Martinique and Guadeloupe

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Martinique and Guadeloupe

Martinique and Guadeloupe, Départements d'Outre-Mer (DOMs) of France since 1946. Each elects three representatives to the French National Assembly and two to the Senate. The northernmost of French territories in the eastern Caribbean, the DOM of Guadeloupe consists of the large islands of Basse-Terre and Grande Terre and five dependencies: Marie-Galante, Désirade, Îles des Saintes, Saint Barthélémy, and half of Saint Martin. Most of the population of 440,189 (2003) is concentrated on the two large islands, primarily in Point-à-Pitre, the commercial center and major port, and secondarily in the political capital of Basse-Terre. Martinique has about a third of its 425,966 population in Fort-de-France, its capital and economic center, which has one of the best harbors in the Caribbean.

There are active volcanoes: Soufrière on Guadeloupe and Pelée on Martinique. The latter created a modern Pompeii in 1902 when it devastated Saint Pierre, then the largest city on Martinique, killing over 30,000 inhabitants in moments.

The first French settlers appeared on Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1635. Carib opposition and weak merchant support slowed the establishment of profitable plantations. In 1664 the French finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, instituted policies that greatly stimulated sugar production with African slave labor and brought the colonies under firm crown control. The exclusif ended local attempts at economic diversification and competition with French industry. Local councils were only advisory, and officials were French. Governors answered to the governor-general in Martinique.

Martinique and Guadeloupe
Population:Martinique: 425,966; Guadeloupe: 440,189 (2003 est.)
Area:Martinique: 429 sq. mi; Guadeloupe: 687 sq. mi
Official language:French
Language:Creole patois
National currency:Euro
Principal religion:Predominantly Roman Catholic
Ethnicity:Mixture of black, white, and Carib Amerindian
Capital:Martinique; Fort-de-France; Guadeloupe; Point-à-Pitre
Annual rainfall:Martinique: Averages 75 in; Guadeloupe: Varies from 39 in on La Désirade (outlying island) to 200-400 in on the mountains of Basse-Terre

By the eighteenth century, French planters in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Domingue (later Haiti) were producing more sugar than the English, and selling it cheaper, even expanding their trade in British North America, which was legally a closed British market.

The end of plantation slavery began with a massive slave rebellion in Saint Domingue (Haiti) in 1793. In 1794, the French Revolutionary government declared the end of slavery in all French colonies (the British occupation of Martinique made the declaration void there). In 1802 Napoleon decreed a reimposition of slavery in the remaining French possessions. The French agreed to end the African slave trade to their colonies in 1815. Abolition came with a new Revolutionary government in 1848. After emancipation the planters were compensated for their lost slaves, and France offered support in locating indentured labor, primarily from India. From 1850 to 1914, about 25,000 Indians arrived in Martinique and 37,000 in Guadeloupe. Many died or migrated after their contracts were over.

The major political initiatives have come from the working class: a riot on Martinique (1870) and strikes on both Martinique and Guadeloupe in the 1890s and at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sugar and its derivatives continue to dominate the economy, as well as labor and social relations.

The contemporary social structure of Martinique reflects the legacies of a plantation society. The social and landed elite is made up of whites, the Békés, many of whom claim descent from the original colonizers. They maintain marriage with inheritance strictly within their group. The Békés reflect the values of the plantocracy.

"Metropolitans" (whites who immigrated to Martinique, mostly from France) form part of the middle class. The larger part of the middle class is composed largely of mulâtres, most of whom are of mixed racial ancestry as a result of sexual liaisons between whites and blacks during slavery (particularly through the concubinage commonly practiced by white males); of marriages among "free color-eds" during slavery; and, more recently, of marriages between "metropolitans" and descendants of Asian indentured laborers and blacks. This middle class, which began its ascent after 1848, now dominates commerce, the professions, and political and bureaucratic offices.

The majority of the population and the lowest economic group is the noirs (blacks), although some members of this group are of mixed ancestry. The noirs tend to be more rural and to work in agriculture, many as wage laborers on plantations. Some ply trades, often in addition to agriculture; others reside on plantations for lack of their own land and employment alternatives; some are fishermen. The upper level of this class overlaps with the mulâtres as shopkeepers, bureaucrats, lawyers, and teachers in rural areas.

The Guadeloupan social structure closely resembles that of Martinique, except that the white elite is not as large, powerful, or racially exclusive. The comparative weakness of the white group is due in good part to the decimation it suffered at the hands of Victor Hugues, the French Jacobin who instituted the Terror in Guadeloupe, executing over 800 whites. Many of the remaining whites fled the island.

Both Martinique and Guadeloupe are intimately tied to the distant French metropole from which they derive their standard of living (very high, compared with their Caribbean neighbors); their defense, education, and health and welfare funding; their official language; and their Roman Catholicism. Independence is not a likely popular choice, largely because of the fear of economic decline without massive French subsidies. However, a growing awareness of cultural similarities to their Caribbean neighbors continues to fuel the search for greater local autonomy within the French nation.

See alsoSlave Revolts: Spanish America; Slavery: Spanish America.


Lafcadio Hearn, Two Years in the French West Indies (1890).

Nellis Maynard Crouse, The French Struggle for the West Indies, 1665–1713 (1966).

Walter Adolphe Roberts, The French in the West Indies (1971).

Léo Elisabeth, "The French Antilles," in Neither Slave nor Free: The Freedman of African Descent in the Slave Societies of the New World, edited by David W. Cohen and Jack P. Greene (1972).

Bridget Brereton, "Society and Culture in the Caribbean: The British and French West Indies, 1870–1980," in The Modern Caribbean, edited by Franklin W. Knight and Colin A. Palmer (1989).

Dale Tomich, Slavery in the Circuit of Sugar: Martinique and the World Economy, 1830–1848 (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Adélaïde-Merlande, Jaques, René Bélénus, and Frédéric Régent. La rébellion de la Guadeloupe, 1801–1802. Gourbeyre: Archives départementales de la Guadeloupe, 2002.

Berrian, Brenda F. Awakening Spaces: French Caribbean Popular Songs, Music, and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Browne, Katherine E., and Rod Salter. Creole Economics: Caribbean Cunning under the French Flag. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Dubois, Laurent. A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Forster, Elborg, and Robert Forster, eds. Sugar and Slavery, Family and Race: The Letters and Diary of Pierre Dessalles, Planter in Martinique, 1808–1856. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Kadish, Doris Y., ed. Slavery in the Caribbean Francophone World: Distant Voices, Forgotten Acts, Forged Identities. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

Pérotin-Dumon, Anne. La ville aux Iles, la ville dans l'île: Basse-Terre et Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, 1650–1820. Paris: Karthala, 2000.

Price, Richard. The Convict and the Colonel: A Story of Colonialism and Resistance in the Caribbean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

Zebrowski, Ernest. The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster that Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

                                  Rosemary Brana-Shute

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Martinique and Guadeloupe

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