The history of slavery in Martinique

Before 1635
1639 - 1640

Before 1635:

Pierre Belain d'EsnambucEra of French colonial discovery and settlement, with slavery forbidden on French territory. Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc (wiki), a former pirate from Normandy, is dispatched to the Caribbean colonies by the Compagnie des Îles d'Amérique ("American Island Company"), one of the main shareholders of which was Cardinal de Richelieu (wiki), an original founding father of the French colonial movement..


1635 :

Discovery and settlement of Martinique by
d' Esnambuc.

1639 :

The Company begins importing both indentured servants (wiki) (French workers who have voluntarily committed to a 36-month work contract) and slaves purchased on the coast of Africa.

Tobacco production is introduced into Martinique and requires little manual labor, which is performed mainly by the "concessionaire" (a person who has been awarded a land grant as a "concession" or a sort of homestead) and his indentured servants. At the end of the 36 months, the indentured servants could request their own homesteads ("concessions").


1640 :

The company, encountering severe financial problems, is forced to sell off the island to Dyel Duparquet, a Norman nobleman, who forms an alliance with the Caribbean Indians, and a royal edict is decreed forbidding their use as slaves, for strategic reasons. During this period, there are very few slaves on Martinican plantations (just a few dozen, approximately).

1645 :

Esclaves A group of Dutch Jewish colonists, driven out of northeastern Brazil by the Portuguese, land on Martinique, bringing with them the knowhow and technology involved in the production of sugar. Sugar-cane begins to replace tobacco as the primary crop in the West Indies and will eventually lead to a period of enormous prosperity in Martinique through the rest of the XVII century.

The era of alcohol begins with the first techniques of distillation of juice from the sugar-cane plant , perfected by Père Labat (wiki). The first sugar refineries are established in Martinique, with the start-up capital coming from merchants from the various ports of France and the Paris region.


But it soon becomes evident that manual labor from indentured servants alone will not be adequate to stoke the broad development of sugar production, with the result that traders and ship-captains begin to promote the use of slave-labor.

L'ile de Gorée It is first the Dutch, then shortly thereafter the French, forming the Sénégal Company, who are to launch the full-scale slave-trade. The Company, earning a royalty from the French Crown (Louis XIV) for every slave brought to Martinique, turns Goree island (wiki), off the Senegalese coast near Dakar, into one of the main focal points of French slave-trading activity, with ships leaving from Le Havre, Nantes (wiki), and la Rochelle, bringing trinketry and other cheap goods to exchange with the slave-traffickers of the "slave coast" (the part of the African coast stretching from Senegal to what is now Nigeria).

1685 :

Colbert, Finance Minister under Louis XIV, drafts a set of rules governing the status of slaves in the colonies, called the "Code Noir (wiki)".


Port de Nantes1685-1717 :

Sugar plantations progressively cover Martinique, which is bought back by the the French Crown. The economics of sugar production require two or three slaves per hectare, with the result that Martinique now has more slaves than free colonists, in turn resulting in twin social problems: one, a general rebelliousness among the slaves in various forms (revolts, poisonings, suicides); and, two, the high male-female ratio in the population, which has to be adjusted to allow for adequate levels of slave-breeding. Thus, the importation of slave women becomes a necessity. The status of all children derives from the status of their mother: a child born of a slave mother and a free father becomes a slave.


1715 :

More than 1400 regular slave-trading sailings leave Nantes.


1717 :

A revolt, called the "Gaoulé", breaks out among white population, against the governor and the intendant, who are deposed by the regent. The port of Nantes gains the legal right to operate the slave trade.

1787-1788 :

Martinique becomes a trans-shipping point for arms being sent to the colonial revolutionaries in North America, for use against the British. Rochambeau (wiki), commander-in-chief of the French royal armies in North America, is sent to Martinique as governor at the outbreak of the American Revolution.


1789-1790 :

In response to British threats against the island, Rochambeau mobilizes the militia and recruits slaves into its ranks by promising them their freedom if they behave like proper soldiers. By the Bourbon Restoration of 1818, these freed slaves will have come to be known as "Rochambeau freedmen", or, alternatively, "the de facto free" or "Savanna freedmen".

L'Abbé Grégoire Since, during the French Revolution, the export of sugar to France and the importation of food supplies, especially for the slaves, have become exceedingly difficult or impossible in full revolutionary wartime, the slaves in the colonies are forced to plant crops for their own consumption -- a practice requiring, and resulting in, a general erosion of the authority of the slavemasters.


1793 : French Revolution continues

Under pressure applied by the Society of Friends of Blacks and by humanists like Abbé Grégoire (wiki), the French Convention (revolutionary governing body in mainland France) proclaims the abolition of slavery. But Martinique refuses to recognize the abolition decree (unlike Guadeloupe, which did recognize it because the settlers there , led by Dubucq, were having their attention diverted by the British).

January, 1794:

The Republican government agrees to a broader enforcement of the law of equality voted in March, 1792, by the Legislative Assembly. The majority of the freedmen of color change sides, while their former allies negotiate the surrender of the island to the British, who, upon the capitulation of March 1794, deport to France the defenders of the Republic.


The decree of abolition of slavery voted by the Convention on February 4, 1794, has no effect in Martinique due to the fact that the island belongs to the English at that time. This is in contrast to the situation in Guadeloupe, where slavery has already been abolished during the administration of Victor Hugues, the prefect. But slavery was to be re-established there, eventually, too (on May 19, 1802, under the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte).

1814-1830 :

The majority of the white population believe that only a non-egalitarian regime, free of separation of powers and a representative system, will permit the colony to survive. In 1814, during the drafting of the constitutional charter of that year ("La charte de 1814"), they manage to win inclusion of provisions for the reinstatement of slavery-related Ancien Régime institutions. Gradually, though, the various governments under the Bourbon Restoration will make huge efforts to get the colonists to accept the new laws forbidding slavery.


1822-1826 :

Deteroration of the economic situation due to import duties imposed by the French government upon entry to the mainland, and the beginning of the sugar beet industry, produces various forms and incidents of rebellion among slaves and freedmen alike, who begin to be held suspect of separatist sedition, with some even being accused of including the use of poison as part of their tactical arsenal.


In October, a rebellion of the "half-free" population breaks out in le Carbet. Neither charges of subversion lodged in December, 1823, against an activist of color named Bissette, nor massive deportations in 1824 designed to discourage the burgeoning desire for egalitarian reform, are able to prevent the representative system from reappearing in 1826, in the form of a General Council, elected by only a tiny percentage of the population. However, two years later, an attempt to reform the justice system was to fail completely.

1830-1846 :

Moulin à vapeur Sugar loses a third of its value while the improvement of the quality of life of the slaves requires increased government spending. On the homestead, replacement of the hoe by the plough contributes to a lightening of workload. The appearance of the first steam mills, however, brings changes.


1830-1833 :

Despite the freed slaves' newly-won eligibility for any job or profession or position, and the right to vote and hold office, and despite the emergence of a state primary-education system, social progress still remains modest. In Dec., 1833, during the lead-up to the election of a colonial council to replace the General Council which causes some social unrest, in the parish of Grand'Anse (today Le Lorrain) the planters reject the appointment of a colored officer of militia, and a revolt ensues in the town of Marigot, precipitating the complete dissolution of the royal militia.


The improvement of the freed slaves' lot brings a spike in the birth-rate which compensates for the loss of black population due to cessation of the slave trade. This partially counteracts the efforts of the State, which, in the wake of the freeing of 26,000 slaves, is really able to help only the de facto freed slaves, persons freed in fact but whose freedom is not officially recognized by the law or the administrative bureaucracy.


1845 :

The first sugar-cane mill ("usine"), belonging to one John Thorp, is built, resulting in a shift in power relations by limiting the function of the surrounding plantation (wiki) to that of mere suppliers. On the other hand, the plantations no longer require nighttime labor, and their revenues increase. But the need for manual labor in the mill, which will be readily available to the company only under the social conditions necessary for each person to have the right to offer his labor freely, contributes to social acceptance of the replacement of slave-labor by paid labor.

1848 :

In February, the revolution in mainland France is greeted with relief. A decree of emancipation is signed in Paris on April 27, but it will finally only become publicly announced on June 3. In April, the March 4 decree which has created the Emancipation Committee has the population buzzing about official (as opposed to de facto) emancipation "because no French territory should have the right to hold slaves any longer".


Victor SchoelcherInstead of trying to recapture the marrons (wiki), the slaveholders start to drive the strongest of their leaders off the plantations. Strikers at work places begin to demand housing, surrounding property, and wages, as the perquisites of freedom.


Victor Schoelcher(wiki), Secretary of State for the navy and the colonies, is a very important figure of this period: he is the sworn enemy of Bissette, who has refused to appoint him to the Emancipation Committee. His political allies mobilize to gain redress for this injustice, and rioting breaks out.



May 22, 1848:

While capitalists clamor for immediate emancipation, the abolitionists, who have been awaiting the arrival of the colored, technocratically-educated François Auguste Perrinon(wiki), decide to take things back into their own hands. The local decision on abolition of May 23 provides the occasion for the Martinican population to proclaim proudly that they have taken over their own affairs at this dramatic moment in their history.
The riots of May 22 have forced a de facto proclamation of emancipation eleven days before the arrival of the official decree. The blacks break and throw off their chains ("Nèg pété chenn").

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