Martinique is an island territory of France, located in the Caribbean Sea. It is a part of a group of small islands called the Antilles. Martinique was named by Christopher Colombus, who had been commissioned by the rulers of Spain to explore the “New World”, the continents of the Americas. However, Spain took little interest in the tint island, leading to its occupation by a group of French settlers in 1635.
By 1636, Carib Indians rose up against the settlers in a bid to drive them off the island, engaging them is several battles and eventually causing the French monarchy to send an armed force of 600 hundred soldiers to the island. Their instructions were to wipe out all traces of the Caribs from the island. Though they did not succeed in killing them all, the remaining number of Caribs fled to the neighboring islands of St. Vincent and Dominica.
Because there were fewer Catholic priests on the island, it was generally favored by those who sought greater religious freedom than they would have been able to find back in France. For a brief period of time, the French monarchy even used the island as a sort of dumping site, where all those who refused to convert or reconvert to Catholicism were deported in overcrowded and unhygienic ships to become planters on tobacco farms. These planters served under the title of “Indentured Servants”; meaning that they were French workers on a thirty-six month contract: they worked on the lands of other settlers and could request for their own piece of land on completion of the thirty-six month contract.
By 1645, Dutch colonists arrived from Brazil with the knowledge of sugar production, and sugar cane began to replace tobacco as the cash crop of choice. This led to distilling of alcohol from the sugar cane, and the first refineries were constructed on the island. Due to an increase in the amount of work, the demand for labor increased as well, leading to the formation of the slave-trading Senegal Company first by the Dutch and then by the French.
The number of the slaves constantly grew due to the spread of sugar plantations all over the island, which led to the settlers being outnumbered by the slaves. Rebellions broke out, and there were multiple occurrences of poisonings and suicides. Also, Martinique became an important port for shipping arms, ammunition, and supplies to the colonial armies in North America, which was caused by the appointment of their commander, Rochembeau, as a governor of the island at the beginning of the American Revolution.
Needing more men to strengthen his army, Rochembeau recruited slaves, promising them freedom “if they behave like proper soldiers” (Esclavage-Martinique). These freed slaves would come to be known as “Rochembeau Freedmen” or “Savannah freedmen”. By the time of the French Revolution, trade was difficult between Martinique and France, making the importation of food for the slaves unreliable. This resulted in the slaves cultivating their own food, which led to the weakening of the slave-owners’ authority over them.
Though they were now able to hold any job, were allowed to vote and even to hold office, their efforts to get political representation were consistently rebuffed, culminating in widespread riots when a French Secretary of State refused to appoint a freedman to the Emancipation Committee. A few days later, though, the local population of freed slaves and white abolitionists declared the end of slavery on the island.
This is the colonial history of the homeland of Patrick Chamoiseau, a writer and a social worker. Born in 1953, Chamoiseau studied law and social economy before engaging in social work and rehabilitating children in detention first in France and then in his native Martinique. It is here that he begins to focus on the linguistics and history of the Caribbean, which would form the basis of his writings (Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin).
In Texaco, Chamoiseau tells a story of Martinique’s journey from colonization by the French to its current status as a French territory, using the lives of Marie-Sophie and her ancestors. Marie Sophie’s father, Esternome, is a former slave who was freed after saving his master’s life, though he continues to live in servitude and poverty. He is a very spiritual man, which is seen in his connection to the ghost of his late wife Ninon, killed in a volcanic eruption that completely destroyed the city of Saint Pierre. He later moved in with Lapidaille, a woman from Fort de France; he agreed to go to her home in the belief that she would feed him. She later turns out to be a witch and casts a spell upon him, from which he is freed only after he impregnated Lapidaille’s blind sister, Idominee. Their child is Marie-Sophie.
Sometime after the death of Esternome, an oil company buys some land near their oil reservoirs, where soon numerous shacks are built, which are without sanitation, water, electricity, roads or schools. These shacks are constantly being put up, destroyed and rebuilt, and Marie-Sophie is at the fore-front of this battle, constantly fighting with the landowner who wants to relocate the slum residents. She insists on creating a settlement that suits the residents, rather than the landowner, and identifies their struggles as her own struggles.
When an urban planner, identified as “The Christ,” arrives to “renovate” the settlement, he is stoned and brought before Marie-Sophie. Realizing that she must inform him of the folly he is about to commit, she tells him their story and he becomes a convert to the community.
This entire tale is told by Chamoiseau, who is himself a character in his own story, the Word Scratcher. He uses Creole, regular French and Antillian French to retell the story of Marie-Sophie, probably to show the diversity of influences and cultures at play. The dominant use of Creole, however, suggests a mutiny against proper French, perhaps a linguistic symbol of resistance to the occupation of his homeland.
He echoes a similar Martinique-born author, Aime Cesaire, who is credited with being one of the founders of the Negritude Movement. Another founder, Leopold Sedar Senghor, believed that every African shared distinctive values and characteristics and that this heritage was both inescapable and natural. He defined negritude as “the active rooting of a Black identity in this inescapable and natural African essence (Duckworth). This definition has been later interpreted and re-evaluated to become a process of rewriting the labels traditionally associated with African opposition to the constructs imposed by colonizers. In this sense, Chamoiseau as the author and his main character Marie-Sophie embody this new Negritude movement by refusing to use the tools or methods of the colonizer. In the case of Marie-Sophie, her refusal to accept the land-owners proposals and instead insistence on forming their own social structure with the materials available to them, though inferior, is a symbol of independence. For Chamoiseau, it is almost as if he would have wanted Martinique to separate from France and set up its own society; he himself, though educated and raised in France, chose to return home and write in a native language (CARICOM).
However, some optimism, a “way forward,” could be seen in Texaco. The Urban Planner arrives having intent on leveling the slum, yet after spending time with Marie-Sophie, he empathizes with her and her community. Though he comes with the ‘ideal solution’ planning to “help these hopeless people who are so pathetic that they do not see the level of their need”, he ends up becoming one of them. This may be an illustration that if the colonialists more closely looked at the lives of the residents of Martinique, they would have not lost their national identity. Perhaps, the future does not lie in homogeneity but in diversity.
The term “Global Village” is used quite widely these days, and very often, it used wrongly. Many people use it to illustrate the reduction of distances and the ease of communication occasioned by the rapid development in technology or use it to point at the similarity of people living in separate continents. Yet, this phrase was never intended to be used to identify that. Its author, Marshal McLuhan, explicitly stated that he never thought that the term would be associated with uniformity, but rather that the village conditions ensured division and diversity, and thus more chances of disagreement (Stearn).
So rather than seek to create identical communities, we should, perhaps, encourage diversity, even when it seems that a community would benefit from that. It is better to let that community make do with its resources and create what best suits them.