Monday, October 20, 2014

Jewel of the Caribbean

Martinique is one of the larger islands in the Lesser Antilles, with 436 square miles of land. Like most of the Caribbean, it is highly volcanic. Most of the high ground (including Mount Pelee, a volcano that has erupted 4 times since 1700) is in the north. Because of this, the northern part of the island is rain forest, while the south is savannah, a wide range for such a small place.

It was charted by Columbus in 1493, but the Spanish weren’t interested in a place with no gold. The island remained in the control of the Carib Indians until 1635, when the French took control of the island, after the English chased them out of their colony at St. Kitts.

Funding for the colony came from the Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique (Company of the Islands of America) founded by Cardinal Richelieu – yes, that Cardinal Richelieu, the bad guy in The Three Musketeers.

The Caribs rose against the French in 1636, and again in 1658, when the French used their superior firepower and armor to drive the natives entirely off the island. In 1685 Louis XIV created the Code Noir, which allowed the importation of African slaves.

From then on, the culture and cuisine of the island was an intermingling of African, Native and French influences. At various times there were rebellions and even massacre, but those three remained.

First one fort, Saint Louis, was built to protect the large natural harbor. Then another fort was added, named Fort Royal, was added in the north part of the island. Though the second structure was located in a malarial swamp, the French overcame this by draining the swamp and improving the land. (An ideas colonists in other parts of the New World should have copied.)

Martinique grew tobacco and later sugar. Wars were fought and the Dutch were repeatedly held off. Under the guidance of administrators appointed by the king, the forts were improved. An enterprising governor built the first distillery, and began rum manufacture. The island prospered.

The city of Saint Pierre, near Fort Saint Louis, became a cultural hub of the area, and became known as the Paris of the Caribbean.

France was a Catholic nation, but there were few priests in the Antilles (which was, after all, the aft end of nowhere back then.) Because of this, the area drew French Protestants (the Huguenots.) France was not enthusiastic about having a Protestant sub-culture. First Protestant nobles relocated to Martinique, where they stayed despite various edicts sent out against them by the king. The French, like so many other people, seemed to feel that if they were far enough away from Europe, they could do what they liked.

The French also tried to populate the island by offering land to their own peasants, in exchange for a very brief (3 year) stint as indentured servants. The deal looked good, but in fact few of the new settlers lived past the three year mark. Work in a climate much hotter than Europeans were used to, and a host of tropical diseases, life spans were drastically reduced.

The French government sent over a thousand lower-class Huguenots between 1686 qne 1688, intending them to work as indentured servants in the fields, the nobles of the island rebelled.

With the enlightenment, notions about the rights of individuals had begun to blossom, and this had begun to affect the notion toward slavery. While Europeans had no compunction with enslaving Africans, the idea had begun to form that a person shouldn’t enslave someone who was like them.

The French Protestant workers were far too much like the French Protestant nobles to be enslaved by them. The few Catholic nobles urged them all to emigrate, hoping to seize the lands held by the Huguenots. Under these circumstances, the ruling French Protestants left the island for the Carolinas, home to Protestant English. They took the Huguenot slaves with them. One third of the population disappeared almost overnight.

The Catholics who thought that getting rid of their rivals would make them rich were for invasions in later wars by the Dutch and the English. Still, the sugar trade was so profitable that the French government ransomed the island again and again.
Declining sugar prices reduced the profitability of the large plantations, and slavery was abolished in 1848.

On May 8th 1902, Mount Pelee erupted, killing everyone in Saint-Pierre and the surrounding countryside in under three minutes. The only survivor, Auguste Cyparis, was in jail for the night, and was protected by the thick walls of the prison. He later joined Barnum and Baily’s circus in the United States, and became a celebrity by repeating his story.

During bygone days, pirates did sail the waters of Martinique, to capture ships and sample the local rums. Blackbeard captured his Queen Anne’s Revenge, formerly a French merchant ship, in these waters, and men like Bellamy or Charles Vane may have stopped in for a drink.

Today Martinique is one of the jewels of the Caribbean, an expensive hotspot for the super-rich and a budget destination for those seeking a good time for less, both at the same time. Rum is still manufactured here, just as it was during the Golden Age of Piracy.

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