Martinique: Culture & History
When Christopher Columbus sighted Martinique in 1493, it was inhabited by the Carib Indians who had killed or absorbed the Arawaks, the previous settlers of the Lesser Antilles some 200-300 years previously. He did not land until 15 June 1502, when he put in at Le Carbet. Columbus named the island Martinica in honour of St Martin; the Caribs called it Madinina, or island of flowers.
The Spanish never settled. In 1635 Martinique was colonized by the French under the leadership of Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc. His nephew, Jacques du Parquet, governed in 1637-58 and started to develop the island; when he died, his widow took over. The cultivation of sugar cane and the importation of slaves from West Africa commenced. Fierce battles took place between the Caribs and the French until 1660 when a treaty was signed under which the Caribs agreed to occupy only the Atlantic side of the island. Peace was shortlived, however, and the Indians were soon completely exterminated. Louis XIV bought many of the du Parquet land rights and appointed an administrating company, making Martinique the capital of France's Caribbean possessions.
During the 17th and 18th centuries England and France fought over their colonial possessions and in 1762 England occupied Martinique for nine months, only to return it with Guadeloupe to the French in exchange for Canada, Senegal, the Grenadines, St Vincent, and Tobago. France was content to retain Martinique and Guadeloupe because of the importance of the sugar cane trade at the time.
More unrest followed in the French Caribbean colonies when in 1789 the French Revolution inspired slaves to fight for their emancipation. White artisans, soldiers, small merchants and free people of mixed race also embraced its principles. In 1792 a royalist governor re-established control but he was expelled by a revolutionary force sent from France. The capital, Fort-Royal became République-Ville and Paris abolished slavery. Martinique was occupied by the English again from 1794 to 1815 (with one interruption), at the request of the plantation owners of the island who wanted to preserve the status quo and put down slave revolts.
Slavery was finally abolished in 1848 by the French and in the late 19th century 25,000 immigrant workers from India and a few from Indo-China came to Martinique to supplement the remaining workforce on the plantations.
In 1946 Martinique became an overseas Département (DOM), with all the rights of any department in metropolitan France. The bill was steered through the National Assembly by Martinique's Deputy, Aimé Césaire (1913- ), poet, mayor of Fort-de-France and a pioneer of négritude (see French Antilles - Culture). In 1974 Martinique became a Région, giving it more economic advantages and investment and funding opportunities.
Political parties include the Progressive Party of Martinique, Socialists, Communists, Union for French Democracy, Rally for the Republic and several small left-wing parties. A small independence movement exists but most people prefer greater autonomy without total independence from France.
In 1988 Martinique voted for the Socialist François Mittérand for president and in the 1995 elections the island remained socialist. In the second round the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin received 58.9% of the vote compared with 41.1% for the present incumbent, Jacques Chirac. However, the turnout was low at only 48.9% of the electorate, lower than the 79.2% turnout in France as a whole. In the National Assembly elections in 1997 the right wing Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) held two seats in Martinique but lost a third to a supporter of independence from France. The fourth Martinique seat was retained by the left wing Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.