1766, A Year of Risks For Martinique #3/3 The Tidal Wave And The Earthquake of September

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.

After the fire in Fort Royal on the night of 19 to 20 May, and the hurricane that devastated the island on the night of 13 to 14 August, today, in this last episode, I tell you about the tidal wave of 18 September and the earthquake of 19 September.

 The tidal wave of 18 September and the earthquake of 19 September

After a fire and a hurricane, the people of Fort-Royal were still experiencing a tidal wave followed by an earthquake. The governor’s letter of 28 September, which refers to this event, begins by showing the progress made in the recovery of Martinique; reporting on his tour of the island, he notes that « he saw everywhere that the heads were put back on their feet and that the inhabitants were busy repairing their losses, that the settlement of Champflore had been re-established; that finally all the damage would soon be repaired. That by introducing English flour, food is as cheap in Martinique as in all the other islands of America. He thinks that M. de Peinier should extend the freedom of this introduction until next March. » However, the letter goes on to mention that « there was an earthquake in Martinique on 19 September and a tidal wave the day before which caused considerable damage to the new docks at Fort Royal. Clearly the quay area at Fort Royal, fundamental at a time when the seaway was the main means of travel even within the island, was badly damaged in 1766.

If at the time the governor seemed to pay little attention, a month later, his letter of 22 October gives an account of his exhaustion in the face of the chain of natural hazards and their consequences. Visibly exhausted, he wrote: « in living memory, there has not yet been such a cruel storm as this one; we have storms, rains, tidal waves and terrible winds every day, and yesterday there was an earthquake which lasted a long time, but which was not violent. There is much sickness in Fort Royal and in the whole colony; these are indeed ugly countries to live in, Monsieur Le Duc.« 

With the end of the rainy season and the end of the natural disasters, the governor seemed to come out of his seasonal depression and took up his usual tone to report on his management of the colony; in the letter of 26 November, he wrote that he thought he could put an end to the temporary authorisation of foreign flour in April 1767, without however announcing it immediately in order to avoid possible speculation by an announcement that was too early. The next day’s letter, on 27 November, reported a mixed situation, despite a first sentence that was meant to be encouraging.

« Everything is going well in the colony, everyone is working hard to make up for their losses and I am pleased to see that more sugar will be produced this year than I had hoped for at first; as for the coffee and cocoa harvest, it is entirely lost; Also, it is the small inhabitants who are the most to be pitied, they have difficulty in feeding their negroes, and in the most mistreated parishes, there is even disorder in this regard; I am remedying this as much as I can, I have even had some culprits punished by the King’s attorneys, which has produced a good effect, but does not stop the evil entirely; It is difficult to make these barbaric masters see reason on this matter, and at the same time to persuade them that it is necessary to know how to sell a negro in order to feed and save the others; nevertheless, by dint of my efforts, I hope that if I do not stop the evil entirely, at least I will diminish it considerably; We still have six difficult months to pass; for until then we shall have little food from the country, fortunately wheat flour and biscuits are at a very moderate price; this is now the only food for the slaves, and without the introduction of New England flour we would have experienced a horrible famine. (…) »

« Everything is going well in the colony« , but the small coffee and cocoa planters had no crops, but the enslaved suffered in many ways from the lack of food, but the soldiers of the troops died in « quite large number » in the hospital, slowing down the work on the fortifications, as the rest of the letter points out. In 1766, eighty families had lost everything in a fire at Fort Royal in May, hundreds died on the island in August, and work on the development of the capital city was undermined by the tidal wave and earthquake in September. There is no doubt that 1766 was a year that the population must have enjoyed finishing in the hope of a better tomorrow.

Read the three episodes of the series


  • Saffache, Pascal, Jean-Valéry Marc &all, Tremblement de terre et raz de marée dans les départements français d’Amérique. Paris: Publibook/Société des écrivains, 2003.
    Le livre contient une liste des séismes du XVIIe au XXe siècle avec mention de sources historiques.

Archives nationales outre-mer


BNF, « Veue du Fort royal de la Martinique », Éditeur : [s.n.][s.n.], Date d’édition : 17..
« Montage graphique » réalisé avec canva.com

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