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Martinique? Pourquoi?

Map of Martinique, Courtesy of The CIA
Map of Martinique, by the CIA.

My life was untroubled by the existence of Martinique until Daily announced his intentions of living there for eight months in order to research his dissertation. As his degree relates to French Colonial History the presumption was that Martinique was formerly a French Colony, which is correct, but it never would have occurred to me that it remains an actual part of France to this day. Like its Caribbean neighbor Guadeloupe, Guiana (not where Jonestown was) in South America and Reunion (which produced Miss France) near Madagascar, Martinique belongs to the Overseas Department of France. Each place is treated, to my understanding achieved through little effort, similar to various states here in the U.S., with direct representation in France’s government. Unfortunately this also means that they use the Euro which, if you haven’t noticed, is kicking the dollar’s ass these days.

Understanding that our friend was stranding himself in a foreign country where he knew no one Aaron and I began to discuss the possibility of selflessly throwing ourselves into the tropics in the dead of winter to visit. Phone calls to the MVP Gold representatives of Alaska Airlines were made, long slogs discussing logistics complex enough to cause mere calculators to explode in confusion, and a flurry of modern communication ensued between the States and the tiny island of Martinique. Miracles were performed and so it was set in stone that Aaron and I would journey from our comfortable northern climes and descend into the sun-soaked paradise at the beginning of February. Then the flights were changed and we accrued an additional leg and a couple of extra hours.

Suddenly I had gone from a routine entrenched spoil-sport to a globe-trotting member of the international jet-set. This required renewing my passport and finding some way of ensuring I would not be fired or evicted from my home. The gears were set in motion and the pieces fell into place as effortlessly as, eh, whatever the metaphor would be in this case. I even went so far as to borrow a French phrase book from a co-worker who jabbered foreign at me one afternoon without any provocation, assuming that she owed me for this grievous offense. The fact that I hardly cracked the book open during the first couple months of its occupation in my life can only be explained by revealing a complicated series of tragedies and misadventures inspired by Greek myths. With time running out I began mumbling phrases in mixed company and adjusting to the red-hue my cheeks assumed.

However feeble my attempts at incorporating a second (or third, I suppose) language, my research into the place I would ultimately see was first-rate. Martinique subsists on the French government but this economic aid does not mean there is no industry on the island. Tourism accounts for most employment as it requires a large service sector, and there are agricultural exports such as sugar-cane and bananas; the former is mostly dedicated to to the production of rum, for which Martinique is renowned. During the hurricane season of last year, tho, the island lost its entire banana crop. This disaster was followed closely by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake which caused one death (heart attack, I believe) and some destruction. Statistics available were slightly out of date and deviated slightly source by source but unemployment seemed to hover around 28%– higher perhaps this year due to the bananas being destroyed. So far as I understood it I would soon be traipsing through a tropical wonderland where they make a lot of booze and no one has a job, standing out like an albino, speaking the wrong language and probably wearing some garish garb with the mistaken idea that everyone on the island thinks hawaiian shirts and linen pants are the best way to combat the heat and humidity. The only available evidence that Martinique was not an impoverished death-trap like Haiti or Jamaica was that my pale-face friend was able to wander around on his own with no horror stories beyond every yard in his neighborhood being patrolled incessantly by enraged guard-dogs.

After being disappointed with the available literature on the internet (the Martinican tourist site focuses mainly on rum and food) I found a blog written by a British woman named Lindsay who is currently living on the eastern side of the island teaching English to school-children. Her experiences furthered my understanding of what was to come: flying cockroaches the size of baby birds; Dengue Fever. Fortunately she did vouch for the existence of food in supermarkets which could be stir-fried which implied that, were I to escape any untimely demise by insects, disease and kidney-thieves, I might be able to eat; that there would be seafood available (I’m that kind of vegetarian) was a given. Didn’t check into the mercury content of the Caribbean, tho. Her travails with cat-calling lecherous old-men in town seemed unlikely to cause me any problems, for which I was grateful. Maybe if I were blond.

Mount Pelee Erupts
Mount Pelee Erupts, 1902

There are also volcanoes, or at least one. Mount Pelee sits above the town of Saint-Pierre along the northern coast. The city had been the original capital of the island, referred to historically as the Paris of the West Indies, until 1902 when an eruption obliterated the town along with close to 30,000 inhabitants. In under ten minutes. Despite the tears it was exciting to be able to travel to the rebuilt Saint-Pierre where excavations allow you to poke around ruins looking for petrified babies and heads.

Except transportation seemed to be a tricky deal. The towns are separated by large swaths of heavily forested mountains. Car rentals seemed pretty cheap but testimonials suggested attempting to drive alongside the locals was invitation to heart attack because they are all insane. There’s no railroad and the country seems to lack a cohesive transit system beyond an unofficial bus known as a taxico: Large vans or small buses that run normal routes between two cities and just picks people up on the side of the road– you scream in foreign to get out wherever you need to get out and the driver decides how much you’ve cost him.

So what I knew before going: A small island populated by French speaking blacks, guard dogs, mosquitoes, giant flying cockroaches and my friend Daily. It would average 85 degrees during the day and maybe 75 at night with a breeze and the humidity would be high. It would be expensive due to the fact that not only is the island on the Euro but almost everything has to be imported. We would be at the mercy of a ramshackle public transportation system or mercenary cab drivers. If the hurricanes don’t kill you the next earthquake or volcanic eruption probably will. There may be thousands of impoverished people whetting knives waiting for feckless whitey. Then we found out we had booked our trip for Carnaval week.

At least this was more than many people knew when conversation came round to my imminent leaving. Of those who had any idea the place existed most could only recall it floated around somewhere in the Caribbean: It’s one of the lower islands in the Lesser Antilles which cut the Atlantic from the Caribbean close (geographically speaking) to Venezuela. Fewer understood that it was French, not just culturally but politically. One person, I discovered days before taking off, had actually been there before and suggested I take a rum distillery tour. The idea of being hung-over in a tropical climate made less sense than me being in a tropical climate.

None of this really explains how a small island in the Caribbean close to Venezuela became an overseas department of the French Republic, but since my return I’ve asked some questions and done some reading. Wrong order of events, of course, but something of the history:

Martinique Plantation
Sugarcane cultivation on a plantation.

Columbus ‘discovered’ the island in 1493, finding it occupied by an indigenous population of Arawak who, so they say, were the progenitors of the redskin term because they dealt with the mosquitoes by rubbing red something or other all over. Possibly it was found on or very close to St. Martin’s Day, hence the name, although an alternate name, Madinina, may have been an Arawak term. Although Columbus seemed a fan of the place the Spanish spared the island its New World exploits and for the next hundred and fifty years the only Europeans to visit the island were probably passing ships in need of water and food. When the colonization boom finally descended on the Caribbean Martinique became an early target. Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc led a hundred French citizens from the northern island of St. Kitts (populated by both the French and British) down to the northern coast in 1635, establishing Saint-Pierre. Although the Arawak tribes had left the island they had been, forcibly no doubt, replaced by the Carib. A French colonial company (Le Halliburton?) with the backing of the French military and the blessing of the Catholic Church cleared land for sugar-cane cultivation which required a labor-force. Despite the best efforts of both the gun and the Jesuits the Caribs refused to participate which led to a protracted war through-out the island. King Louis XIII signed into law the right to abduct Africans for slavery and the labor-force was eventually brought over; the Jesuits washed their hands of saving people by 1660 and the Caribs were either slaughtered or forcibly removed from Martinique entirely.

With less killing to interfere in the cultivation of cash crops Martinique did well for itself which attracted attention from the British. During Europe’s Seven Years War the navy cut France off from the colonies and they were declared under British rule– after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 most of France’s claims in the New World were lost but they were allowed to keep several Caribbean spots including Martinique and the other Overseas Departments. Perhaps British rule was great– after the islands returned to French power they began to split from mainland France. There was a slave revolt in Haiti in 1793 which precipitated abolishment and the plantation owners in Martinique began to feel the strain. Meanwhile in France the Revolution had taken place and Europe began to attempt French containment throughout the globe. Once again the Caribbean slipped back into British control along with a decree abolishing slavery.

The island was held until 1802 and then returned to France after the Treaty of Amiens. A year later Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself in charge and slavery was reintroduced to the Caribbean colonies; theories include that because Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine de Beauharnais was born of the plantation elite in Trois-Illes, Martinique, the re-institution came as a personal favor to his in-laws. I’m sure there were more economic incentives no one cares to discuss, but anyways… There is a statue of Empress Josephine in the central park of Fort de France. It was beheaded years ago and no one had bothered to fix the statue.

Battle of Martinique, Painting by Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy
Painting by Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy

As Napoleon exerted himself in Europe the British cut France off one last time from the Caribbean and held Martinique until 1814. It would remain under French control from then on. Slavery was once again reinstated by the French, tho the abduction of new slaves was effectively prevented by British naval patrols. During a period of relative quiet mainland France nourished a strong abolitionist movement headed by Victor Schoelcher which eventually led, in 1848, to the abolition of slavery in The French Republic. He gets a suburb of Fort de France, named after him and Daily lives there currently.

Despite the gains Martinique, like any other former colony save Haiti, was a minority rule island politically and practically. The plantation economic system had been in place for hundreds of years and a shifting of the terms of labor would not alter this substantially. However a black middle-class managed to grow on the island under white law.

Then in 1902 an entire city was wiped out by one of those forces of nature.

During the next decades there was a growing Communist Party as well as a growing intellectual movement which, like in America, focused on Black Identity. The vanguard writer, Aime Cesaire, studies on scholarship in Paris and married before returning to the island in 1939 where they started a literary review. Cesaire was widely praised for his Martinican writings and the literary movement pushed against France’s suppression of Creole culture in the Caribbean. During WWII Martinique fell under Vichy control which no one took seriously, and after the collapse the Free French took the reins. Cesaire was elected mayor for Fort de France in 1945, then joined the French National Assembly alongside Chaz de Gaulle and took part in rewriting the French constitution which led to the Overseas Departments creation. He shook Communism off in reaction to Stalin and continued to be mayor for Fort de France until his retirement in 2001. He’s still hanging around somewhere being cool, getting the airport named in his honor and refusing to meet then up-and-coming Nicolas Sarkozy after the latter began pushing some revisionist textbook law.

Aime Cesaire, Martinican Poet and Politician
Aime Cesaire

And so modern Martinique. There have been repeated clashes on the island over the issue of actual independence from France but by 1968, when the world-wide consortium of love was being machine gunned in Mexico City, throwing cobblestones in Paris, and being tear-gassed in Chicago, Martinique seems to have calmed down. There was also a movement beginning in the early 60’s to have people emigrate to France or Guiana where, if only by virtue of size, there were more jobs and room. Tens of thousands took the offer over time. In 1971 the island’s major political parties began pushing to greater autonomy from France, gaining more traction upon the election of Francois Mitterand in ’81. While there are still regions with an Independence movement (mostly the south where flags fly) this hasn’t caused any historical events. They voted for Segolene Royal over Sarkozy in the recent elections and stay chill. Currently it seems that the biggest threat to Martinique comes from development, particularly the extremely disgusting form of architecture soiling the island.

Categories: Hesitating
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  1. June 12, 2008 at 11:40 pm

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