Martinique — History and Culture
Unlike many other Caribbean nations who gained independence from European colonizers by the middle of the twentieth century, Martinique is not a country at all, and technically just part of France, much like how Hawaii is just another state of the US. As a result of this union, Martinique holds exactly the same political status as any other EU member state, and stepping onto the island can give an overwhelmingly Gallic sensation. One of the most notable events in Martinique’s history was the tragic 1902 volcanic eruption, which is still considered one of the most devastating natural disasters in the twentieth century.
Despite the modern day connection, the first European to set foot on Martinique was not French at all. It was the iconic explorer, Christopher Columbus, who landed in 1493. At the time, he had little interest in settling the island, nor did the fledgling Spanish Empire. Prior to his arrival Martinique was populated by Carib tribes who lived in the area, and before that the Arawaks. After Columbus’ first expedition, the island was left untouched until 1635 when the French governor of nearby St. Kitts landed in the present day harbor of St-Pierre. He arrived with 150 other settlers, all whom had been driven off the island of St. Kitts by the British rule.
The indigenous Carib tribes tried to fight off the French, but by 1658 the remaining natives relocated to the islands of St. Vincent and Dominica after the French crown sent a fleet of 600 troops to defend the land. Afterwards, even more French migrants came to settle on the island, many of whom were Huguenots coming to escape persecution of their protestant religious beliefs on mainland Roman Catholic France. By 1688, the monarchy had transported over 1,000 Huguenots to Martinique after they refused to convert to Catholicism. In the end, the banished population became prosperous as a result of their industrious work ethic.
It was soon realized that cultivating sugar crops would produce the most profitable export, and by 1685 the slave trade had started bringing in workers from Africa. This introduced the island to Creole culture which has formed a significant part of Martinique’s history. The sugar business made the settlers of Martinique rich, and after a waning interest from France, the island was privately owned between 1650 and 1658, until French king Louis XIV regained sovereignty of the colony. The next century saw many power skirmishes between European countries, including the British who seized the land for a short time. French control was restored and has remained until present day.
After the ideals of the French Revolution in 1789, slavery was abolished in France in 1794. The law did not reach Martinique immediately, partly because the British still practiced slavery in the area. Tension between the slaves and white settlers grew strong through the 19th century, most notably in an insurrection in 1822. Slavery was finally abolished on Martinique in 1895, by which point the population was nearing 200,000 people.
The 20th century saw a stabilizing period for Martinique politically, although natural disasters had a devastating impact on the development of the island. An earthquake in 1902 completely destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, killing almost all of its 29,000 inhabitants. By the turn of the century, the town had become fondly known as the "Paris of the Caribbean," due to its bustling metropolitan culture. To this day, the city has never been rebuilt or restored to its former glory. The next year, a hurricane killed 31 people and destroyed much of the crop harvest and in 1906, effects from an earthquake caused further damage to Martinique. By 1946, the French Government voted unanimously to transform the colony into an official overseas department. It is because of French funding and input that Martinique experiences one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean.
Martinique is best considered a happy mix of French culture and Caribbean customs, offering all the finer things in life from Europe blended with sunnier climes, far more beautiful beaches and smiles all around.