An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone Writing: Guadeloupe and Martinique

By Sam Haigh | Go to book overview

Introduction
Sam Haigh

France and the Caribbean: Historical Context

The Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, with which this volume will principally be concerned, are among France's oldest colonies: they have been French for longer than Calais, Strasbourg or Nice and, as overseas departments (départements d'outre-mer, or DOM), they remain French today. These islands of the ‘French Antilles’ were ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus at the time of his exploration of the Americas Guadeloupe in 1492 and Martinique in 1502 along with two other territories which were also to come under French control: the island named Hispaniola by the Spanish in 1492, later Saint-Domingue and now divided into the Dominican Republic and the Republic of Haiti, and the DOM of French Guiana (la Guyane) situated on the north-east coast of South America and ‘discovered’ in 1499.

None of these four territories was settled by the French until the seventeenth century, with that of Guiana proving the most difficult to settle due to the vastness of the area and the hostility of the climate. The plantation system (or, rather, the often smaller ‘habitation’ system) is, of course, what distinguished France's Caribbean colonies from those it founded later and in different parts of the world. While in Guiana it proved impossible to eradicate the native Carib population, since large numbers of them fled into the inaccessible interior, in Guadeloupe and Martinique the Spanish had already begun what amounted to a campaign of genocide by the time that the French settlers arrived around 1635. Having failed to force the remaining Caribs to work the land, the settlers either exterminated them or drove them out, to neighbouring Dominica, and introduced a system of indentured labour, bringing ‘engagés blancs’ on three-year contracts from France. It was only when this system failed, a few years later, that the French began to bring African slaves, mainly from the Gulf of Guinea, to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guiana, thus following the example of the Spanish, who, from 1502, had already begun importing slaves to Hispaniola.

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