No. 91: Overseas Departments: Martinique
One of my goals this year is to see as much of France as possible, so I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to visit one of the five overseas departments belonging to France.
Having secured a sweet deal on flights (it would have almost cost as much to take the four of us to Strasbourg’s Marché de Noël by TGV), I am thrilled that we chose Martinique.
It’s a funny thing to think of a Caribbean island as part of France. I’d love to have a conversation with our new friends here about whether or not they consider themselves French, and what they think about mainland France.
Martinique, like many countries taken over by European and American colonialist, has quite a sad history. The more time I spend on this island, the more I wonder what life would be like here today, if the French had ignored it the way Columbus did when he first sighted it in 1502.
Thanks to Columbus’ indifference, the indigenous population was granted an 85-year reprieve before the French claimed them and began colonization in 1635. This is when the true atrocities of colonial history (now conveniently whitewashed in history books) began. In every article or book I read about Martinique before leaving Paris, the initial colonization of Martinique was reduced to barely two sentences, and it was presented something like this:
“…colonization began in 1635, when the French promised the native Caribs the western half of the island, in return for establishing a settlement on the eastern half. Then the French proceeded to eliminate the Caribs…”
After annihilating 6,500 years of civilization in a few short decades, the French realized they were short on manpower and began to “import” African slaves as sugar plantation workers. With no indigenous population to stand in their way, a tropical climate, an abundance of sugarcane, and free slave labor to boot, Martinique quickly became one of France’s most valuable colonies.
As rum production (from sugarcane), distilleries, and sugar refineries became more lucrative, the African slave trade became even more important to the colonialist and life for the slaves became even more unbearable. In addition to providing the labor for the sugar and rum production, the slaves were also recruited into the island militia to fend off the British attempts to take control of the island. (In return they were promised their freedom.)
The Brits did manage to occupy the island for a short while in 1762, but returned it the following year in exchange for a small country called Canada. They invaded and held the island once again in the early 1800s, but in the end, it was returned to the French.
By the mid-1800s, Martinique had more slaves and “freedmen” than free colonists. Slavery was abolished in 1848. Obviously life was still not peachy for the former slaves and things got worse when in 1902 Mount Pelée erupted and destroyed the capital, Saint Pierre, wiping out 30,000 inhabitants in less than an hour.
So in many respects, Martinique’s society is a very young one, made up mostly of decendents of African slaves , decendents of their former colonial masters, and often a mix of both. Their language is a fusion of Créole and French, with French the official language. The food is a mingling of French and Créole, heavy on the Créole side and influenced by the locally grown products. There is definitely a French vibe to Martinique, but not too much to stifle the vibrant and colorful culture.