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Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

by Christopher M. Church
Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean

by Christopher M. Church


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2017 Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize Winner

Over a span of thirty years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe endured natural catastrophes from all the elements—earth, wind, fire, and water—as well as a collapsing sugar industry, civil unrest, and political intrigue. These disasters thrust a long history of societal and economic inequities into the public sphere as officials and citizens weighed the importance of social welfare, exploitative economic practices, citizenship rights, racism, and governmental responsibility.

Paradise Destroyed explores the impact of natural and man-made disasters in the turn-of-the-century French Caribbean, examining the social, economic, and political implications of shared citizenship in times of civil unrest. French nationalists projected a fantasy of assimilation onto the Caribbean, where the predominately nonwhite population received full French citizenship and governmental representation. When disaster struck in the faraway French West Indies—whether the whirlwinds of a hurricane or a vast workers' strike—France faced a tempest at home as politicians, journalists, and economists, along with the general population, debated the role of the French state not only in the Antilles but in their own lives as well. Environmental disasters brought to the fore existing racial and social tensions and held to the fire France’s ideological convictions of assimilation and citizenship. Christopher M. Church shows how France’s “old colonies” laid claim to a definition of tropical French-ness amid the sociopolitical and cultural struggles of a fin de siècle France riddled with social unrest and political divisions.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496204493
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 12/01/2017
Series: France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 342
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Christopher M. Church is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. 

Read an Excerpt


French Race, Tropical Space

The French Caribbean during the Third Republic

In 1888 the soon-to-be president of the École Coloniale's administrative council, Paul Dislère, compiled his Notes on the Organization of the Colonies, in which he distinguished the assimilable from the nonassimilable colonies — that is, between those colonies that had enough in common with France proper that they could be assimilated into the French nation and those that could not. Though Dislère was an anti-imperialist earlier in his career, viewing overseas expansion as an economic drain and an utter waste of resources, by the time of his tenure at the École Coloniale — the college that trained all functionaries in the French colonial service to improve the quality of French colonial administrators from 1889 onward — he was an ardent assimilationist who dominated the school's directors and set the agenda for school policy.

Leaving aside religious propagation for other bureaucrats to handle, this former director of the Ministry of the Marine and Colonies succinctly outlined five key motifs of French imperialism: (1) the expansion of the French race, (2) the extension of the powers of the state, (3) the satisfaction of commercial interests, (4) the creation of points d'appui or strategic locations from which military actions could be launched, and (5) the founding of places to which exiles from the metropole could be sent. Placing an emphasis on the first three of these driving factors of French imperialism, Dislère drew the same divide historians of empire highlight today: the difference between colonies of settlement and those of exploitation, between colonies of citizens and colonies of subjects. He applied this division to the Antilles, which he described as "a very weak part of the ancient colonies of settlement, because the French race there is today a very weak minority, [though] they are no less true fragments of the French nation, with which everything is in common: language, education, and patriotism." Dislère's statement glosses over the more unsavory parts of the colonial legacy in the Antilles, for the French Caribbean colonies were founded not as colonies of settlement but as exploitative sugar plantations where 1.1 million Africans were forcibly migrated to work as slave labor. Historically, the Antilles were colonies of resource extraction: the backbone of the slave labor economy that harvested sugar and amassed the capital necessary to catapult Europe into modernity.

However, in 1888, republicans had a selective memory, and they chose to view these old colonies as poor examples of colonies of settlement. Dislère was not alone in making the distinction between the French Antilles and the new colonies of exploitation in Africa and Indochina — the financially important colonies, according to Dislère and others. The French Antilles were old hat to the French government, populace, and financial sector. Popular colonial periodicals like Les Journals des Voyages focused the reading public on the exoticism of the newer colonies, and the waning importance of the older colonies in the face of European beet sugar left economists and financiers underwhelmed.

Arguing that the old colonies represented assimilable spaces that could one day become full French departments, while the new represented spaces of economic extraction that benefited the French economy, Dislère elucidated a distinction many understood at the time. At the height of new imperialism, the old colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe represented a colonial space categorically different from France's newer colonies in Indochina and Africa. The legal system, which held separate judicial regimes for the old colonies and for the new, reflected this distinction. As citizens, inhabitants of the old colonies were exempt from the harsh indigenous code and by and large fell under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan legal system.

In describing the Antilles as a very weak example of colonial settlement, Dislère revealed his racialized understanding of Frenchness — only descendants of the white planter class were "true" Frenchmen in the region. However, Dislère underscored the holistic similarity of Antillean and French culture. Despite the lack of economic utility in the old colonies, their French culture, republican patriotism, language, and educational system called on France to treat them as part of the Republic. Dislère's thinking revealed the tension between civic and racial understandings of French nationalism that underpinned the Third Republic: from a racial point of view, the French Antilles were not France's United States or Australia, where white expats formed autonomous colonies of settlement. Yet civically they were "true fragments of the French nation."

The fact of the matter is that what Dislère saw as a selective process of colonial assimilation in 1888 was well under way in the old colonies from the onset of the Third Republic. A decade after full citizenship and legislative representation were extended to the old colonies, the tension in French imperialism was evident. A racial conceptualization of French civic identity — one that theoretically should seek to exclude Antilleans from the French nation on the basis of their skin color, as in the newer African colonies — conflicted with the civic conceptualization of French civilization prevalent within both the metropole and the old colonies.

For many during the Third Republic, the distant Caribbean islands represented, in the words of the famous black Martiniquais intellectual Paulette Nardal, "a little France, a faraway France [where] [t]he social manners do not differ principally from French social manners. Life, over there, is only an adaptation of European life to the necessities of a tropical climate." As part of this faraway France, Martinique reflected the sociopolitical struggle that characterized the unstable Third Republic from the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune onward, while its sister island of Guadeloupe draped itself in the legacy of the Communards. This extension of France in the tropics became the site of an intense struggle over French identity and nationality. Faced with an intransigent population of white planters who maintained the old aristocratic mores of prerevolutionary France, liberal officials turned to the islands' burgeoning mixed-race middle class. This political move in turn raised a challenge to the prevailing French conception of race during the height of "new imperialism," which witnessed the ascendancy of "scientific" racist thought, and it harks back to the oldest days of French colonialism in the New World when métissage, or miscegenation, was treated as expedient rather than threatening — at least before an ideology of "white purity" established a color line that politically and socially alienated free people of color after the 1760s. Even then, however, French understandings of race contrasted sharply with their American counterparts': for instance, those with at least "one drop" of white heritage were permitted to marry "other whites" under Napoleon's ban on interracial marriage.

The Third Republic leaned heavily on imperialism to maintain its legitimacy. Politicians like Jules Ferry and Paul Dislère intricately tied together racial typology and notions of French civilization, arguing that the unification of the French nation after the bloody beginnings of the Third Republic in 1870–71 required imperialism. With regard to this racialist typology, historians like Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler have shown that French policy makers increasingly frowned on racial mixing, viewing miscegenation as threatening to state power and European racial superiority. In A Mission to Civilize, Alice Conklin has aptly shown that for republican officials in French West Africa, who simultaneously championed French pronatalism and imperialism, racial mixing would inevitably lead to the degeneration of the French race and the undermining of colonial authority. In the view of many French officials, the person of mixed race — the métis — "should not and could not become French," and functionaries must practice endogamy to preserve their Frenchness. At the same time, however, others argued for an older model of "métissage" forged in the Americas that could "Gallicize" African races through intermixture with Europeans or buttress dwindling European populations in colonial spaces. At the turn of the century, disdain for miscegenation, which would become so prevalent among the French after African involvement in the First World War, had not yet overcome the much longer tradition of métissage dating to the New World conquest and intermarriage between settlers and Native Americans. French authorities saw Antillean society as a relic of this old empire and a product of interracial mixing that served to strengthen rather than diminish French culture and civilization abroad.

As historians like Eric Jennings have shown, at play throughout the Third Republic was the juxtaposition of French race with hostile, tropical spaces: in short, the distinction between white and nonwhite, between European and colonial. The religious, economic, political, and cultural integration of Martinique and Guadeloupe complicated these understandings. In a time when national unity and the civilizing mission were of the utmost concern, racial typologies were mapped onto the old colonies in surprising ways. In the Caribbean, French identity was not, and still is not, a black-and-white issue. In fact, many colonial functionaries saw racial mixing as necessary and laudable, and old world whiteness as antiquated and antithetical to the republican project. The old colonies in the Caribbean occupied a space separate from that of the new colonies, for unlike the new colonies they had come to represent French culture and ideals in a tropical world far removed from France; that is, though they were tropical and dangerous, they were "civilized" spaces in the French imaginary. To be precise, the French viewed the population living there as "civilized," whereas the environment perpetually threatened that civilization. This contrasted sharply with prevalent attitudes in the newer colonies, even in Algeria, which had become a province of France itself, that increasingly identified French civilization with political boundaries on a map rather than the populations living there and sought to maintain cultural markers that distinguished between the two. Therefore, during a time of rampant imperialism that heightened the distinction between the French and the non-French worlds — in particular between the white and the nonwhite worlds — the separation between Frenchness and racial mixture in the French Caribbean collapsed under the weight of the republican myth of assimilation and unity, much as the division between metropole and colony began to give way from pressure by mulatto politicians who sought departmentalization.

In the French Caribbean, political motives, social stratification, environmental concerns, and racialist attitudes intermingled to produce a sphere that turned the gaining vogue of European racial supremacy on its head. Racial purity — either white or black — was seen as antagonistic to republicanism in the Antillean tropics. For various reasons and to various ends, racial mixture was considered a bulwark against the danger of a tropical environment to French culture. Therefore, the Antilles held a peculiar place within the French Empire, as French ideology was applied across the empire in variegated ways and French racialist thought followed as well as directed French politics.

Sources from those who sought to explain the Antilles to contemporaries in the metropole — not only the writers, educators, and scientists who traveled to the island over the course of the Third Republic but also the popular guidebooks, textbooks, and encyclopedias that shaped the way in which republicans understood the old colonies — show the complex ways in which French racialist attitudes were mapped onto the French Caribbean. As home to Saint-Pierre — the so-called Paris of the Antilles — until its destruction by the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902, Martinique exemplified for Frenchmen a space that was simultaneously French and tropical, domestic yet foreign. On the one hand, Saint-Pierre's European-style gardens and architecture, as well as its social life, represented the transplantation of Parisian life in a tropical climate. On the other hand, the flora and fauna, as well as the perpetual danger of tropical diseases and hurricanes, drove home the difference from the metropole. In this liminal space, the French looked to Martinique's mulatto population — an interstitial group who represented the convergence of two worlds — rather than the white planters as the embodiment of French civilization, that is, as the standard bearers of the French Republic in the tropics.

In a similar fashion, malcontented laborers and intellectuals in France looked to Guadeloupe's mounting social tensions as a reflection of civil strife in the metropole, and in parliamentary meetings Guadeloupean politicians encouraged such coidentification. After civil discord in Guadeloupe in 1899 and strike activity in Martinique in 1900, Guadeloupe's deputy, Gerville-Réache, a powerful advocate for colonial assimilation, argued that West Indian collective action represented not a colonial insurrection but measured strike activity, suggesting Antilleans were participating in a markedly French phenomenon. Similarly, Guadeloupe's Senator Alexandre Isaac — a prominent man of color and passionate supporter of colonial equality — based his political platform on the maxim that "it is essential to eventually persuade France that colonies are not properties to exploit, nor are they conquered countries subject to the exigencies ransomed by war." Isaac argued that the discord affecting Guadeloupe resulted from an economic sugar crisis that had torn the island's political parties asunder, and he warned that if unattended, economic discontentment would turn into a social crisis.

Economic tensions led contemporaries to map social cleavages onto the island's topography — a geography that was sharply divided. Guadeloupe's tropical and mountainous southern island, Basse-Terre, contrasted sharply with its plantation-economy-driven northern island, Grand-Terre. As a middle-class encyclopedia explained in 1886, Basse-Terre has "elevated mountains, covered by forest, numerous waterfalls, volcanic soil, and no plains; [whereas] Grande-Terre [has] flat land, few water cascades, and calcareous soil." Upon this flat land with few cascades sat numerous sugar plantations, amid what one scientist unflatteringly described as swampland full of "stagnant water" and "detritus contributing to the mephitism of the wet and muddy terrain." Due to the swampy land and what were seen as characteristic miasmas of disease, officials created lazarettos outside Pointe-à-Pitre in the 1890s and early 1900s to deal with the increasing number of malaria and yellow fever cases. To their anxiety regarding the environment, Guadeloupe's colonial administration added the worry that Antillean workers had become arsonists by 1899 and strikers by 1910 bent on destroying the island's economy. The physical contrast between Basse- and Grande-Terre, therefore, carried over into the political and social division of Guadeloupe's two halves: the island's capital and bureaucratic center in the south made up largely of functionaries and menaced by the fumes of La Soufrière, and the fertile, marshy sugar plantations and buzzing factories threatened simultaneously by malaria and by a roiling mass of increasingly class-conscious workers in the north.

Within the broader historical context of economic, political, and cultural developments in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the metropole, this chapter will focus on how contemporaries described the islands' population and environment and compared it with those of mainland France. To explain the mythos of the civilizing mission as well as foresee the eventual redesignation of the old colonies as French departments, the question to answer is this: with regard to climate, culture, and population, what does France look like in the tropics?


Excerpted from "Paradise Destroyed"
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Maps
List of Tables
Introduction: Colonialism, Catastrophe, and National Integration
1. French Race, Tropical Space: The French Caribbean during the Third Republic
2. The Language of Citizenship: Compatriotism and the Great Antillean Fires of 1890
3. The Calculus of Disaster: Sugar and the Hurricane of 18 August 1891
4. The Political Summation: Incendiarism, Civil Unrest, and Legislative Catastrophe at the Turn of the Century
5. Marianne Decapitated: The 1902 Eruption of Mount Pelée
Epilogue: National Identity and Integration after the First World War

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