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ETHNONYMS: Béké (the elite White minority descended from slave owners); Creoles (refers to both the non-White, mixed-heritage local population and to the local language); Metropolitans (refers to people of European descent who live in French-speaking former colonies)


Identification. In many ways, Martinique is a unique island culture: it is part of a major industrial world power (France) but set in a third-world geographic region. With its neighbors, Martinique shares an important social history of slavery and a monocrop economy based on sugar. Like other Caribbean islands whose sugar production has dwindled since the late 1950s, Martinique also lacks the mineral and natural resources to support its own economic growth. Because of Martinique's political assimilation to France, however, the islanders' standard of living remains well above that of most Caribbean countries. Incorporation translates into French import subsidies, social transfer payments, and provisions for a large, highly paid local government sector.

Location. Part of the eastern Caribbean chain of islands known as the Lesser Antilles, the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe constitute the French Antilles. Martinique is situated south of Dominica, and north of Saint Lucia, encompassing a total land mass of 1,100 square kilometers.

Demography. The French, who first arrived in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1635, found only a sparse population of native Carib Indians. At the hands of the colonists, these Indians were a short-lived labor source. Realizing the need for a cheap, abundant source of hardy laborers to work the sugar plantations, the settlers looked to Africa. Thus began more than two centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. By 1680, African slaves in Martinique out-numbered White planters two to one.

The forced migration of Africans to the New World, and specifically to Martinique, transformed the social order and composition of the local population. By the mid-1700s, all non-Spanish island populations were overwhelmingly Black but included a small number of mulatto Browns and an even smaller number of Whites. By 1770, 85 percent of Martinique's population were slaves, 12 percent masters, and 3 percent freed. The number of slaves imported to the island grew from 258,000 in 1810 to 365,000 in 1848, the year slavery was abolished in France.

Abolition created pressures to find a new source of plantation labor. Colonists turned to contract laborers, primarily from India, but also from China and Africa. Again, the composition of the population changed.

A demographic boom in Martinique occurred between 1930 and 1965 as a declining death rate and an increasing birthrate combined to double the population of the island. By the mid-1960s, the steady out-migration of Martiniquais to the Metropole (continental France) had reduced the impact of these changes on population growth. Once the birthrate began to decline in the late 1960s, net population growth began to lose momentum; a decade later, by the end of the 1970s, the growth of the island's population had slowed drastically.

Out-migration to France from Martinique peaked in the early 1970s and has continued to decline since 1980 as job prospects in the Metropole have become increasingly bleak. In fact, from 1982 to 1990, more people immigrated to the island than emigrated from it; some were return migrants, others were Metropolitan French coming to Martinique to live.

According to the 1990 census, there are approximately 360,000 residents of Martinique, an increase of almost 31,000 (or 10 percent) since 1982. As in Latin America and the neighboring Caribbean islands, rural-to-urban migration continues in Martinique. Today, more than half of all island households are situated in the general urban area of the capital city, Fort-de-France.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is French, and most people take pride in their facility with the language. A French-based Creole, not intelligible to French speakers, is the historical mother tongue of Martiniquais, however. One is likely to hear more Creole than French in rural areas, at cockfights and storytelling events, and in informal and intimate settings of family and friends. In recent years, local linguists created a written French Creole grammar. Since then, a number of novelists and poets have published works in Creole.

History and Cultural Relations

Both the long-term continuity of a plantation economy and the Martiniquais assimilation to French culture have produced unique social as well as economic realities. Together, these forces of history forged new ideological and cultural foundations for a transplanted African people and generated a complicated sense of self-identity. Therefore, although the history of Martinique is the story of Caribbean colonization, of sugar plantations, and of slavery, it is also the story of how the French treated their Caribbean colonies: how they prized the riches they represented and how they assumed a proprietary interest in the people they claimed as their own.

The French colonization of the Caribbean began in the late sixteenth century as a way to break up Spanish dominance of the waterways from gold-rich Mexico to the Atlantic route home. The political strategy of Caribbean settlement took a decidedly economic turn in the early 1600s, however, when it became feasible to cultivate sugar on a large but labor-intensive scale. The need for laborers stimulated the Atlantic slave trade, which supplied African slaves to French, British, and Dutch Caribbean planters.

The other historic legacy that has shaped contemporary Martiniquais life was the assimilation-oriented nature of French colonization. Certainly, French colonists instituted a system of slavery no less brutal than other Europeans; unlike the British or Dutch, however, the French came to identify their own strength and international power with their colonies and the populations there.

In keeping with its colonial "mission," France declared Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the South American coastal area of French Guiana départements outre-mers (overseas departments, DOMs) of France in 1946. This status guaranteed the population of the French Caribbean the same rights and privileges that the citizens of France enjoy. The new status granted DOM residents representation in both the French National Assembly and Senate and made the three départements eligible for the extensive social-security-system allocations.

The legacies of the French assimilation ethic are easily visible today in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Following departmentalization, schools, hospitals and clinics, libraries, social-service and welfare agencies, and government bureaus were built to make the French feel at home and to provide continuing evidence to the Martiniquais of the value of being French. A system of excellent roadways and an administrative infrastructure were designed to replicate Continental standards and are the envy of other Caribbean islanders.

Appearances suggest that the Martiniquais have indeed welcomed the assimilation to French life. They have incorporated the status markers of all things European: language, table manners, religion, fashion, cuisine, and education. Local advocates of independence from France have only gained credibility since about 1980, and they do not represent the prevailing view. Understandably, people of the French West Indies do not wish to be independent when their standard of living is kept artificially high through French subsidies and allocations.


Because Martinique's three mountain ranges account for a considerable portion of the island's area, 90 percent of the population lives on one-quarter of the land. The island population is dispersed among thirty-four communes, most of which are coastal. The administrative capital is Fort-de-France.

Fort-de-France became the capital of Martinique when picturesque Saint Pierre was destroyed by the eruption of Montagne Pelée in 1902. Fort-de-France is situated at the edge of Caribbean waters and benefits from a calm, deepwater port that supports the island's import-driven economy. The urban center is comprised of several square kilometers of boutiques and offices, a large park, the cathedral, and government offices, banks, restaurants, and rented residences located on upper floors of the street-level storefronts.

Two classes of people were the first to populate the port town: the emerging group of mulatre merchants and a number of younger Békés whose families had invested their plantation fortunes in the import-export trade. By the 1950s, when agricultural workers began to stream into the city in search of wage labor, working-class neighborhoods sprouted up in the hills around the flat town center, eventually surrounding it on three sides. Today, the residents of Fort-de-France span all socioeconomic groups and ethnic identities.

The greater Fort-de-France area extends almost without interruption north to Schoelcher, a town of 20,000, and south to Lamentin, the industrial center of the island where 30,000 people live and where the international airport is located. Compared to the size and density of this urban sprawl, which continues to lead island growth, other settlements are quite small, most under 10,000 people. The population residing in the lush, mountainous northern area is thinning, but the island's southern end, with its agricultural possibilities, fine beaches, and tourist economy, attracts an increasing number of residents.


In slightly less than thirty years following departmentalization of Martinique in 1946, the entire basis of the economy had shifted. Where once agriculture had dominated the lives of islanders, tertiary production, including services and commerce, had come to employ nearly 70 percent of the active population.

Since World War II, there have been no new sectors of productive growth to accommodate the increased population of workers resulting from the demographic boom. Instead, growth has been centered on the public sector: in 1954 it accounted for 2 percent of employment, by 1974, 18 percent, and by 1986, 32 percent. Still, increases in the number of jobs in government and commerce have only served to offset the fall in agricultural and craft-related production.

Since the early 1970s, unemployment in Martinique has hovered around 30 percent. There is a thriving underground economy, however, that is not accounted for in official statistics. In addition, French social-transfer payments have helped offset the economic hardships of irregular work or lack of work.

These transfer payments have meant that in spite of dramatic declines in self-sufficiency beginning in the 1950s, Martiniquais have enjoyed a constant rise in income, life expectancy, and overall living standards. For instance, whereas only half of all households had both water and electricity in the mid-1970s, by the early 1990s, 90 percent did. Most also have a refrigerator, a television, and a telephone, and more than half own a car. Between 1970 and 1985, the minimum wage guaranteed to full-time workers multiplied more than 7 times. As consumption has soared, dependency on credit purchases has also increased. Thus, economic dependency on France is deep and wide, and despite the fact that Martinique cannot sustain its own standard of living, Martiniquais live relatively affluent, consumer-oriented lives.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. On Martinique, the system of kinship is bilateral, and informal adoption of children by relatives or close friends is fairly common. The only social group with rigid rules of kinship, marriage, and social affiliation is the Béké population; however, many East Indians also prefer to marry endogamously.

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage was reserved for later in life, after the couple had successfully raised children, but today the situation is changing. The elite, for whom marriage prior to having children was the norm, have become the current model, leading a trend to marry early. In contrast to the commonly mixed marriages among other population segments in Martinique, Békés still carefully guard their aristocratic origins by continuing to practice endogamy. Their insistence on marrying only members of other Béké families has helped them maintain control of most arable land and economic power in Martinique.

Domestic Unit. In Martinique, household units may involve one-, two-, or three-generation family members, with or without a conjugal couple at the center of the group. The membership of a household is variable according to the group's resources and needs at the time. Neither nuclear families nor extended-family arrangements are the norm, but these represent possible units among a range of other, equally suitable groupings. Approximately one in three households is "female-headed," a pattern occurring mostly among lower-income and younger people.

Socialization. Martiniquais children are considered a cultural treasure and represent an important source of status for parents, irrespective of socioeconomic level. Thus, children are indulged, and even parents with the most meager resources find it important to dress their children in smart, modern clothes.

Fewer than 40 percent of the population over 15 years of age holds any kind of school degree. As jobs become even scarcer, however, there is an increasing recognition that education is the key to social mobility and professional success. Enrollment in the island's only university remains modest because only programs in law and economics are offered. Those wishing to study other subjects generally attend college in France.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The complex social structure of urban Martinique involves a combination of the following factors: income, occupation, education, skin color, language, family organization, and religion. Distinctions of social class are primarily a matter of one's income/occupation and one's skin color. Refinements in the hierarchy are often determined by education, the success of one's children, the degree to which one can freely associate with lighter-skinned people, and the number of socially important parties one can host and attend.

Martiniquais informants describe the local color hierarchy in a precise system involving distinct linguistic terms, which identify a particular combination of skin color, cheekbone features, lip size, and hair consistency. In brief, the most common distinctions include the following: Mulatre, the offspring of a White and Black parent, generally with very light skin, smooth hair, and Caucasian facial features; Chabin/Chabine, the offspring of a mulatto and a Black parent, generally with light skin, broader features and light brown, kinky hair; Chappe cooli, pure East Indian parent and Black parent, generally with wavy hair, well-defined cheekbones, narrow nose, and small lips; Câpre/Câpresse, offspring of a Black parent and a mixed-race parent, such as Chappe cooli and Chabin, or Chabin and Brune, generally with kinkier hair and less well-defined cheekbones than the Chappe cooli; Brun/Brune, brown-skinned, of mixed-race parentage, generally with kinky hair and African facial features; Rouge/Marron, of Chabin ancestry and therefore with lighter skin but stronger African features; Noir/Negre, pure Black parentage with very dark skin, kinky hair, and broad, African facial features.

Some color terms are used for political reasons. "Noir" may be used as the term "Black" is used by English speakers in the United States: for example, a Chabin man might refer to himself as "Noir." "Negre" is considered old-fashioned, and derivatives of it are used perjoratively in Creole, whereas "Metis," a deliberately nondescriptive term, is typically used by people who, for social or political reasons, prefer not to refer to their specific mix of parentage.

Skin color generally darkens as one follows the occupational ladder down to the least-skilled workers and the unemployed. Because of the early economic benefits accorded the mulatto offspring of unions between masters and slaves, the tradition of prestige associated with lighter-colored skin continues to exist today. Along with White Metropolitans from France, light-skinned blacks tend to dominate the professions and highest offices of government.

The small group of endogamous Békés, representing about 1 percent of the population, remains a dominant minority in terms of economic power and social status. In addition to their large-scale retail and import/export concerns, Béké families continue to hold the bulk of productive land and employ the vast majority of agricultural workers in production of bananas, rum, and tropical flowers.

Political Organization. Political power in Martinique is in the hands of the Creole population, irrespective of the economic prominence of the Békés. Since the island's designation as a département outre-mers, its political pyramids have been effectively inverted so that the mixed-race, Creole majority of the population controls the local affairs of government and represents island interests in the French legislative bodies.

Conflict. The price of full French citizenship and economic dependency is high and takes a psychological toll on the Martiniquais. Underneath the overlay of aspirations to be European lies a recognition of a Creole reality made of truths that are neither wholly French nor African. These truths live in the native tongue of French Creole, are told by the old group of conteurs at traditional funeral rites, and are felt swelling up from a collective consciousness during the Chanté Noël songfest at Christmas.

This resilient Martiniquais culture offers the mixed-race majority both hope of self-understanding and despair of ever becoming completely French. The distinctly non-French or only French-in-part traditions and attitudes of the Martiniquais recall hostilities and struggles for dignity born in a time of slavery.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The vast majority of Martiniquais, both in Fort-de-France and throughout the island, consider themselves Catholic, although a rapidly declining proportion consider themselves "practicing" Catholics. Since the early 1970s, a small but increasing number of people have been shifting their religious affiliation to become Evangelists, Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses. In addition, there is a Muslim following among the minority population of Middle Easterners from Syria and Lebanon.

Martiniquais of all social classes also embrace many non-Christian beliefs, for example, in the power of sorcery. In contrast to sorcerers who are hired to inflict harm, shamans and folk healers generally are recruited to help people solve a variety of health and psychological problems.

Ceremonies. Catholic holy days are observed in Martinique, as are numerous locally distinct ritual events and traditional ceremonies including funeral rites, Chanté Noël at Christmas, and Mardi Gras.

Arts. Martiniquais society has a strong artistic tradition that has produced gifted, internationally recognized literary talents. Other creative and popular traditions include public storytelling, music and dance, costumes, and cuisine.

Medicine. Most urban dwellers prefer to treat serious illnesses and injuries at local clinics or hospitals, although herbal medicines and shaman healers are also recognized as effective sources of treatment for many health and personal problems.


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