Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

Synopsis

Over a span of thirty years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe endured natural catastrophes from all the elements--earth, wind, fire, and water--as well as a collapsing sugar industry, civil unrest, and political intrigue. These disasters thrust a long history of societal and economic inequities into the public sphere as officials and citizens weighed the importance of social welfare, exploitative economic practices, citizenship rights, racism, and governmental responsibility.

Paradise Destroyed explores the impact of natural and man-made disasters in the turn-of-the-century French Caribbean, examining the social, economic, and political implications of shared citizenship in times of civil unrest. French nationalists projected a fantasy of assimilation onto the Caribbean, where the predominately nonwhite population received full French citizenship and governmental representation. When disaster struck in the faraway French West Indies--whether the whirlwinds of a hurricane or a vast workers' strike--France faced a tempest at home as politicians, journalists, and economists, along with the general population, debated the role of the French state not only in the Antilles but in their own lives as well. Environmental disasters brought to the fore existing racial and social tensions and held to the fire France's ideological convictions of assimilation and citizenship. Christopher M. Church shows how France's "old colonies" laid claim to a definition of tropical French-ness amid the sociopolitical and cultural struggles of a fin de sicle France riddled with social unrest and political divisions.

Excerpt

At five-thirty in the morning on 3 May 1902, the young schoolteacher Roger Portel awoke to an eerie scene outside his window in Saint-Pierre, Martinique. Everything was closed: shops, governmental buildings, and schools. the sky blackened under what looked like a gray snow, as roads, homes, and even people were covered in a thin layer of a substance like ground cement. Remarking to a friend that it was now “winter without the cold,” Portel shuffled outside to take stock of what was happening. Mount Pelée had lurched awake, and Saint-Pierre teemed like a kicked anthill. Joining a crowd of Saint-Pierre’s disoriented denizens, Portel quickly realized he could not see more than thirty feet in front of him, and he choked as his nose burned. While he pinched it to ward off the smell of sulfur, he wondered, “Are we all going to die of asphyxiation? … What’s coming tomorrow? a column of lava? a shower of stones? a wind of suffocating gas? Mass drownings? No one knows.” Portel had awakened to a living nightmare, a hellish postapocalyptic scene plucked straight from the pages of the Bible. and he suspected that his death was imminent. “Should I die,” he wrote to his brother, “don’t be too sad.” Unfortunately, Portel’s worst fears came true. Five days later, he and everyone else in the crowd in Saint-Pierre was dead—suffocated by sulfur, petrified by ash, frozen in a winter without cold. Ascension Day had come. Mount Pelée had erupted.

Forty kilometers away, in the city of Fort-de-France, the island’s acting bishop, Gabriel Parel, said a mass commemorating Jesus’s entrance into heaven. Later, when he stepped onto his balcony shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, night descended as ash blocked the morning sun and a hail of stones assaulted Martinique’s capital. While helping his congregation seek refuge, Bishop Parel wondered what was happening at Saint-Pierre. When he learned that Pelée’s fury had obliterated the so-called Paris of the . . .

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