particular.
This is what I extract from the dispatches addressed to the English Antilles via the telegraph company, “West India”; dispatches published by the Tidende of Saint-Vincent, and reproduced by the Courrier of Guadeloupe, number 23, May 1902.
It is under the rubric:
The emotion of the civilized world before the catastrophe of Martinique.
Telegrams from Paris say that the people of this city alone remain indifferent. The flags are at half-staff, but otherwise the populace go freely about their ordinary Sunday pleasures. The Times explains that this is for the reason that the news is too much to be appreciated.
See now the following:
On the dates of May 12-13, the emotion of all the world ran high, and ships under every flag rushed to carry aid to Martinique.
But this is the last; here we scent the bouquet.
Dispatches of the 16th say that the provinces interest themselves in succor more than Paris, and the journals give more space to the accident of M. Sévero [an aeronaut who died while experimenting with a dirigible], and to a trial on charges of fraud, than to the catastrophe.
And they operate the same way in Trinidad; witness this snipping entitled: “As to the stupid and criminal”, which I have taken from l’Opinion:
We thank from the bottoms of our hearts the people of Trinidad, who have truly surpassed themselves in providing some comfort to our brothers, whom the painful circumstances of the moment have brought to our hospitable land.
On the initiative of our compatriot, the sympathetic Dr. Lotat, a steamboat has collected aboard from a mailboat the carriages of Port-of-Spain that have been graciously put at our disposal, so as to be conducted to the places where in advance they have been assigned.
The spirit of charity has been admirable; in a moment the subscription lists were filled, donations in kind were offered—and discreetly, with all the wanted tact, that great suffering might be made bearable…
For breaking this spirit, for stopping this magnificent movement of solidarity, it needs only a stupid and criminal proposal from a miserable Englishman, who declares to his compatriots that:
“…the people for whom they have pledged it, are not worthy of any interest; he had witnessed the election of May 11th, which was simply sickening, for it was by shouts of joy that the success of a candidate was tallied. Music was paraded through the whole city and was played on the Savane until quite a late hour of the night…”
And this in the aftermath of the catastrophe of May 8th, at the time when all our hearts were broken!
Oh, the wretch!
If this villainous person was really in Fort-de-France on the 11th, unless he is an alcoholic, or a lunatic, he would not have even noticed that there was an election, as it passed with all the calm appropriate to a time of sorrow.
If he takes from interested parties this rascality that he echoes, we declare that we cannot understand it, for it is repugnant to us to admit there being people who still have mud in the place of their hearts.
Finally, what is quite well-bred; what could even be called cute, is this chicken that follows:
The Negroes of Martinique
(Dispatch from our correspondent)
London, 9 June
A traveler just arrived in the West Indies tells that the negroes of Martinique demonstrate loudly their joy that the whites perished in the catastrophe. They believed for a while that all the white race had been exterminated and they considered themselves masters of their country. They have even elected a negro governor.
The crews of two ships embarked a short time after the catastrophe found the blacks singing and dancing to their tamborines.
This was published at the head of the first column on the sixth page of the Petit Journal, foreign edition, which carried a date of June 10, and which I bought at Santander [Spain], on my return, the 13th of June.
Past comment, isn’t it? Except that the people of Marinoni have their critical sense well-developed when they reproduce the dispatches of London!
Hippolyte Marinoni (1823-1904) was the founder of an eponymous printing house, Maison de la Marinoni.
The “chicken” above was once a commonplace political catch-word, referencing “chickens coming home to roost”, and the idea that a particular behavior, or statement, had exposed someone’s true colors.
Last week, I speculated on the likelihood of the Tidende newspaper; this week, more research has produced this snippet, extracted on the fair use principle.
Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Volume 33, CRC Press, 1982.
[This book is sold by Barnes and Noble for 164.95.]
Printing seems to have been introduced during the British occupation of the island, by James Hatchett, printer of the Saint Thomas Gazette and the St. Thomas Monday’s Advertiser in Charlotte-Amalie, in 1810. After the Dutch administration was resumed, the Saint Thomas Tidende was published regularly. In both Saint Croix and Saint Thomas, the printing industry seems to have been dominated by British or American printers.
Jean Hess, La Catastrophe de la Martinique, 1902 (Public Domain)
Translated by Stephanie Foster