1766, a Year of Risks For Martinique #2/3 The Hurricane of August

tanlistwa, gravure, vue de Fort-Royal, XVIIIe siècle

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Are there times in your lives when you have one difficulty after another? You know, those days when you think you’d be better off staying in bed, or those moments that feel like the law of series, the kind of period that makes us look forward to the end of the cycle for the start of another one under better auspices. If I had lived in 1766 in Fort-Royal (now Fort-de-France) in Martinique, I would probably have been in a hurry to get to 1767: part of the city burnt down in May, a hurricane in August, a tidal wave and an earthquake in September. A year full of risks! I am reporting to you what the archives tell us about the events of 1766, a black year for the town and its inhabitants, but also for the whole island.

In the first part, we saw how the area along the city’s waterfront was ravaged by fire on the night of 19-20 May; in this second part, we look at the violent hurricane that devastated the island on the night of 13-14 August, leaving families in mourning and fear of starvation.

The hurricane on the night of 13 or 14 August

In August, the town of Fort-Royal, like the rest of the island, was hit by a violent hurricane. A letter dated 18 August from the governor and the intendant gives an idea of the violence of the phenomenon and the damage caused.

« The colony has just experienced the most dreadful calamity (…). During the night of the 13th to the 14th, a furious wind, accompanied by lightning, thunder and even an earthquake, rose up at about ten o’clock, which in less than four hours razed, destroyed and pulled down the houses, buildings, sugar mills, factories, churches and huts of almost the entire countryside, uprooted and uprooted all the trees, even the largest ones in the forests, destroyed coffee and cocoa trees, and overturned the sugar canes which were in pipe and generally all the foodstuffs of the country of whatever species they may be, a great number of men, women, children both white and black were crushed under the ruins of the buildings, all the vessels, boats, schooners and canoes which were in the dares or which sailed around the island, were thrown to the coast where they broke, several perished body and goods; In the port of Fort Royal itself, where the European ships belonging to the French trade were, the wind was so furious that many of these ships drifted, broke their cables and ran aground on the coast; but as it is on mud and prompt help was brought to them, apart from two or three which are in danger, the rest will save themselves: there will only be much damage.
In living memory, there has never been such a terrible hurricane. That of 1756 did not produce such terrible effects, because it was not so general for the whole island. The sight of the colony is horrifying and it is impossible (unless you see it) to describe exactly the sad situation in which it finds itself. The consternation is general, and the misery is dreadful. All the buildings that still exist on the island are completely uncovered, and there are not enough wood or planks to provide cover. The very grasses used for this purpose offer no resources, having all been torn up and broken by the hurricane, and then swept out to sea by the torrents caused by a heavy rainfall which followed the storm and which finished by crushing us. (…) » At the end of the letter, he specifies: « The northern part of the island from Fort Royal to Robert inclusive, is the one that has suffered the most; the other side of the island, although also very damaged, is less so in its buildings; but the loss of food and commodities is general. »

What about the town of Fort Royal? « At Fort Royal, the king’s ships suffered little; only the roofs and ridges of the houses were blown away by the wind; no soldier was killed, several were wounded, the buildings of the town are on their feet, and are in the same condition as those of the king; the fortifications suffered no damage; the cabins of Morne Garnier were blown away.
The hospitals of Fort Royal and St Pierre, which had been discovered, were repaired in three days and the patients are now under cover. The establishment of Champflore is lost. All the cabins of the Germans and Acadians, the church, the presbytery, the hospital, the shops, everything was razed; and many people perished under the ruins.« 

At sea, the ships also suffered: « The King’s two ships, La Balance and La Fortune, which were in the Fort Royal basin, did not suffer; but we are worried about La Coulisse, which left for France two days before the hurricane. One of the two boats of the Domaine perished, the other is safe and sound. » A letter from Lieutenant Jean François d’Arros dated 3 September detailed the situation for the ships. « All the ships except the two fluttes of the King and 7 small and large commercial ships were on the coast, numbering twenty five or twenty six. (…) There are still two that are stranded, one from Nantes of 450 tons and another of 300 from La Rochelle, both of which are in 4 to 5 feet of water, and must be made to walk more than 100 feet before being put afloat. »

In another letter of the same day, Lieutenant Jean François d’Arros wrote to ask to return to France; he mentioned his personal losses, which must have resembled those of other owners’ property: « The property of Madame D’Arros is established there, and it has been razed so that my losses amount to fifty thousand ecus, all my establishments without exception of a single hut, ny building, have been knocked down as well as my plantations of all kinds; I have also lost a number of cattle and a negro who were killed by the fall of the houses. »

As with the fire, the hurricane immediately posed a problem for the supply of food for those affected, but here it was no longer just one part of the city of Fort Royal that was affected, but an entire island. The fear of famine was there. The governor was therefore quick to relax the principle of  colonial exclusivity a little more; he temporarily authorised the import of foodstuffs from foreign trade to feed the population.

« In such an extremity, Monsieur Le Duc, without food in the King’s warehouses, we have believed ourselves forced to admit to Martinique, flour and biscuit coming from abroad; but with the precautions that you will see detailed in the ordinance that we have the honour of sending you attached. This is the only way to prevent famine, and to provide for the subsistence of the negroes; still there will be some who will perish of misery; because some of their masters have neither food nor money to buy it, however modest the price may be, through competition. (…)
We have not admitted beef salted by foreigners, because the French trade has a lot of it in the colony at the moment, and moreover the main consumption is cod: that which must come to us from France will be of great help to us. »

Thus, building on an ordinance of 1765 that already allowed the introduction of foreign cod, rice and maize into three ports on the island, the governor enacted an ordinance on 18 August 1766 that added flour and biscuits to the list of authorised products and extended to the port of Le Marin the right to receive ships bringing in these commodities. In addition, the governor also hoped to turn to the neighbouring island for locally grown foodstuffs (manioc and rice); root vegetables with the shortest production cycles, such as sweet potatoes, were replanted as soon as the cyclone had passed to limit the risk of famine. « As the island of St. Lucia was almost unaffected by the gale, it will be able to provide us with some of the country’s food, and we will take what we can of magnoc plants and rice to plant and sow, immediately in Martinique.
The inhabitants have begun to plant potatoes and other roots which come up in three months; this will at least give the negroes a little support. »

Finally, as at the time of the fire, the question of taxation was raised again, this time it was purely and simply a question of suppressing it for the year.
« You are well aware, Monsieur Le Duc, that in such a situation we cannot demand the part of the tax which has not yet been paid. We even beg you to ask His Majesty to relieve the colony of all taxation for the coming year. It would be impossible for it to pay any. This catastrophe is all the more distressing and painful as we had the satisfaction of seeing that the island was recovering from its former losses and its past misfortunes (…) ».
This is the same speech he made in another letter of 6 September in which he noted the shortage of money in circulation on the island. « The deplorable state to which the inhabitants of Martinique have been reduced since the hurricane they suffered last month makes them more suitable to excite compassion than to support, at least for the next year, a capitation of the nature of that which is imposed.

Of course, the damage was not only material. « The loss of human life by crushing or drowning can be estimated at 500 persons, both white and black. Although the figures may be overestimated, this is a lot for a population of about 85,000 people of all statuses in 1766. The parish registers of the North Atlantic of the island echoed what the governor announced, the northern half of Martinique had been particularly affected by this violent gale. In Basse-Pointe, on 14 August, the body of 60 year old Anne Rousseau, widow of the late M. Michel Veyrier, « died this morning at five o’clock, crushed under the fall of her house », the body of Antoine Roux aged 55, « died at six o’clock in the morning, crushed under the fall of his house », the body of sieur Jean Baptiste Cocquet Courbon, « in the cemetery of the Croix St Paul, district of Ajoupa Bouillon, aged 38 years, after having been crushed under the ruins of his house by the hurricane of the 13th of the said month », the body of the named Raymond, « mulatto who perished on our coasts with a boat belonging to M. Fourniol where he was master ». On the same day, the body of the late Sieur Jean la Mothe L’Hosteau, 71 years old, was buried in Gros-Morne, « crushed in the fall of his house caused by a gale », in Macouba, the body of Jean Pierre Plissonneau, son, about 13 years old, « crushed in his father’s house by the gale that had arrived the day before », in Sainte-Marie, the body of the late demoiselle Marie Louise de Loré, about 50 years old, wife of M. François Lalung « crushed in the ruins of her house destroyed in the hurricane of that night », also her daughter Marie Jeanne Adélaïde Lalung aged about 15 years and Marie Bois Cédale aged 15 years « niece of Mr Lalung, squeezed under the ruins ». The day after, on 16 August, Mr Nicolas Perturon, aged about 50, died of his wounds « he had been very seriously injured during the hurricane ». On 24 August, Mr Philippe Marain Lahoussaye, about 50 years old, « had his arm broken by the fall of his house on the night of the 14th of this month » added to the sad list of victims. These few names represent only a fraction of the direct victims of the hurricane. Indeed, the death certificates do not always specify the reasons for death. Neither do those who died at sea and whose bodies were not found, nor those who were enslaved, for whom parish registers were not necessarily kept at the time: yet the latter represented a large majority of the population (83% in 1766) and necessarily also the large majority of the victims.

A few weeks later, however, the governor was reassuring; on 10 September, he wrote:
« We have recovered from the first impression made by the hurricane, we are working hard to repair our losses, the fear of famine has ceased (…) all the French trade ships that ran aground in the Fort Royal basin have been raised and floated by the care of M. Le Baron d’Arros (…) the Danube float, commanded by M. Le Cheval, has been raised and floated. Baron d’Arros (…) the Danube, commanded by M. Le Chevalier de Retz, arrived at Fort Royal on the 7th of this month, bringing us food and money, which we badly needed. »

But for the inhabitants of Fort Royal, the events of 1766 did not end there! In the next episode, we look at the tidal wave of 18 September and the earthquake of 19 September.

Read the three episodes of the series

French Bibliography

  • Saffache, Pascal, Jean-Valéry Marc, et Olivier Cospar. Les cyclones en Martinique. Ibis Rouge, 2002.
    The book contains a list of cyclones from the 17th to the 20th century with reference to historical sources.

Archives nationales outre-mer


BNF, « Veue du Fort royal de la Martinique », Éditeur : [s.n.][s.n.], Date d’édition : 17..
« Graphic montage » made with canva.com

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