This is a
page on the history of the island of Martinique.
The island was originally inhabited by Arawak
peoples. Circa 130 CE, the first
Arawaks are believed to have arrived from South America.
In 295 CE,
an eruption of Mount
Pelée resulted in the decimation of the island's
Around 400 CE, the Arawaks returned and
repopulated the island. Around 600 CE, the Caribs arrived. They
exterminated the Arawaks and proceeded to settle the island over
the next few centuries.
the island in 1493, making the region known to European interests,
but it was not until June 15, 1502, on his fourth voyage, that he
actually landed, leaving several pigs and goats on the island.
However, the Spaniards ignored the island as other parts of the New
World were of greater interest to them.
In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu
created the Compagnie des Îles de
(Company of the Isles of America, the successor to
the Compagnie de
). The company contracted with Messrs l’Olive
and Duplessis to occupy and govern on its behalf the Caribbean
islands belonging to the French crown. This led on September
1, 1635, to Pierre Bélain
d'Esnambuc landing on Martinique with eighty to one hundred
French settlers from Saint Cristophe.
They met some resistance that they were
able to dispatch quickly because of their far superior weaponry and
armor. They settled in the northwestern region that
later became known as St. Pierre at the mouth of the Roxelane River, where they
built Fort Saint Pierre.
The following year, d'Esnambuc fell ill and passed the command of
the settlement to his nephew, Jacques Dyel du Parquet
. At this
time the colony's population numbered some 700 men. The settlers
cleared the land around St. Pierre to grow crops. They grew
were grown to live on and rocou
, and later
export. French and foreign merchants frequently came to the island
to buy these exotic products, transforming Martinique into a
modestly prosperous colony. The colonists also established another
fort, Fort Saint Louis
in 1638. This fort, like Fort Saint Pierre, was little more than a
wooden stockade. In 1640, the fort was improved to include a ditch,
high stone walls and 26 cannons.
Over the next quarter of a century the French established full
control of the island. They systematically killed the fiercely
resisting Caribs as they expanded, forcing the survivors back to
the Caravelle Peninsula in the Cabesterre (the leeward side of the
1865 map featuring Martinique.
Although labor-intensive, sugar was a lucrative product to trade,
and cultivation on Martinique soon focused only on growing and
trading sugar. In 1636, King Louis
proclaimed "La Traite des Noirs", which authorized the
forcible removal of Africans from their homeland and their
transport to work as slaves
on the French
sugar plantations. Ever since, a strong theme of Martiniquan culture
has been creolization
or interaction between the
French colonial settlers, known locally as békés, and the Africans
they imported. For over two hundred years, slavery, and slave
revolts, would be a major influence on the economy and politics of
The French colonial settlers were peasants attracted by propaganda
promising fortune and a life under the sun. The "volunteers" were
who had to
work for their master for three years, after which they were
promised their own land. However, the tiring work and hot climate
resulted in few of the workers surviving their three years, with
the result that constant immigration was necessary for maintaining
the workforce. Still, under the directorship of du Parquet,
Martinique's economy developed as it exported products to France
and the neighboring British and Dutch colonies. In 1645, the
Sovereign council was established with several powers, among them
the right to grant titles of nobility to families in the islands.
In 1648, the Company of the Isles of America started to wind up its
affairs and in 1650 du Parquet bought the island.
In 1650 Father Jacques du Tetre built a still for converting the
waste from the sugarcane
molasses, which became a major export industry.
du Parquet allowed 250 Dutch Jews, who were fleeing Brazil following
the Portuguese conquest, to settle Martinique, where they engaged
in the sugar trade.
This was by far the most sought after
product in Europe and the crop soon became Martinique's biggest
After the death of du Parquet, his widow ruled on behalf of his
children until 1658, when Louis XIV
resumed sovereignty over the island, paying an indemnity of
£120,000 to the du Parquet children. At this time, Martinique's
population numbered some 5,000 settlers and a few surviving Carib
Indians. The Caribs
exterminated or exiled in 1660.
In 1658, Dominican Fathers
estate at Fonds Saint-Jacques. From 1693 to 1705, this was the home
of Père Labat, the French Dominican priest who improved the
distillery. A colorful character, he was also an explorer,
architect, engineer, and historian, and fought as a soldier against
In 1664, Louis transferred the island, this time to the
des Indes Occidentales
. The next year, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, a Dutch fleet
under Admiral Michel de Ruyter retired to
Martinique to refit after the fleet's indecisive encounter with a
British force off Barbados.
years later a hurricane
Martinique and Guadelope, killing some 2,000 people. This was the
first of several natural disasters that would devastate the
population of Martinique over the next few centuries.
In 1666 and 1667 the British unsuccessfully attacked. The Treaty of Breda
ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War
and hence the
In 1672, Louis XIV
construction of a citadel, Fort Saint Louis
, at Fort
Royal Bay to defend Martinique. The next year, the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales
decided to establish a town at Fort Royal, even though the location was a malarial
des Indes Occidentales
failed in 1674, and the colony reverted
to the direct administration of the French crown. Martinique’s
administration was in the hands of council. The King appointed two
members: the Lieutenant-general and the administrator. They chose
the other council members (the governor, the Attorney General and
the ordinary judge). This organization lasted until 1685.
During the Third Anglo-Dutch
, de Ruyter
returned to Martinique
in 1674, this time with the intent to capture Fort Royal. Calm
winds and French booms prevented him from sailing his fleet of 30
warships, nine supply ships, and 15 transports into the harbor. The
French repulsed his attempt to land his 3,400 troops, causing him
to loose 143 men, at a cost of 15 French lives.
In 1675 the first Governor General of the West Indies, Jean-Charles
de Baas-Castelmore, arrived in Martinique and served until 1677.
His successor was Charles de La Roche-Courbon, comte de Blénac, who
served for the first time from 1677 to 1683. He drew up a plan for
the city of Fort
Royal and improving the fortifications of Fort Saint Louis. de Blénac
was responsible for the 10-year effort that resulted in the
building of a 487 meter wall around the peninsula on which the Fort
stood, the wall being four meters high and two meters thick, and
cutting a ditch that separated from the town. de Blénac served as
Governor General again from June 1684 to February 1691, and again
from 24 Nov 1691 until his death in 1696.
The growth of the town resulted in the progressive clearing and
draining of the mangrove
swamp. By 1681,
Fort-Royal was the administrative, military and political capital
of Martinique. Still, Saint Pierre, with its better harbor,
remained the commercial capital.
In 1685, in France Jean-Baptiste
promulgated the "Code des Noires" (Code concerning the
Blacks), whose 60 articles would regulate slavery in the colonies.
The code forbade some cruel acts, but institutionalized others and
slavery itself, relegating the status of slaves to that of chattel
Colbert also ordered the expulsion of the Jews from all the French
islands. These Jews then moved to the Dutch island of
Curaçao, where they
prospered. In 1692, Charles de La Roche-Courbon, Count
of Blénac, the Governor and Lieutenant General of the French
colonies in America, named Fort Royal as the capital city of Martinique.
In 1693 the British again unsuccessfully attacked Martinique.
a French naval officer, Gabriel de
Clieu, procured a coffee plant seedling from the Royal
Botanical Gardens in Paris and
transported it to Martinique. He transplanted it on
the slopes of Mount
Pelee and was able to harvest his first crop in 1726, or
By 1736, the number of slaves in
Martinique had risen to 60,000 people. In 1750, Saint Pierre had
about 15,000 inhabitants, and Fort Royal only about 4,000.
during the Seven Years'
, holding it from 1762 to 1763. Following Britain's victory in the
there was a strong possibility the island would be annexed
by them. However, the sugar
trade made the island so valuable to the royal French
government that at the Treaty of
Paris , which ended the Seven Years
War, they gave up all of Canada in order to
regain Martinique as well as the neighboring island of Guadeloupe. During the British occupation, Marie Josèph
Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, the future Empress Josephine was born to a noble
family living on Trois
Ilets across the bay from Fort Royal. Also, 1762 saw a
yellow fever epidemic and in 1763 the French established
separate governments for Martinique and Guadeloupe.
1766 saw the birth of Saint-Pierre de Louis Delgrès, a mixed-race
free black who would serve in the French army and fight the British
in 1794, before becoming the leader of the unsuccessful resistance
in Guadeloupe against General Richepance, whom Napoléon had sent to restore slavery to that
On August 13 (in either 1766 or 1767) a hurricane -
apparently accompanied by an earthquake - struck the island;
600-1600 were killed. Monsieur de la Pagerie, the father of the
future Empress, was almost ruined. At the time, there were some 450
sugar mills in Martinique, and molasses was a major export. Four
years later an earthquake shook the island. By 1774, when a decree
ended indentured servitude for whites, there were some 18 to 19
million coffee trees on the island. In 1776, one of the most
damaging hurricanes in Western history struck the island, killing
6000.Over 100 French and Dutch merchantmen were lost.
In 1779, a sixteen year old Marie Josèph Rose Tascher de la Pageire
sailed for France and an arranged marriage with Vicomte Alexandre
de Beauharnais. In 1782, Admiral
de Grasse sailed from Martinique to rendezvous with Spanish
forces in order to attack Jamaica.
The subsequent battle of the Saintes
resulted in a
massive defeat for the French at the hands of the Royal Navy
French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
French Revolution (1789) also had
an impact on Trinidad when Martiniquan planters and their slaves emigrated there and started to grow sugar and
In Martinique, there was a small, unsuccessful slave
rebellion in Saint Pierre. The French executed six of the
ringleaders. On February 4, 1793, Jean Baptiste Dubuc signed an accord in
Whitehall, London, putting
Martinique under British jurisdiction until the French Monarchy
could be re-established.
In doing so he forestalled the
spread of the French Revolution
Martinique by giving the English an excuse to intervene. Notably,
the accord guaranteed the continuation of slavery.
In 1794 the French Convention
abolished slavery. However, before this decree could get to
Martinique and be implemented, the British attacked the island and
captured it. A British force under Admiral Sir John Jervis
and Lieutenant General Sir
Charles Grey captured Fort Royal and Fort
Saint Louis on March 22, and Fort Bourbon two days later.
At that point all resistance
ceased. On March 30, 1794, the British occupation
reinstated the Old Regime, including the Monarchy's Supreme Council
and the seneschal’s courts of Trinité, Marin, and
The Royalists regained possession of their
properties and positions, slaves were returned to their masters,
and emancipation was forbidden. The government also promulgated an
ordinance banning all gatherings of blacks or meetings by slaves,
and banned Carnival
. However, the British
did require an oath of allegiance to the King of England.
later, in 1800, Jean Kina, an ex-slave
from Dominica and aide-de-camp to a British officer, fled to
Morne Lemaître and called on free blacks and slaves to join him in
a rebellion in support of the rights of the free blacks.
number did so, leading Kina to occupy his position for over a year.
marched on Port
Royal though, a British force took over the position and
negotiated his surrender in return for amnesty. The British
transported Kina to England, where they held him in Newgate
In 1802, the British returned the island to the French with the
Treaty of Amiens
. When France
regained control of Martinique, Napoléon Bonaparte
Two years later, he married Martiniquan Josephine de Beauharnais
crowned her Empress of France.
the Napoleonic Wars, in 1804 the
British established a fort at Diamond Rock, outside Fort de France, and garrisoned it with
some 120 sailors and five cannons.
The Royal Navy
commissioned the fort HMS Diamond
and from there were able for 17 months to harass vessels
coming into the port. The French eventually sent a fleet of sixteen
vessels that retook the island after a fierce bombardment.
The British again captured
Martinique in 1809
, and held it until 1814. In 1813, a
hurricane killed 3,000 people in Martinique. During Napoleon's
in 1815, he abolished the
. At the same time the
British briefly re-occupied Martinique. The British, who had
abolished the slave trade in their empire in 1807, forced
Napoleon's successor, Louis
to retain the proscription, though it did not become
truly effective until 1831.
A slave insurrection in 1822 resulted in two dead and seven
injured. The government condemned 19 slaves to death, 10 to the
galleys, six to whipping, and eight to helping with the
Martinique has suffered from earthquakes
as well as hurricanes. In 1839, an earthquake believed to have
measured 6.5 on the Richter scale killed
some 400 to 700 people, caused severe damage in Saint Pierre, and
almost totally destroyed Fort Royal.
Fort Royal was rebuilt in wood, reducing
the risk from earthquakes, but increasing the risk from fire. That
same year, there were 495 sugar producers in Martinique, who
produced some 1839 25,900 tons of "white gold".
In February 1848, Francois
became head of the Committee of Colonists of
Martinique. He was a member of the Commission for the abolition of
slavery, led by Victor Schoelcher
On April 27, Schoelcher obtained a decree abolishing slavery in the
French Empire. Perrinon was appointed Commissioner General of
Martinique, and charged with the task of abolishing slavery there.
However, he and the decree did not arrive in Martinique until June
3, by which time Governor Claude
had already abolished slavery. The imprisonment of a
slave at Le
Prêcheur had led to a slave revolt on May 20; two days later
Rostoland, under duress, had abolished slavery on the island to
quell the revolt. That same year, following the establishment
of the Second Republic, Fort Royal became Fort de France.
In 1851 a law was passed authorizing the creation of two colonial
banks with the authority to issue banknotes. This led to the
founding of the Bank of Martinique in Saint Pierre, and the Bank of
Guadeloupe. (These banks would merge in 1967 to form the
present-day Banque des
Indentured laborers from India started to arrive in Martinique in
1853. Plantation owners recruited the Indians to replace the
slaves, who once free, had fled the plantations. This led to the
creation of the small but continuing Indian
community in Martinique.
immigration repeated on a smaller scale the importation of Indians
to such British colonies as British Guiana and Trinidad and Tobago following the abolition of slavery in the British
Empire in 1833.
Towards the end of the century, 1000 Chinese
also came as earlier they had come to Cuba
The city government in 1857-58 cleared and filled the flood channel
encircling Fort de France. The channel had become an open sewer and
hence a health hazard. The filled-in channel, La Levee, marked the
northern boundary of the city.
Martinique got its second enduring financial institution in 1863
when the Crédit Foncier
opened its doors in Saint Pierre. Its objective was to
make long-term loans for the construction or modernization of sugar
factories. It replaced the Crédit Colonial, which had been
established in 1860, but seems hardly to have gotten going.
In 1868 construction work on the Radoub Basin port facilities at
Fort de France finally was completed. The improvements to
the port would enable Fort de France better to compete in trade and
commerce with Saint Pierre.
rising racial tensions led to the short-lived insurrection in
southern Martinique and proclamation in Fort-de-France of a Martiniquan Republic.
started with an altercation between a local béké (white) and a
black tradesman. A crowd lynched
and during the insurrection many sugar factories were torched. The
authorities restored order by temporarily imprisoning some 500
rebels in Martinique's forts. Seventy four were tried and found
guilty, and the twelve principal leaders were shot to death.
authorities deported the rest to French Guiana or New
By this time sugar cane fields covered some 57% of Martinique's
arable land. Unfortunately, falling prices for sugar forced many
small sugar works to merge. Producers turned to rum production in
an attempt to improve their fortunes.
When France established the Third
in 1871, the colonies, Martinique among them, gained
representation in the National Assembly.
after visiting Panama, Paul Gauguin spent some months with his friend
Charles Laval, also a painter, in a
cabin some two kilometers south of Saint Pierre.
period Gauguin produced several paintings featuring Martinique.
now a small Gauguin museum in Le Carbet that has reproductions of his Martinique
That same year Harper's Weekly
sent the author and
translator Lafcadio Hearn
Martinique for a short visit; he ended up staying for some two
years. After his return to the United States he would publish two
books, one an account of his daily life in Martinique and the other
the story of a slave.
By 1888, the population of Martinique had risen from about 163,000
people a decade earlier to 176,000. At the same time, natural
disasters continued to plague the island. Much of Fort de France
was devastated by a fire in 1890, and then the next year a
hurricane killed some 400 people.
1880s, the Paris architect Pierre-Henri Picq built the Schoelcher
Library, an iron and glass structure that was exhibited in the
Gardens during the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, on the
occasion of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
After the Exposition
was shipped to Fort de France and reassembled there, the work being
completed by 1893. Initially, the library contained the 10,000
books that Victor Schoelcher
donated to the island. Today it houses over 250,000 and stands as a
tribute to the man who led the movement to abolish slavery in
Martinique. In 1895, Picq also built the Saint-Louis
Cathedral in Fort-de-France.
The abolition of slavery did not end racially charged labor strife.
In 1900, a strike at a sugar factory owned by a Frenchman led to
the police shooting dead 10 agricultural workers.
Mount Pelée Eruption
On May 8,
1902, a blast from the volcano Mont Pelée destroyed the town of St. Pierre, killing almost
all of its 29,000 inhabitants.
The only survivors were a
shoemaker and a prisoner who was saved by his position in a jail
dungeon with only a single window. Because Saint Pierre was the
commercial capital of the island, there were four banks in the
city—the Banque de la
, a branch of the Colonial Bank of London, and
the Crédit Foncier
. All were destroyed. The town had to be completely rebuilt and
lost its status as the commercial capital, a title which shifted to
Return to normality
hurricane in 1903 killed 31 people and damaged the sugar crop and a
strong earthquake off Saint
Lucia in 1906 caused further damage in Martinique, but
mercifully no deaths. As construction began on the Panama Canal, more than 5,000 Martiniquans left to work on the
Resettlement of Saint Pierre began in 1908. Even so, two years
later the City of Saint Pierre was removed from the map of France
with jurisdiction over the ruins transferring to Le Carbet. Elsewhere, political opponents assassinated
the mayor of Fort de
France, Antoine Seger in 1908.
With war with Germany looming, in 1913 France enacted compulsory
military service in the colony, and called on Martinique to send
1,100 men per year to France for training. When World War I
finally came, 18,000 Martiniquans
took part, of whom 1,306 died. During the war, the French
government requisitioned Martinique's rum production for the use of
the French Army
. Production doubled as
sugar mills converted to distilleries, helping the recovery of the
Between the World Wars
In 1923 Saint Pierre was reestablished as a municipality. Two years
later, in Fort de France, the municipal council approved the
Mayor's proposal to redevelop the slum district of Terres
Sainvilles as a "workers city". The council would sell the new
housing to the residents for 40 semi-annual interest-free
With the collapse of the world market for sugar in 1921-22,
cultivators sought a new crop. In 1928 they introduced bananas
Mont Pelée became active in 1929, forcing the temporary evacuation
of Saint Pierre. The Volcanological Observatory there did not get
its first seismometer until some three years later.
the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire
moved to Paris to attend the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, the École Normale Supérieure, and finally the Sorbonne. While in Paris, Césaire met Léopold Senghor, then a poet but later
Senegal's first President.
Césaire, Senghor, and
, with whom Césaire had
gone to school in Martinique at the Lycée Schoelcher, together
formulated the concept of négritude
, defined as an affirmation of
pride in being black, and promoted it as a movement.
In 1933, André Aliker, the editor of Justice
, the Communist
newspaper, documented that a M. Aubéry,
the wealthy, white owner of the Lareinty Company, had bribed the
judges of the Court of Appeal to dismiss charges of tax fraud
against him. That same year, Félix Eboué became the Acting Governor
of the island, and an American, Frank Perret, established Le
at Saint Pierre.
In 1934, persons unknown kidnapped and murdered André Aliker; his
body washed up on the beach with his arms tied behind him. Aimé
Césaire, Senghor, Damas, and others, founded L'Etudiant
Black student review.
In 1939, the French cruiser Jeanne d'Arc
arrived late in
the year with Admiral Georges Robert, High Commissioner of the
Republic to the Antilles and Guiana. Aimé Césaire returned to
Martinique. He became a teacher at the Lycee Schoelcher in Fort de
France, where his students included Franz
World War II
Until mid-1943, Martinique was officially pro-Vichy
, with the US and Great Britain seeking to
limit any impact of that stance on the war. The US did prepare
plans for an invasion by an expeditionary force to capture the
island, and at various times the US and Britain established
blockades. For instance, from July to November 1940,
the British cruisers HMS Trinidad and HMS Dunedin maintained a watch to ensure that the French
aircraft carrier Bearn and the other French naval vessels
in Martinique did not slip away to Europe.
1940, the French
cruiser Émile Bertin arrived in Martinique with 286 tons of
gold from the Bank of
France. The original intent was that Bank's gold
reserve go to Canada for
safekeeping, and a first shipment did go there.
signed an armistice with Germany, plans changed and the second
shipment was rerouted to Martinique. When it arrived in
Martinique, Admiral Robert arranged for the storage of the gold in
Desaix. Émile Bertin then stayed at
France until Martinique declared for Charles DeGaulle and the Free French forces.
Essentially, in late
1941, Admiral Robert agreed to keep the French naval vessels
immobilized, in return for the Allies not bombarding and invading
the French Antilles.
mid-1943, Admiral Robert returned to France via Puerto rico and Lisbon, and Free
French sympathizers took control of the gold at Fort Desaix and the
In 1944, the American film director Howard
directed Humphrey Bogart
, Hoagy Carmichael
and Walter Brennan
in the film To Have and Have Not
more-or-less based the film on a novel that Ernest Hemingway
had written in 1937. The
essence of the plot is the conversion from neutrality to the Free
French side of an American fishing boat captain operating out of
Vichy-controlled Fort de France in 1940.
In 1945, Aimé Césaire succeeded in getting elected Mayor of Fort de
France and Deputy from Martinique to the French National Assembly
member of the Communist Party
Césaire went on to remain mayor for 56 years. However, the
Communist suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956
disillusioned him, causing him to quit the Communist Party. As a
member of the Assembly, he was one of the principal drafters of the
1946 law on departmentalizing former colonies, a role for which
politicians favoring independence have often criticized him.
In 1947 the High Court of Justice in Versailles tried Admiral
Robert for collaboration
. He received
a sentence of 100 years at hard labor and national degradation for
life. The Court released him from the hard labor after six months,
and he received a pardon in 1957.
In 1946, the French National Assembly voted unanimously to
transform Martinique from a colony of France into a department,
known in French as a Département d'Outre-Mer or DOM. Along with its fellow
DOMs of Guadeloupe, Réunion, and French Guiana, Martinique was intended to be legally identical to
any department in the metropole.
However, in reality,
several key differences remained, particularly within social
security payments and unemployment benefits.
French funding to the DOM has somewhat made up for the social and
economic devastation of the slave trade and sugar crop monoculture.
With French funding to Martinique, the island had one of the
highest standards of living in the Caribbean. However, it remained
dependent upon French aid, as when measured by what Martinique
actually produced, it was one of the poorer islands in the
Sources and references
- see Gabriel de Clieu for more detail
- noaa.gov 1995: Rappaport, Edward N. and
Fernandez-Partagas, Jose; "The Deadliest Atlantic Tropical
Cyclones, 1492-1994," NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS NHC-47,
National Hurricane Center, 41 pp.
- Besson, Gerard. 2000. The 'Land of Beginnings'. A historical
digest, Newsday, Sunday August 27, 2000