History of Martinique

Martinique truly stood up to the heat, with a history of war and even a volcanic eruption

Photo credit: © Salim Shadid

The History of Martinique

Martinique's history is quite similar to other Caribbean islands, but if you look a little bit deeper, you will see the subtle historical differences that have made this tropical destination a truly unique place that proudly maintains its fascinating heritage.


During the early years of European exploration in the Caribbean, there was very little interest in the island that is presently known as Martinique until the French began settling there in 1635. Although the famous explorer Christopher Columbus visited Martinique around 1502, the Spanish ignored the island, and the French began colonization in this particular region of the Caribbean.


When the French arrived on Martinique, the island was already inhabited by the Carib Indians, after which the Caribbean region was named. The Caribs called the island Madinina, which is said to mean "Island of Flowers" in the Carib language. Some say that the name Martinique is a derivative of this Carib word, while others believe that the island was named after Saint Martin.

Martinique was inhabited solely by the Carib people until the Frenchman Brenton d'Esnambuc came to the island from St. Kitts, settling on the island's leeward coast. After a few battles with the Caribs, the French agreed to allow the indigenous people to live on the Atlantic side of the island, while the French colonists would stay on the Caribbean side. Once the French were established on the island, they proceeded to eliminate the Caribs, and they took full control of the island.

Striking it Rich

Martinique became the leading French colony in the 1650s, and the colonists on the island became rich from the cultivation of sugarcane, which they shipped to Europe. The French government tried to impose exclusif, which would force Martinique to only trade with France. The governor who tried to enforce this law was taken prisoner on Martinique, and the colonists simply got rid of the nuisance by sending him back to France. He was replaced by a new governor who was willing to overlook the unofficial trade that was taking place on the island.

As the sugar industry on Martinique began to grow, the French started bringing African slaves to the island to work on the sugar plantations. Martinique's sugar export reached an all-time high during the 18th century, which made the island France's most valuable colony.

Back and Forth

When the British saw how much the French settlers were profiting from sugarcane farming in the 18th and 19th centuries, they tried to take control of Martinique. And in the 18th century, the possession of Martinique changed hands several times. Fluctuating ownership was a trend during this time, and many of Martinique's neighbors experienced the same kind of inconsistent governing. The island, often used as an item for bartering, was passed around as a result of wars and was periodically taken over by roving navies.

Threats of revolution resounded throughout the Caribbean, and Martinique was an island divided into two groups: the townspeople, who were called patriotes, and the planters. The patriotes were allies of the revolutionaries, while the planters placed their allegiance with the royalists. The townspeople gained control of the island at first and were brought together by the Revolutionary Lacrosse from St. Lucia and led by General de Rochambeau. After about one year of battle, the planters turned the tide. In attempts to restore their prosperity, the French planters allowed the British onto Martinique, and for about 20 years, the island was quiet under British rule.

The End of Slavery

During the early part of the 19th century, forces in France were at work trying to put an end to slavery. The anti-slavery efforts in France were initially led by Cyrille Bissette, who was from Martinique. Bissette was followed by Victor Schoelcher. There were slave riots in Le Carbet, Sainte Pierre, and Grand Anse, and on April 27, 1848, the abolition of slavery was proclaimed in the French islands.

Following the emancipation of African slaves, more than 10,000 immigrant workers arrived from India to replace the slaves and work on the sugar plantations. With enough workers to sustain the industry, sugar remained a dominant force in Martinique's economy.

Boiling Over

In 1902, a monumental event in Martinique's history took place. Mount Pelé erupted and completely destroyed Sainte Pierre, which was, at the time, the commercial and cultural center of Martinique. The eruption killed almost 30,000 people and was one of the hemisphere's most potent volcanic explosions. More than 40 years later, Fort-de-France took the place of Sainte Pierre and became the capital of Martinique. After the Napoleonic Wars, Martinique came under French possession, and in 1946, instead of striving for independence, the island was incorporated into the French nation with the status of Overseas Departments.


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