Marvelous Martinique

This French island offers visitors miles of beaches, historic towns and towering mountains with a taste of Paris on the side

Caribbean Issue The Lesser Antilles

March 25, 2007|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FORT-DE-FRANCE, MARTINIQUE // Strolling down the narrow, cobblestone streets of Fort-de-France, the nearly 400-year-old capital of the Caribbean island of Martinique, I wipe my brow in the midday heat and wonder whether I should interrupt my sightseeing for a cold, creamy glace -- French ice cream.

As I make my way down rue Victor-Hugo, passing boutiques, cafes and shops in the lively shopping district, I spot two Martinican women in business suits, holding colorful parasols to shield the beaming sun.

The ladies look cool, composed and tres chic, despite the soaring temperatures. And it occurs to me that these modern-day belles conjure French women I've seen in Impressionist paintings of a different era, promenading along the Champs Elysees in Paris.

There's a reason why Martinique is sometimes called "Paris in the Tropics." From fashion to politics, language and culture, the imprint of France is all over this 30-by-60-mile island.

Since the 1940s, the 400,000 citizens of Martinique have enjoyed full rights and privileges as citoyens of France.

"Many assume that Martinique is a colony, but we are a 'department' of France," says Monique Macaire, a spokeswoman with the Martinique Promotion Bureau. "We speak French as our official language, and we vote in national elections."

Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, with St. Lucia to the south and Dominica to the north, Martinique has miles of beaches, crystal waters, rolling hills and majestic mountains.

The island's earliest inhabitants were indigenous Indians; the Caribs were fearsome warriors who drove out the gentle Arawaks, who legend says named this lush land of fruit trees, hibiscus, bougainvillea and orchids, "Madinina" or "Isle of Flowers."

Though Columbus is credited with discovering Martinique in 1502, it was the French, not the Spanish, who staked their claim here more than a century later. The French settlers wiped out the remaining Caribs, and along the way, engaged in a decades-long power struggle with the British for control of the island.

The French, say historians, introduced two things to Martinique that shaped the course of its history: African slaves and sugarcane. Slaves labored on sugarcane, banana and cocoa plantations, fueling the economy and spawning a privileged class of French-born planters.

Meanwhile, les negres (blacks) suffered. In the book, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804, author Laurent Dubois explores the growing discontent among the esclaves (slaves) throughout the French West Indies, including Martinique.

He writes of an incident in August 1789, where a large group of slaves gathered on the waterfront of the northern city of St. Pierre. There had been a rumor that the king of France, Louis XVI, had abolished slavery.

"The rebellious blacks," writes Laurent, citing government accounts, "armed with the instruments they use to cut sugarcane, refused to work, saying loudly that they were free."

The French Revolution spurred the abolition of slavery in 1794, although it was re-established in 1802. Slavery throughout the French Empire finally ended in 1848.

Port town

Fort-de-France is an aged but likable port town where most islanders -- more than 100,000 people -- reside. Many of the structures in the capital date back centuries, and the architecture, iron lattice-work and balconies are reminiscent of New Orleans' French Quarter.

The city bustles with residents, cruise-ship passengers and international tourists, many of who meander through the shopping district.

Spanning about six blocks, the area is a hodgepodge of commerce: luxury boutiques selling Hermes scarves and French perfume; handmade local crafts; specialty shops with bolts of madras fabric (made locally and widely exported); 18-carat gold jewelry and the island's famous white and golden rums.

Near the center of town is La Savane, a popular public square and garden filled with leafy palm and fruit trees and stalks of bamboo. The day I visited, a group of young men were bobbing to the beat of a drum.

Prominently displayed in the park is a white marble statue, which at first appears to be a Greek goddess. Moving closer, I see the figure is Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and empress of France from 1804 until 1809.

Born in the Martinique village of Trois-Ilets, Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie is a complex figure on the island, both revered and reviled.

Case in point: vandals have made off with Josephine's head.

"Some blame Josephine for the continuation of slavery," says local tour guide Bernadette Ducteil. "They say she influenced her husband [Napoleon] to reinstate slavery because her family owned a plantation, and they would suffer financially if slavery ended."

Just off La Savane, on rue de la Liberte, I come upon a grand building known as Bibliotheque Schoelcher. The library bears the name of Victor Schoelcher, a historic figure and abolitionist whose efforts to end slavery made him a national hero.

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