By Renée S. Gordon
“It is no use painting the foot of the tree white, the strength of the bark cries out from beneath the paint.”
— Aime Cesaire
Martinique is, because of its beauty, topography and unique history, one of the Caribbean’s most fascinating destinations. The island, 43-miles long and 19-miles wide, has 217-miles of shoreline providing views of both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Presiding over the northern end of the island is the majestic, 4,583-ft. volcano, Mount Pelée and nearby is the Route de la Trace, a rainforest trail that meanders through lush foliage and leads you to Balata’s Byzantine church and a Botanical Garden. The church is a replica of Paris’ Sacre-Coeur Church and the grounds offer a panoramic view of Fort de France.
Native Americans, first the Arawaks and then the Caribs, inhabited Martinique for more than 4,000 years before Columbus sighted Martinique on his second voyage in 1493. The Caribs called the island, Madinino, “the island of flowers,” he referred to it as the “island of women,” but did not land because he believed a fierce tribe of female warriors ruled there. On his fourth voyage in 1502 he landed and claimed the island for Spain but they never colonized it.
In 1635, former pirate Belain d’Esnambuc founded the settlement of Saint-Pierre for France and introduced sugar cane to the island. Seven years later King Louis XIII issued “La Traite des Noirs” authorizing the importation of African slaves into the French island colonies and Louis XIV would expand the trade by paying a royalty for each slave delivered to Martinique. Within twenty years the indigenous Carib population was totally eradicated by either extermination or deportation.
The French First Republic abolished slavery on Feb. 4, 1794 but Martinique did not comply with the edict. Approximately 1,600,000 slaves were delivered to the French West Indies before slavery was finally abolished in Martinique in 1848.
Martinique has more than its share of museums on all aspects of Martinicans culture and they are an excellent place to begin touring the island. The museums that provide the best general overview are both located in Fort-de-France.
The Departmental Museum of Archaeology and Prehistory recounts the island’s history prior to European contact. The Amerindian story is told through more than 100 artifacts collected at archaeological sites and garnered from personal collections. The building, a former military office, dates from 1898. It opened as a museum in 1971.
Set amidst mango, pear and mahogany trees, situated in one of the oldest villas in the city is the Regional Museum of History and Ethnology. The 1887 neoclassical building’s architectural elements include wooden latticework blinds and shutters, stone and wooden pilasters and a wrought iron balcony with iron pillars and zinc lacework. Restored to its 1885 grandeur it showcases exhibits on two floors. Before reaching the second floor permanent galleries visitors should note the 19th-century paintings in the stairwell that depict scenes of slave captures in Africa.
Highlights of the second floor are a recreated Creole living room, bathroom, bedroom and dining room replete with mannequins created to represent all the skin tones of the island. The rooms themselves have typical design features such as paintings, pictures, sun-shaped imposts, carpeting and textiles. Lining the corridors are display cases with an outstanding collection of Creole jewelry, a series of dolls in traditional attire, documents and the oldest known painting of Martinique, and Creole headdresses.
The galleries on the first floor host changing exhibits and a small gift shop offers unique, high quality items for sale.
In 1638 the French erected the wooden Fort Royal to which a moat, stonewalls and 26 cannons were added in 1703 in the Vauban-style. The British occupied the fort in 1762, 1794 and 1809 under the name Fort Edward. When the French reoccupied the fort in 1814 they named it Fort St. Louis. In 1681, the city of Fort Royal became the capital and in 1802 Napoleon changed the name to Fort-d-France.
It is possible to visit all the sites and monuments in the city on a walking tour and though there are several routes most tours begin in the Place de la Savane, a 12-acre park filled with flora, monuments and walking paths. The two most important statues are of Belain d’Esnambuc, the island’s founder, and that of Josephine Bonaparte, the Martinican wife of Napoleon.
The statue was erected in 1859 on the spot where a cannonball landed at her feet sixty years before, a gift of Napoleon III. It was beheaded and splashed with red paint by islanders in response to the belief that Napoleon reinstituted slavery on the island to please his in-laws and remains headless, She faces Trois-Islets, her birthplace.
Built in 1895, the Cathedral Saint Louis is the seventh church on the site. The exterior bell tower is 193-ft. tall and the Byzantine interior’s stained-glass windows relate the church’s history.
Henry Picq designed the Schoelcher Library that was built in Paris for the Exposition of 1889 near the Arc de Triomphe. It was dismantled, reassembled in 1893 in Martinique and named in honor of French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher who was active in the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. His donation of 10,000 books was the foundation of the 200,000-volume collection. Architecturally the library is classified as Roman-Byzantine. A glimpse of the rotunda reveals the names of famous French authors inscribed around the top.
Shopping in Martinique is outstanding whether it is in the local markets or the famous “Boutiques de la Martinique.” Visitors must stop in the “Marché Couvert,” covered market, while in Fort-de-France. Originating in 1901, this colorful bazaar is the place to purchase regional Martinican products, from spices and culinary delights to madras fabrics and traditional clothing. Located at the rear of the market is Chez Carole the perfect place to taste authentic, homemade cuisine.
In 1946, Martinique was deemed a French department, in other words, when in Martinique you are in France. Shoppers from the US have the advantage of being able to purchase both unique local wares and Parisian fashion and accessories, most at a 20% discount. In some cases, French products cost less than they would in Paris. If that isn’t enough to warm the heart of any retail diva, meander along the Rue Victor Hugo and visit shops displaying all the trendiest French designers and brands.
Jewelry aficionados will find 18kt bijoux Creole jewelry in the upscale stores of Thomas de Rogatis and Albert and the best arts and crafts are found in the Craft Market at La Savan.
We have only covered one small part of Martinique. In part two we head out into the countryside and follow the Heritage Trail. If you can’t wait, information is available on the website. www.martinique.org
I wish you smooth and fantastique travels!