Martinique’s rich history and culture is shaped by Amerindian (native American), European, African and Asian influences. This page provides a brief history of the island.
The Francophone Caribbean refers to the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti. They are about 6000 km away from metropolitan France.
Caribbean islands are generally divided into two groups:
- the Greater Antilles, which are the islands in the north-west of the Caribbean
- the Lesser Antilles, which are the islands in the south-east.
Martinique belongs to the Lesser Antilles, the island chain which runs up the south-east Caribbean. The island was first colonised by the French in 1635, meaning that it has been French for far longer than Nice and Alsace.
As in virtually all other Caribbean islands, contact with Europeans decimated the indigenous Amerindian population. Initially, France tried to populate the Caribbean with French and European settlers. These settlers were called ‘indentured labourers’, and were typically French paysans (peasants, from poor rural areas) who signed contracts to work the land. At the end of their contract, they received land ownership rights.
However, this scheme failed in the Caribbean – European indentured laborers found the conditions there were too harsh, and many died or returned to France. Faced with a workforce shortage, the French began to import African slaves. This slave labour generated a prosperous plantation economy. A rigid colour and class hierarchy was created, that still to some extent characterises these Caribbean islands: a white planter class, or plantocracy, enjoyed its wealth, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of African lives (the photo below is the Slave Memorial at Anse Caffard).
The French Revolution of 1789 sent shockwaves through Martinique, Guadeloupe and the largest French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue. How could the ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité be compatible with slavery? Most dramatically, in Saint-Domingue, which was then the most prosperous of the French Caribbean colonies, a slave revolt broke out in August 1791 which would finally lead to the declaration of Haitian Independence on 1st January 1804. Haiti was feared by the European colonial powers as it had destabilized the old imperial order.
During this great moment of historical instability, France abolished slavery in 1794. The freed slaves were used as soldiers for an army to repel the British, who had taken advantage of France’s unstable political situation by invading Martinique. However, by 1802, France had regained control of Martinique. Napoleon Bonaparte then immediately re-instated slavery.
France only abolished slavery for good in 1848, pioneered by Victor Schœlcher. Two monuments to Schœlcher can be found in Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France: the Schœlcher statue and the Schœlcher Library (see photos below). By comparison, in the British colonies, abolition was voted in 1833.
After the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, indentured labourers were once again recruited as a result of the post-abolition labour shortage, but now European empires looked further afield, to their eastern colonial holdings. During the period 1838–1917, an estimated total of 538,642 Indians migrated from India to the Caribbean, and over 25,500 of these Indian indentured labourers came to Martinique.
After the end of World War II, France’s relationship with its colonies was forever changed. In this period, African colonies began to move towards independence.
However, in 1946, under the leadership of the famous Martinican politician and poet Aimé Césaire, Martinique, along with the island of Guadeloupe, voted to change from a colony, into a département of France. This loi de la départementalization, or ‘departmentalization law’ came into effect on 1st January 1947, and transformed Martinique into a French Overseas Department or DOM, a département d’outre mer. Martinique and Guadeloupe remain French to this very day, and are part of the European Union, like any other Department of France.
As this website develops, it will uncover many of the diverse cultural influences, and political critiques, in the Martinican author Joseph Zobel’s work.