What Lies Beneath: Cultural Excavation in Neocolonial Martinique

"The politics of ecology has implications for populations that are decimated or threatened with disappearance as a people" (Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation 146).

Photo and Digital Collage: Eric FadenIntroduction
An Ecocritical approach
A certain preoccupation with the landscape
False chronology
What lies beneath
From bétonisation to francisation
Under a different guise...
Martinique theme park
Politics of commemoration
Island for sale
Works cited


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, Interview)
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:

Aerial shot of Fort-de-France. 
Photo: Eric FadenThere 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:

Mangrove Swamp; Île de la Caravelle. Photo: Eric 
FadenIt 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?

False chronology:

Page 13 of _Caribbean Discourse_In 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 1946.

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 mine. 98-99]6
Mt. Pelé; Photo: Eric FadenIt 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 Fort-de-France; Photo: Renée Gossonthe 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.

Cement-laying company sign; Outside of Saint-Pierre. Photo: Eric Faden   Euromarché in Fort-de-France. Photo: Eric Faden

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.

Vegetable aisle; Euromarché in Fort-de-France. Photo: Eric Faden  Peugeot Car Advertisement with slogan "Don't let the hills slow down progress!"; France-Antilles, March 19, 1998

France-Antilles. Photo: Eric FadenThe 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. Écrire 70-71)
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)
Various Street Signs in Fort-de-France; Photos: Eric Faden, Digital  Collage: Ryan LeBreton 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.

Statue of Pierre Belain Desnambuc in Fort-de-France; Photos: Eric  Faden, Juxtaposition: Ryan LeBretonErected 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 mine. Interview)
Statue of Victor Schoelcher, Courthouse, Fort-de-France;  Photo: Eric FadenChamoiseau 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 gratefulness.

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 liberties.

Statue of Joséphine de Beauharnais, La Savane, Fort-de-France; Photo:  Renée GossonLikewise, 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 mine. 150)
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 her erection:
"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
Base of Joséphine Statue; Photo:  Renée GossonThis literary 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 themselves.

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).

Album cover to Kali's _Ile à vendre_ CD, released by Hibiscus Records in 1991 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.

Renée K. Gosson
Bucknell University

Works Cited:

Anselin, Alain. "Consommation et consumérisme en Martinique." Archipelago 2 (1982): 64-75.

Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant. In Praise of Creoleness. Trans. M.B. Taleb-Khyar. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Burton, Richard D.E. "French West Indies à l'heure de l'Europe: an overview." French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana Today. Eds. Richard D.E. Burton and Fred Reno. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. 1-19.

_____. "The idea of difference in contemporary French West Indian thought: Négritude, Antillanité, Créolité. " French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana Today. Eds. Richard D.E. Burton and Fred Reno. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. 137-166.

_____. "Trois statues: Le Conquistador, l'Impératrice et le Libérateur: Pour une sémiotique de l'histoire coloniale de la Martinique." Carbet 11 (1991): 147-164.

_____ and Fred Reno, eds. French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana Today. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Chamoiseau, Patrick. Écrire en pays dominé. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

_____. Interview with Renée Gosson. Fort-de-France. 15 March 2001.

Confiant, Raphaël. Interview with Renée Gosson. Schoelcher. 15 March 2001.

Dash, J. Michael. Édouard Glissant. Cambridge: University Press, 1995.

Degras, Priska and Bernard Magnier. "Édouard Glissant, préfacier d'une littérature future: Entretien avec Edouard Glissant." Notre Librairie 74 (1984): 14-20.

Frankenhoff, Charles. Environmental Planning and Development in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico: University of Puerto Rico, 1977.

Glissant, Édouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989.

_____. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.

_____. Le Quatrième siècle. Paris: Seuil, 1964.

Gyssels, Kathleen. "Du titre au roman: Texaco de Patrick Chamoiseau." Romans 50/90 20 (1995): 121-32.

Jolivet, Marie-José. "La Construction d'une mémoire historique à la Martinique: du schoelchérisme au marronnisme." Cahiers d'études africaines 107-108 (1987): 287-309.

Kali. 1991. Ile à vendre. Hibiscus 92013-2.

Lara, Oruno D. De l'oubli à l'histoire: Espaces et identités caraïbes. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1998.

N'Zengou-Tayo, Marie-José. "Exorcising Painful Memories: Raphaël Confiant and Patrick Chamoiseau." Slavery in the Caribbean Francophone World. Ed. Doris Y. Kadish. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. 176-187.

Ormerod, Beverly. An Introduction to the French Caribbean Novel. London: Heinemann, 1985.

Price, Richard. The Convict and the Colonel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Suk, Jeannie. Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing: Césaire, Glissant, Condé. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

  1. I wish to express my gratitude to my friend and colleague Eric Faden, Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Bucknell University, who has added a visual dimension to my research. Most of these images were taken from our film on Martinique: Landscape and Memory: Martinican Land-History-People (http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/french/landscape_memory/). I am also indebted to Ryan LeBreton, Instructional Technologist (Information Services & Resources) at Bucknell for his technical and artistic support in developing this on-line version of my article. Back
  2. "Frenchification" Back
  3. "Cementing over" Back
  4. For the majority of my citations of Glissant's Discours antillais, I have used Michael Dash's translation. However, as his work is a partial translation of the entire, and lengthy collection of essays, I have translated certain passages from the original French version. Back
  5. Association pour la Sauvegarde du Patrimoine Martiniquais Back
  6. I have taken some liberty in retranslating the word "dessous" in M.B. Taleb-Khyar's English translation of Éloge de la Créolité. To me, "beneath" is a more accurate translation of the word "dessous" in this passage: "Notre Chronologique est dessous les dates, dessous les faits répertoriés ..." (37). Back
  7. See Richard D.E. Burton's chapter on this subject: "The French West Indies à l'heure de l'Europe." Back
  8. I am indebted to Solenne Langelez who dedicated many hours to transcribing this interview and the one with Patrick Chamoiseau. Back
  9. See Burton's "Trois statues" p. 160. Back
  10. White plantation and slave owners who resided in colonial Martinique. Back
  11. I borrowed the English translation of this passage from p. 218 of Richard Price's The Convict and the Colonel. Back
  12. Translation of song lyrics mine. Back
  13. This physical tampering with nature has disastrous results for more than environmental reasons. According to Glissant, Martinican nature is a locus of cultural resistance because its natural events, including disasters, are an alternative to European means of measuring time and marking history: "Glissant sees the Antillean tendency to think chronology primarily in terms of natural disasters as resistance to French historical time" (Suk 73). Back