The History of Martinique


photo by Oceandimages

Ever wonder how a Caribbean island like Martinique became so heavily French influenced?

Well, Travel Agent did a little digging and learned how the French moved to the island roughly 400 years ago and changed it forever.

Here’s that story and more to pass along to your clients looking for a little crash course in history before their Martinique getaway.

The French first came to Martinique in 1635 when Léonard de l’Olive and Jean Duplessis d’Ossonville, who represented the Compagnie des Iles de l’Amérique (American Islands Company), made the voyage.

Like Columbus, they landed near Le Carbet. Unlike Columbus, they weren’t much taken with the place. They thought it was too mountainous, unfit for farming and rife with snakes. And so L’Olive and Duplessis did what seemed the sensible thing: They got back on ship and hightailed it to Guadeloupe.

Later that year, the same company sent out Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, who landed not far from where his colleagues had been. The difference was that he decided to stay, wasting no time in claiming the island for France, establishing a colony, and building a fort that later became the city of Saint-Pierre.

Once in charge, the French made changes that would have profound effects on the island. They built Fort Royal, which grew into the island’s capital, Fort-de-France. And they introduced the cultivation of sugarcane, a major factor in Martinique’s economic and social development.

Even more significantly, the French drastically changed the population of the island. After killing most of the Caribs and scattering the rest, the French signed a “peace” treaty in 1660 with the few Caribs left standing. In the meantime, the French realized that they had a labor shortage. Voluntary settlers were too few in number to work on the labor-intensive sugarcane crop. So, in 1642 French landowners resorted to importing slaves from Africa and forcing them to work in the fields under horrible conditions.

Thus started the era of the “triangular trade,” in which textiles, guns, and other manufactured goods were shipped from Europe to Africa, slaves were shipped from Africa to the New World, and rum, molasses, cotton, indigo, sugar and tobacco were shipped from the New World back to Europe.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the African slaves were no longer willing to accept their lot. New ideas were reaching them from across the Atlantic Ocean, like the concepts of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

But the French Revolution proved to be a false dawn. Those new ideas were also reaching the landowners, who responded with hostilité and turned to the Great Britain for help. The new French republic did indeed abolish slavery, in 1794, but by that time Martinique was under British control, so the law was never put into effect there.

It wasn’t until 1848 that the French government would finally succeed in abolishing slavery in all its colonies. And that move would lead to yet another change: the importation of workers from India, adding yet another exotic ingredient to the island’s cultural mix.

Martinique may have left slavery behind, but more trouble lay ahead: Mount Pelée erupted in 1902, destroying what was then the island’s capital, Saint-Pierre, and killing the town’s 30,000 inhabitants. Until then, Saint-Pierre had been a thriving port, and its beautiful buildings and lively nightlife had earned it the sobriquet “the little Paris of the Caribbean.” Now it’s called “the little Pompei of the Caribbean.”

Today Saint-Pierre can still be considered the historic capital of the island. As you explore the ruins of its major buildings or dive among wrecked ships at the bottom of the harbor, you can appreciate the special place that Saint-Pierre had been. In 1990, the French government officially proclaimed the town to be part of the French national patrimoine (heritage) and gave it the title of the “101st City of Art and History.”

Saint-Pierre is not the only historic place in Martinique. The whole island exudes a sense of history, especially the more than fifty plantations dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, some of which are open to the public.

Martinique’s history is also evident in the towns, where many of the houses were built by farmers who had migrated from the countryside in the 19th century. These farmers brought along their rural styles of housing and adapted them to urban life, thereby creating a charming form of urban architecture. You’ll see many examples of this architecture in Fort-de-France: Look for the picturesque streets flanked by lovely townhouses with cast-iron balconies, similar in feel to the French Quarter of New Orleans.

In contrast, the public buildings in Fort-de-France speak of the French influence, with the graceful lines typical of French-style classicism. Among the best-known are the Palais de Justice, the Hôtel de la Préfecture and the former city hall. One conspicuous exception is the late-19th-century Schoelcher Library, whose style and materials drew their inspiration from the Industrial Revolution.