The Three Faces of Post-Emancipation Migration in Martinique, 1848-1865

By Brown, Laurence | The Journal of Caribbean History, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Three Faces of Post-Emancipation Migration in Martinique, 1848-1865


Brown, Laurence, The Journal of Caribbean History


Introduction

With the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, migration became a key means for the nouveaux libres to express their freedom and for the former masters to reorganize plantation labour. In the years immediately following emancipation three distinctive currents of migration developed: the internal migration of the former slaves away from the plantations, the importation of indentured immigrants from Asia, Africa and Europe, and intraregional migration between the island territories of the Caribbean. While each of these movements has been studied separately in detail, rarely have they been examined together.1 Focusing on Martinique, this article seeks to explore the mental and physical linkages among these three faces of migration during the post-emancipation period. Each of the three currents was seen and understood by colonial elites in relation to the other flows of migrants, so that the necessity for docile indentured immigrants was justified by the earlier flight of ex-slaves from the estates. However, both "docility" and "flight" were mental constructions based on persisting attitudes as much as real physical movements. Such efforts to control and differentiate between the flows of migration were also directly challenged by the migrants themselves, some of whom moved between the three currents. Examining the contours of contemporary mentalities therefore helps to explain why the three faces of post-emancipation migration have been treated as separate problems and not as a single phenomenon of interwoven movement.

The Flight from the Estates: Perception and Reality

Following the 1834 abolition of slavery by Britain both slaves and planters in Martinique looked to the neighbouring British islands as a powerful precedent for what could happen to their own territory. While hundreds of Martinican slaves risked the dangerous clandestine voyage to St Lucia and Dominica for freedom, British emancipation also caused the considerable intensification of French pro-slavery campaigns in the Antilles and the metropole.2 Journalists, state authorities and Martinique's planters all claimed that the end of slavery in Britain's West Indian colonies had resulted in economic collapse.3 They argued that once freed, the British former slaves had rapidly deserted the plantations, creating a massive labour shortage that had caused the complete breakdown of sugar production. To French eyes, the events in the British colonies merely confirmed deep-rooted racial prejudices that blacks would not work without coercion; otherwise, they (and the island colonies) would quickly degenerate into idle savagery.4 This economic argument carried a great deal of weight among contemporaries; however, it was based on a highly selective and often distorted reading of experiences in the British West Indies.5 The imagining of the flight from the estates was therefore central to French visions of slavery during the 1830s and 1840s, embodying the damage abolition would cause to France's tropical colonies. As a result, the post-1848 descriptions of the internal migration that followed French abolition were not simply reactions to events of the time, but were developed during the preceding decades of debate. The colonial elite of Martinique were expecting the exodus from the plantations well before it even occurred.

When emancipation finally came to Martinique in mid-1848, the first flight from the estates was not that by the nouveaux libres, but by the planters themselves. Reports that the newly created second Republic in France had committed itself to the abolition of slavery reached Martinique in early April 1848. Within a week, Pierre Dessalles, whose plantation Nouvelle Cité, lay on Martinique's north-east coast, noted that the slaves were already declaring themselves free and leaving their masters, while many of his peers were emigrating overseas.6 Racial tensions in the colony were strained by the prolonged delay in the arrival of the emancipation decree from France, and finally erupted on May 22, 1848 with riots in Saint-Pierre. …

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