"The politics of ecology has implications for populations that are decimated
or threatened with disappearance as a people" (Édouard Glissant, Poetics
of Relation 146).
An Ecocritical approach
A certain preoccupation with the landscape
What lies beneath
From bétonisation to francisation
Under a different guise...
Martinique theme park
Politics of commemoration
Island for sale
In more ways than one, the official departmentalization in 1946 of the island
of Martinique cemented an already oppressive relationship between this
former colony and France. Not only did it solidify the centuries-old dynamic of
economic exploitation, it also initiated a whole new set of assimilationist practices
on environmental and cultural levels. The French politics of assimilation introduced
onto Martinican soil a series of standardizing effects that would attempt to reconfigure
the Martinican political, economic and cultural landscape in its own image:
The assimilationist ideology operates within a negation of space.
Martinicans are so fascinated by France, and they so desperately want to be
French, that they take all their models of social and urban development and
graft them onto the French West Indian landscape, without any consideration
for the geographical and ecological realities of the French Caribbean. And this
creates an incredible devastation to nature. (Translation mine. Chamoiseau,
This study examines the various ways in which one culture grafts itself upon another.
Those most concerned with resisting the francisation2 of the Creole landscape
and founding a Martinican national identity independent of France insist that
identity must begin with a psychic rootedness in the land. This is especially
important, of course, for a people that has been disinherited geographically,
historically, and culturally. Such is the case in the French West Indies, where
the majority of the population is of African descent:
The French West Indian is a descendant of slaves: Dispossessed of both time and
space, s/he is uprooted .... Geographically alienated, s/he is also excluded from
History (with a capital H): that of the Center, of France. (Translation mine.
Gyssels 125, 127-8)
According to Édouard Glissant in an interview with Priska Degras and Bernard Magnier,
all cultural zones formerly organized by plantation systems have in common a preoccupation
with cultural amnesia and the loss of origins. These societies experience a need
to establish a connectedness with their surroundings which lends meaning to their
presence in that land: "It is necessary to establish the legitimacy of the inhabitant
on his/her land in anchoring him/her in a sense of permanence, of recovered time"
(Translation mine. Degras 15). Regaining a sense of community with place is a
necessary step toward founding an identity.
This process is hindered, however, by French bétonisation3 , which is
quite literally coating the Martinican countryside with roads, parking lots and
other cement markers of modernization. This bétonisation symbolically
continues a tradition of separating a subjugated people from its land, albeit
on an entirely different level. According to Glissant, the polluted countryside
is itself evidence of cultural alienation. He writes:
Martinique is becoming increasingly sterilized (what a joke to sing
Madinina Island of flowers when one can travel several kilometers without
seeing a flower-except for those cultivated for exportation-, or, in the middle
of the country, not see or hear a bird)-no need to refer to rousseauisme
to know that this relationship between man and nature (a nature that he doesn't
change by his work since the modifications that occur through construction,
homes, crops, [and] enterprise are initiated elsewhere) is symbolic
of his alienation: The Martinican has been separated from his land, from his
environment .... (Translation mine . Discours antillais4 117-118).
Attempts to take root in the new land are continuously denied. Not only is the
natural landscape being physically covered with concrete, but the link to a cultural
past embedded in that land is metaphorically severed.
The central metaphor which links the themes of landscape and identity in this
article is one of covering over: Covering over the landscape with symbols
of development and progress (buildings, roads, marinas, airports, etc.); covering
over history as so much of Caribbean history has been silenced, obliterated, and
forgotten; and covering over the culture, identity, and imagination of a people
who have been taught that the only valuable part of their identity and history
is that part which is French.
Posed then as a series of questions, this discussion raises the following: What
is the relationship between landscape and cultural identity? To what extent is
the environmental devastation on the island of Martinique an extension of French
colonialism and France's continued sense of ownership, proprietorship, and entitlement
on this island? What are the less obvious, cultural effects of over three centuries
of French presence on this island?
In an attempt to answer these questions, I will examine several responses from
French West Indian cultural representatives. All self-proclaimed ecologists, these
writers and musicians adhere to the motto of Martinique's most prominent ecological
association, ASSAUPAMAR5 , which "opposes the destruction of Martinique's natural
beauty and her archeological and historical sites, and ... takes a firm stand
against any further upsetting of an already fragile ecological balance in what
remains of the country's mangroves and forests by money-hungry developers, urban
planners, and highway builders" (Berrian 136). Through their writing and song,
these cultural ecologists voice their reaction against the dependency
of Martinique on the French and the effects this continued occupation is having
on the land and psyche of their people.
An Ecocritical approach:
There is a very real intersection between ecological
concerns in the French West Indies and cultural production from Martinique. Land
is necessarily central to any discussion of post-colonialism and even more so
when we engage in conversation about those geographical areas, like the French
West Indies and specifically the island of Martinique which, in many ways (politically,
economically, culturally and ecologically), continues to be occupied and dominated
by France today.
It can be argued that the island of Martinique deserves special attention in speaking
about the cultural and ecological impact of development. First of all, as a former
colony of France, Martinique has suffered a legacy of exploitation. From the very
moment the French came into brutal contact with the island's indigenous Carib
and Arawak populations, to the capture, transport, and enslavement of African
peoples, to a continued sense of economic entitlement, the French presence in
Martinique has been a harmful one. Second, the small geographical character of
Martinique leaves it especially vulnerable to accelerated effects of pollution:
"(a) islands are discrete and finite in extent, with a fixed endowment of resources;
and (b) they are ecologically fragile and concomitantly vulnerable to the destructive
effects of modern-day development technology" (Frankenhoff 13). Third, the ecological
content of the island of Martinique is what distinguishes it from France. When
over-development and the French politics of assimilation threaten to politically,
culturally, and topologically transform Martinique into a miniature France, it
becomes extremely urgent to assert and protect those areas which distinguish Martinique
from the mainland.
A certain preoccupation with the landscape:
It is by no coincidence that the literature and theory to
emerge out of Martinique, especially in the past 10 years, have taken an ecological
turn. Martinican novelists, such as Édouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël
Confiant routinely situate their fiction in ecologically-menaced natural spaces
in order to dramatize the cultural face-off at stake between Creole and French
cultures. Likewise, these French West Indian post-colonial theoreticians make
extensive use of the mangrove swamp as a metaphor for the racially- and culturally-diverse
nature of French West Indian society which has seen the arrival, and eventual
hybridization, of different branches of European colonizers, African slaves, and
indentured laborers from East India, Syria, Lebanon, and China. What does it mean
then when oftentimes the same writers, who use the mangrove swamp as a metaphor
for Creole identity in their fiction and theory, are also deeply entrenched in
an environmental battle to protect Martinique's mangroves from becoming landfill
sites? What is the relationship between landscape and cultural identity?
Between environmental devastation and neocolonialism?
order to situate Martinique within its geographical and historical context, it
is useful to examine a chronology of Martinican history as drawn up by the prominent
French West Indian novelist, poet, and theoretician, Édouard Glissant. In his
first chapter of Caribbean Discourse, Glissant calls our attention to certain
dates and events that define what has come to be known as Martinican history,
namely the discovery of Martinique by Christopher Columbus in 1502; the
arrival of the French in 1635 (which also marked the beginning of the extermination
of Martinique's indigenous population and its replacement by African slaves);
the abolition of slavery in 1848; and the Departmentalization of the island in
Upon closer examination, the reader observes that what is before her/him is more
than a simple list of significant dates, but a critique of its over-simplification,
one-sidedness and ultimate falsification of the real history of this
island. This irony is discerned in (1) the heading of "DISPOSSESSION" in all capital
letters; (2) the calling into question of the validity of such a view of history
in such phrases as "the chronological illusion;" and (3) the quotation marking
of "facts," "Discovery," and "economic" assimilation. As if these signs of resistance
are not enough, Glissant closes this chronological table by stating that "The
whole Caribbean history of Martinique remains to be discovered." Glissant is obviously
calling into question the imposition of colonial History, with a capital "H".
He is exposing the legacy of historical cover-up, which has buried collective
memory and welded an "official" one in its place.
What lies beneath:
About eight years after the publication of Édouard Glissant's Caribbean Discourse,
three other Martinican theoreticians and, like Glissant, intellectual descendants
of Aimé Césaire, continue this diatribe against the persistence of French colonial
presence on their island in their manifesto entitled In Praise of Creoleness:
Our history (or more precisely our histories) is shipwrecked in colonial
history .... What we believe to be Caribbean history is just the history of
the colonization of the Caribbeans. Between the currents of the history of France,
between the great dates of the governors' arrivals and departures, between the
beautiful white pages of the chronicle (where the surges of our rebellions appear
only as small spots), there was the obstinate progress of ourselves .... This
happened with no witnesses, or rather with no testimonies .... And the history
of colonization which we took as ours aggravated our loss, our self-defamation;
it favored exteriority and fed the estrangement of the present. Within this
false memory we had but a pile of obscurities as our memory .... [O]ur history
(or our histories) is not totally accessible to historians. Their methodology
restricts them to the sole colonial chronicle. Our chronicle is beneath
the dates, beneath the known facts .... [Translation of words in italics
is this very idea of real Caribbean history as existing beneath the earth's
surface that concerns us here. Glissant has repeatedly spoken of the Martinican
landscape as the only thing to convey, in its nonanthropomorphic way, some of
the tragedy of colonization. The Creolists also speak to this idea of true Martinican
history-and by extension, true Martinican identity-as existing not just beneath
the rhetoric of Western history, but quite literally under a layer of Frenchness.
They say that in order to retrieve that part of themselves that has been lost,
they must, "Somewhat like with the
process of archeological excavations: when the field was covered,
... proceed with light strokes of the brush so as not to alter or lose any part
of ourselves hidden beneath French ways" (Italics and translation of
"beneath" mine. Praise 84). According to the proponents of the most recent
identity theories to emerge out of the French-speaking Caribbean, part of why
Martinique's landscape is so sacred is because it is the country's only witness
and recorder of over three centuries of continuous colonial entitlement, proprietorship,
and exploitation. Beginning with the "discovery" of Martinique by Christopher
Columbus, its possession by French colonizers, the over 200 years of slave trade
and dehumanizing labor in the sugarcane fields, and today, the destruction of
the ecosystem, the land itself is a powerful, but endangered, repository for the
collective memory and consciousness which is not represented in the History books
Martinicans study at school. Physically cementing over the natural landscape,
then, can only have disastrous consequences for the preservation of a memory already
occulted beneath the rhetoric of Western history.
From bétonisation to francisation:
The transformation of the French West Indies into actual overseas departments
of France gave rise to a number of devastating trends on economic, ecological
and cultural levels: the economic destruction of the traditional productive economy
and its replacement by one based on the passive consumption of imported goods;
the loss of local political control, since essentially all decisions are handed
down from the métropole, which often fails to take into account the particularities
of the island departments when making decisions appropriate for the hexagone;
the outward migration of French West Indians to France, where they escape the
unemployment of their homeland, all the while participating in the system which
occasioned it in the first place. To these, we must add the non-critical adoption
of French values and culture, including patterns of consumption and lifestyle;
and the consequent dilution and even exoticization of Creole culture.7
Patrick Chamoiseau describes the literally and figuratively transformed French
West Indian landscape at the moment of Departmentalization as follows:
Following the law of 1946, the country began to change rapidly: Constructions
in king-cement, windows, electricity, traffic lights, television, automobile
craze, triumphant low-income housing, sewage, Social Security, welfare, planes,
roads and highways, schools, clothing stores, hotels, supermarkets, advertising
... (Translation mine. Écrire en pays dominé 69-70)
Clearly, Departmentalization affected Martinique on several different levels.
For Raphaël Confiant, bétonisation results from the disappearance of
an economic system: "Why cultivate the land when you can put a gas station on
it, or a hotel, or a supermarket that will earn much more?!" (Translation mine.
Interview8). Ecologically speaking,
the physical landscape of Martinique is suffering symptoms of overdevelopment.
The remorseless spread of concrete used to build condominiums, marinas, and
supermarkets is irreparably transforming the island's natural space. Consider,
for example, the land filling of the mangrove swamp to make room for the Lamentin
airport, and the "colonization" of the hills by secondary residences and access
roads (Burton, "The idea of difference" 18). As harbingers of modernization
clear and replace the agriculturally-rich terrain, a deeper, more insidious
process of displacement is taking place on a cultural level.
massive importation of French manufactured goods, "clothes, shoes, furniture,
household implements" (Burton, "French West Indies" 3-4), and the consequential
transformation of a traditional agricultural-based economy into a consumer-oriented
one has had far-reaching effects for French West Indians, who consume much more
than tangible objects, but another lifestyle which is threatening their existing
one. After Departmentalization, in addition to the importation of French cars
and food items, Martinique and Guadeloupe experienced the introduction of mass
media-French television, radio, cinema and news-which contributed to the direct
transmission of the more abstract and less detectable metropolitan values to the
islands. The establishment of French educational and social security systems also
solidified dependency and exteriorization.
According to Burton, the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe have slowly become
detached from those elements which define Creole culture: traditional skills,
lore, customs, and language. French West Indians have lost their connectedness
to their past, and to their land, as a result of economic and political occupation
by France and the imposition of French cultural values. This cultural displacement
is a major concern for Édouard Glissant, who sees a parallel between the consumption
of imported goods and cultural alienation. In his Caribbean Discourse
he speaks out against this process of economic and cultural displacement:
The passive consumption or the non-critical adoption of exterior products
(newspapers, literature of alienation, theatre, TV and radio programs, and even
moral traits!-without even mentioning the common products of consumption: We
literally import everything, refined sugar, yogurt, eggs, lettuce, milk, and
so on) does not however signify an openness to the outside world. (Translation
mine. Discours antillais 167)
Glissant indicts his own people for their complicity ("passive consumption," "non-critical
adoption") in this culturally-devastating process.
French West Indians have grown accustomed to a rapidly elevated lifestyle. Their
economic and political association with France invites them to compare their standard
of living with that of the hexagone and not that of their neighboring
islands. Their embourgeoisment and complacency are linked as their comfortable
social status anesthetizes them to the ill effects such a dependency is having
on their culture: "The country is becoming increasingly impoverished, but the
standard of living masks its inescapable economic decline" (Anselin 69). Inherently
less perceptible, such intangible forms of assimilation (schools, movies, social
security) are easily introduced into an increasingly less resilient Creole environment.
As indicated here, Martinicans willingly adopt a new comfortable lifestyle because
they don't recognize the potential for indigenous economic decay.
Under a different guise ...
Indeed, the most dangerous feature of this new form of colonialism is found in
its insidiousness often characterized as "silent" or "invisible." Not only, as
Chamoiseau suggests below, does modernization invalidate the accusations against
any form of cultural imperialism, it also acts as an opiate in sugarcoating the
reality of continued cultural subjugation: "Under welfare, we were no longer hungry.
We no longer swooned in this shell of dependency. The surface wealth embalmed
our soul" (Translation mine. Écrire 70). In his Écrire en pays dominé,
Chamoiseau records his reaction to this maliciously subtle process of brainwashing.
Beneath the painted rhetoric of economic development and political promises, he
discerns the actuality of exploitation:
Underneath this varnish, my questions attacked, in vain, the invisible
lines of disaster. Why this almost entire disappearance of real production?
Why this exponential curve of massive importations? Why this bustling of producers
on subsidies? Why this extreme alienation at school and in the media? Why this
weakening of Creole values, this mimetic consumption of Western norms, this
hyperbolic assistantship? From where was this exclusive desire to obtain the
same advantages of French citizens coming? Losing all intensity, the fight for
Creole language and culture folklorized. What we used to oppose to the former
colonialists hitherto floated in a formalin of seductive values that anesthetized
us. No more obvious enemies. Only an auto-decomposition. (Translation mine.
Like other French West Indian writers, Chamoiseau dares to call into question
what goes otherwise unnoticed by a society content with its newly acquired wealth,
a society which doesn't recognize its own indoctrination into the assimilationist
system. As Chamoiseau himself clearly suggests, one dangerous characteristic about
this system is that it is nearly impossible to detect ("invisible lines," "No
more obvious enemies"). In addition, the repetition of the word "Why" in this
litany of questions reveals the author's exasperation in fighting, "in vain,"
what has become an invisible enemy. As colorless and toxic as formalin,
European values anesthetize French West Indian consumers to their cultural loss.
The insidiousness of continued colonial exploitation is a major preoccupation
for contemporary Martinican writers. In their novels, they expose the persistence
of the master-slave dynamic of pre-Abolition. For them, colonialism, and the cultural
imperialism it encapsulates, resurfaces in a myriad of much less perceptible forms.
Édouard Glissant states, "It is no longer a matter of nineteenth century colonization
with its pure and simple exploitation of the country, but of something more" (Caribbean
Discourse 49). Likewise, Chamoiseau detects the colonial lip service underneath
the dissimulating guise of "progress": "The silent domination cloaks itself with
progressive modernity, democratic access and unstoppable economic virtues" (Translation
mine. Écrire 21). Indeed, it is the task of the French West Indian writer
to dig beneath these surface privileges in order to expose a continued
presence of subjugation.
Because this domination is both "silent" and "invisible," we must learn alternative
ways of reading the signs of a "fight without witnesses" (Translation mine. Discours
177). French West Indian writers, such as Glissant and Chamoiseau, suggest that
one way to identify traces of this imperialism is in the landscape. According
to these authors, the land harbors, at the same time, the most obvious symptoms
of oppression and the most latent traces of the French West Indian past, if we
learn to read it.
Martinique theme park:
At the beginning of his Caribbean Discourse, Édouard Glissant compares
the rapid mutation of his homeland's natural landscape to an amusement park where
cultural subjugation is themed:
A Martinican political figure imagined as a bitter joke that in the
year 2100, tourists would be invited by satellite advertisement to visit this
island and gain firsthand knowledge of "what a colony was like in past centuries."
(Caribbean Discourse 1)
Here Glissant invites his readers to consider the persistence of colonial elements that have permeated French West Indian history. Under what circumstances would the island of Martinique be transformed into a
sort of colonial theme park where certain elements of its enslaved past are preserved?
In more ways than one, the former Plantation Leyritz in Basse-Pointe is a vestige
of Martinique's colonial past. Now a bed and breakfast with manicured lawns, flower
gardens, and a rum-tasting room, tourists pay the equivalent of $125 per night
to sleep in former slave huts and experience what it was like to live on a
plantation in pre-Abolition Martinique. The tourist experience is arguably
closer to what it may have been like to live on a plantation as a plantation-,
and slave-, owner. However, before 1848, even the richest of békés did
not have drywall, plumbing, or air conditioning, not to mention telephones or
television. The point is that there is an unmistakable link between physically
tampering with the remaining vestiges of Martinique's past and the dissimulation,
and some would say, violation, of the history embedded in that space.
According to Glissant, the landscape of Martinique is so sacred because it is
a witness to the years of otherwise unrecorded subjugation of the French West
Indian people: "Martinican history is a long succession of what we call a fight
without witnesses" (Translation mine. Discours antillais 177). The landscape
functions as a repository for a misrepresented past: "Landscape retains the memory
of time past" (Caribbean Discourse 150). Consequently, any gesture of
destruction against that land is portrayed as an act of violence against the collective
memory of the past. The land, states Beverly Ormerod, is the past's "only true
guardian ... history waits, latent, in the Caribbean nature, which is filled with
sorrowful reminders of slavery and regression" (170).
Oruno Lara compares the slave system of forced labor to that of the Holocaust:
"Before the Nazi extermination camps (Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka), the
concentration camps on the plantations of the slave system (16th-19th centuries)
were also death camps" (Translation mine. 36). Unlike Auschwitz and Dachau, however,
Martinicans have not preserved these spaces of oppression as lieux de mémoire.
Instead, as illustrated by the former plantation turned bed and breakfast, these
historical loci of oppression are being symbolically, and irreparably, transformed
into spaces of commercialization and consumption.
Politics of commemoration:
Another powerful example of the process of covering up is found in the
commemorative naming of geographical places on the island and in the numerous
statues, monuments, plaques and other commemorative sites covering the island
that celebrate the colonial conquest of Martinique. Take, for example, the very
commemorative naming of various landmarks and streets on the island:
In Fort-de-France, Schoelcher street, Schoelcher high school, Schoelcher
library and, a few kilometers further, the town of Schoelcher where, by the
way, the university is situated, are all there to sustain memory. In the town
center, the streets named after Arago, Lamartine, Garnier-Pagès, etc., reinforce
the mnemonic device. (Translation mine. Jolivet 295-6)
The naming of the capital's primary streets after various French historical and
literary figures is a concrete example of how Martinique's landscape has been
topologically and culturally welded in celebration of another nation's history.
Statues, plaques and monuments also serve to embellish a certain version of Martinique's
historical past. Made of marble, cement, bronze and other equally durable materials,
statues immortalize more than examples of French "heroism." They also serve to
coat minds with what the colonizers want Martinicans to believe about their past.
In his article entitled "Trois statues: Le Conquistador, l'Impératrice et le Libérateur:
Pour une sémiotique de l'histoire coloniale de la Martinique," Richard D.E. Burton
conducts a semiotic reading of three of Martinique's most recognized and visited
statues erected in celebration of the following: (1) Pierre Belain Desnambuc,
first French colonizer in Martinique; (2) Victor Schoelcher, the French abolitionist;
and (3) Joséphine de Beauharnais, the Creole wife of Napoléon I. According to
Burton, these statues can be read as a "marbled summary" of colonial history in
Martinique (147). Each statue, in its own way, represents a different mythic concretization
of the France-Martinique relationship that continues to reflect and inform the
Martinican imagination today.
in 1935 in celebration of the 300th year of French colonization in Martinique
("Trois statues" 148), the towering statue of Desnambuc greets Martinicans and
visitors alike at the bay of Fort-de-France. This statue immortalizes Martinique's
first colonizer in a striking pose: triumphantly waving to incoming French ships.
Today this same statue greets hordes of tourists aboard cruise liners. During
a recent interview, I asked Patrick Chamoiseau about this statue. He commented:
Desnambuc? He's the one who eliminated all the Amerindians .... Dedicating
the place of honor to a statue that represents slavery is the equivalent of
erecting a statue to Hitler in Israel, or to any other human torturer. This
is an aberration that continues today and people are offended. (Translation
reminds the observer of this statue that acts of "discovery" and "colonization"
were not without bloodshed and death. According to him, we must interrogate those
spaces on the island that go too easily unnoticed or unquestioned and which are
ultimately revealing of a colonial agenda.
A second important site of commemoration is the statue of Victor Schoelcher who,
as pictured here, is officially accredited with liberating the Martinicans from
slavery, even though there exists an unofficial version of liberation which involves,
on the eve of Abolition (May 22, 1848), an uprising of Martinican slaves who
freed themselves before the official word (pronounced in France on April
27, 1848) reached them by boat from France (N'Zengou-Tayo 176). Here, the practice
of embracing and commemorating one version of this history over another is very
revealing of an attempt to promote an indebtedness-to-France sentiment
in Martinique, which is best summarized as follows: It is the benevolent "mother"
France who gave freedom to her Martinican "children" who owe her eternal
This mentality of indebtedness has come to be known as schoelchérism
which, according to Marie-José Jolivet, is "the popularity of Schoelcher linked
with his abolitionist acts, the memory of which inscribes itself in collective
memory in the construction of the instrument of a new credo: that of the grand
and generous Mother Country" (Translation mine. 293). This myth is embodied in
the very posture of the Schoelcher statue in Fort-de-France: a tall, white Schoelcher
gently bends over a small, black slave girl whose chains have been broken by her
paternal benefactor. One immediately notices the softness of his expression and
the protectiveness of his posture, gratefully received by the recently liberated
slave girl who lovingly and upwardly blows a kiss of gratitude up to Schoelcher.9
This monument, and the one of Desnambuc, replace the memory of colonialism and
slavery with images of brave exploration and the gracious bestowing of universal
at the moment of her inauguration, the statue of Joséphine served more than to
embellish the capital with another work of public art. Like the other statues,
this monument and the myth that surrounds it, serve to naturalize a certain historical
relationship between France and Martinique (Burton, "Trois statues" 154).
It is especially interesting to consider the timeliness of this statue, that is
to say that the discussion of its erection took place right at that moment when
there was intense discussion in the colony and in France about the possibility
of abolition. The decision to create a marbled tribute to Joséphine carried with
it an attempt to naturalize the colonial couple Napoléon-Joséphine / France-Martinique.
If Napoléon I is colonial France, with all its imperial masculine power, then
it follows that Martinique, naturally, is Joséphine: "Joséphine is Martinique,
Martinique is Joséphine ... both are supple, natural, soft ...." (Translation
mine. Burton, "Trois statues" 156). What better way, then, to remind the békés10
and slaves alike of the glorious and divine union of France and Martinique than
to erect a statue to Joséphine, herself born and raised on the island?
One can see that Joséphine is a feminine presence fashioned to replace,
soften and disguise under her chiffon, lace and gauze and under the softness
of her maternal gaze, an essentially masculine and patriarchal power: that of
the white plantation owner and slave holder, that of Imperial France. (Translation
In addition to effeminizing Martinique, this statue serves to mask the colonial
relationship maintained by France. Fortunately, Richard D.E. Burton is not the
only person to criticize the irony behind this statue. From its very inception,
the Martinican public also expressed displeasure at the commemoration of what,
for them, was a dubious historical figure. Alfred Parépou's novel Atipa: Roman
guyanais includes a description of the Joséphine statue just moments after
"Did you ever hear of Napoleon," asked Atipa, "who used to be a general
over there in France? ... He married a woman from Martinique and cancelled emancipation
so that the blacks wouldn't stop working in the canefields of his father-in-law.
And the day they raised a statue to his wife in Martinique, a black man covered
it all over with shit. It was the only thing he could think of doing. They sentenced
him to three months.11
description of an unmistakable act of resistance is interesting to this discussion
for two reasons. First, given the operating metaphor in this paper of "covering
over," I find it absolutely fascinating that a Martinican would cover the statue
with his own feces. Second, in a more recent gesture of resistance, the "beheading"
of the Joséphine statue, a group of university students also allegedly spray painted,
in red paint and in Creole, "Respect for Martinique" on one side and "Respect
for May 22" on the other. This Revolutionary act of beheading is rendered even
more symbolic by this layer of paint that recalls a significant, although unofficial
date in the history of Martinican resistance. In this way, this gesture, and the
fecal one, become acts of re-covering Martinican history, in both meanings
of the term. Vandalized, desacralized and graffitied, these sites of
historical and mnemonic manipulation are rendered sites of resistance. It is into
this same lineage of resistance that Martinican cultural representatives inscribe
Island for sale:
Brenda Berrian's recent publication, Awakening Spaces: French Caribbean Popular
Songs, Music, and Culture (2002) is an important contribution to the study
of French West Indian music and culture. Her book "focuses on how vocalists, songwriters,
and musicians from Martinique (and sometimes Guadeloupe) have treated the themes
of empowerment and identity in their song lyrics from 1970 until 1996 ..." (1).
Berrian prefaces her work by stating that music is more accessible than literature
(which she calls "high-culture") to the Martinican public because it "crosses
class lines, [and] is played and heard everywhere: the homes, the supermarkets,
the streets, the beaches, the restaurants, and the market places" (ix). Music
then is potentially a more effective medium for social protest than literature
because it penetrates some of those spaces where the role of language and culture
is the most menaced.
Chapter 4 of this book, "Cultural Politics and Black Resistance as Sites of Struggle,"
examines songs that voice their resistance against injustice and cultural denigration
and emphasize the "importance of knowing one's history, roots, categories of identity,
and the ecological preservation of Martinique" (8). These select songs verge from
the most common theme in French-Caribbean music, which is, according to Berrian,
"heterosexual love." Instead, these songs are a reaction against the increased
dependency of the French Caribbean islands on France. Berrian discusses one songwriter
who is of particular interest to my study here. The Martinican born Kali is known
for his social justice consciousness: "Affectionately called 'the banjo man,'
Kali reevaluates Martinican culture, and he is praised for constructing an archeological
image of it through his music with up-to-date changes" (135). Kali inscribes himself
into a cultural political space that echoes the environmental preoccupations of
his theoretical counterparts discussed earlier. Like them, Kali is aware of what
is happening to his country. Like them, he is culturally engaged in an attempt
to protect his "island's natural landscape, language, and agricultural products
against homogenization" (145). An ecologist, "Kali draws attention to how detrimental
this development has been to the green spaces rather than to the oft-touted 'progress'
that bétonisation is made out to be" (136).
The very album cover, which pictures a Martinique literally covered by skyscrapers,
roads, residences, cars and a big sign that reads, in French, "Island for sale,"
is a good indication of what the title track is about. Although a catchy tune,
this song has a very sarcastic undertone, which is ultimately very appropriate
for the subject at hand. Kali paints at first a pleasant picture of the island,
with typical tourist attractions: "a very beautiful tropical terrain12,"
where "the sun shines all year round," this "coconut paradise" at first glance
is an ideal vacation destination. However, there is much more lurking just beneath
the glistening surface of this tropical paradise.
One soon discovers that the unflinching beauty and comfort of the island are artificial:
The trade winds are programmed and the beaches guaranteed to
have coconut trees on them. Words such as "programmées" and "garanties" suggest
that there is an invisible manipulation at play behind a seemingly natural beauty.
Indeed, there is something very unnatural about all this nature, which
is manipulated to cater to the consumer's pleasure. In addition, the visitor is
protected from any discomfort or danger on both physical and social levels. Natural
disasters are controlled, including the eruptions of Mt. Pelé, thanks
to reinforced cemented cliff walls. In addition, the island's feared
snakes have been anesthetized and cyclones rerouted away from
the island. In Kali's song, Martinique has been fully "proofed" from danger for
the pleasure and safe consumption of the tourist and potential buyer of this island
paradise. And it is not only the unbridled and savage nature of this island's
landscape that has been tamed. The narrator assures us that the "indigenous peoples"
are inoffensive and would never even dream of revolution: "Revolution? Oh non!
Here, the revolutionaries are state employees." It is here that Kali strikes his
most stinging blow for he accuses the island inhabitants of being co-opted, themselves
consumers of a commodified culture.
Berrian suggests that one of the possible goals in Kali's song is to awaken Martinicans
from their unconsciousness. Like the anesthetized snakes, "lethargic Martinicans
had to be awakened from their slumber" (141). This statement is surprisingly reminiscent
of Édouard Glissant's reason for writing his Caribbean Discourse which,
according to Michael Dash, was to make Martinicans aware of the "potential for
the pays natal to become little more than an amusement park for metropolitan visitors"
(Dash). The transformation of Martinique into a sort of ersatz or virtual
island is precisely what Kali describes in "Island for sale." All the controlled
conditions give the impression that Martinique is a fake, theme park version of
Martinique, with its artificial wind, planted coconut trees and cement volcano13.
According to him, it is not just the landscape that has been drained of any real
nature, but also the Martinican people who passively buy into the subtle manipulation
of their island and of themselves.
According to Édouard Glissant, land is absolutely central to any discussion of
French West Indian identity today. He writes:
The relationship with the land, one that is even more threatened because
the community is alienated from that land, becomes so fundamental in this discourse
that landscape in the work stops being merely decorative or supportive and emerges
as a full character. Describing the landscape is not enough. The individual,
the community, the land are inextricable in the process of creating history.
Landscape is a character in this process. Its deepest meanings need to be understood.
(Caribbean Discourse 105-6)
As Glissant suggests above, there exists an indissociability between the individual,
the community, and the countryside in the forging of French West Indian history
and identity. An ecocritical approach is therefore essential for interpreting
the numerous descriptions of ecological distress in French West Indian cultural
production. In their literature, theory and song, those most concerned with preserving
their island's cultural identity express their resistance to tampering with the
Martinican landscape. According to them, this affects more than the flora and
fauna of the island. It also bears upon Martinican cultural memory because (1)
it physically conceals traces of an enslaved past; (2) it replaces the reality
of exploitation with a more pleasant narrative of the France-Martinique historical
relationship; and (3) it coats the Martinican imagination with dreams of French
modernity. In their work, Martinican writers and songwriters alike challenge their
audiences to dig beneath the pleasant façade of a colonial past, and present.
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