Culture Name

Martinican (sometimes spelled Martiniquan)

Alternative Names

(as part of broader geocultural grouping) French Caribbean, French West Indian, French Antillean, Antillean


Identification. Early in his exploration of the New World, the Amerindian inhabitants of Cuba and Hispanola told Christopher Columbus about a smaller island which they called Martinino. Coming to the island in 1502, Columbus gave it the name Martinique. Indigenous Carib islanders called it Madiana or Madinina ("Island of Flowers"), designations still used informally in song and poetry. The Carib Indians of Martinique, however, were eradicated by the French in the seventeenth century and ensuing Martinican history and culture has been the result of creolization between French colonial and African slave societies. Martinicans are French citizens.

Location and Geography. Situated in the Lesser Antilles of the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, with the islands of Dominica to the north and Saint Lucia to the south, Martinique measures 431 square miles (1,120 square kilometers). It is a mountainous, tropical island of volcanic origin. The 1902 explosion of Mount Pelée totally destroyed the major town of Saint Pierre resulting in the capital being relocated to Fort-de-France.

Demography. As of July 1998 the population of Martinique was estimated at 407,284. Another 30 percent of Martinicans currently reside in France. Almost half as many people are born in France of Martinican parents as there are residents of Martinique itself. About 5 percent of the population residing in Martinique hail from France. Only about 2,500 Martinicans on the island are direct descendants of the original French settlers ( békés ). Most of the fewer than five thousand resident foreigners are agricultural laborers from other Caribbean islands.

Linguistic Affiliation. As part of France, the official language of Martinique for its government, schools, newspapers, and media is French. However, the vernacular which is spoken in most informal and family contexts is Creole. Derived mostly from French (with sprinklings from African, Amerindian, and English dialects), Creole is particularly expressive and idiomatic, using a relatively simple grammatical structure. Creole originally developed out of the need for African slaves to communicate among themselves as well as to understand the commands of their French masters. The lack of local Creole literature has prompted many Martinicans to deny that Creole constitutes a language. In Martinique itself, Creole is becoming more and more French as a result of increasing cultural influences from France. Standard French is widely spoken, albeit in a distinctive, lilting French West Indian accent.

Symbolism. Ile aux Fleurs ("Island of Flowers") is one of the island's unofficial nicknames; the other, invoking its magical charm, is Pays des Revenants ("Land to Which One Returns"). The gommier (wooden fishing boat) symbolizes a society surrounded by the sea while the bakoua (a high conical hat woven from the pandanus plant) represents the early predominant peasant culture. Colibri (hummingbird) is the island mascot.

Colorful, striped female dress (madras) with a knotted kerchief represents the languorous West Indian woman of the past. Music and dance, especially of a sensuous variety, are distinctly Martinican. Poets and writers have used the mangrove (swamp) as metaphor for Martinique.

Recently, symbolism has been used to commemorate emancipation from slavery. Initially,

credit for the abolition of slavery had gone exclusively to Victor Schoelcher, the "Abraham Lincoln" of the French colonies. In the last two decades Martinican nationalists have campaigned to emphasize the role of slave revolts and marronage (escape) in their actual liberation. The combined French and Caribbean Martinican identity has created a complex political symbolism that celebrates the French Bastille Day as well as the Martinican abolition of slavery.

Metissage , the mixing of multiple races and ethnicities (particularly French and African but also East Indian and Chinese) into a composite, multi-racial society, includes the controversial concepts of négritude (black consciousness), antillanité (West Indianness), and créolité (transcultural fusing with a Caribbean emphasis). Doudouism—the image of a tropical island paradise with a French accent, laced with romance and lassitude—usually is regarded as a saccharine stereotype.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The existence of a Martinican "nation" is a matter of dispute. After the definitive abolition of slavery in 1848 (an earlier emancipation act of the French Revolution was rescinded by Napoleon), the dominant colonial policy became assimilation: the full extension of French education, language, and civil rights to all those living under the French flag. This policy came to its apogee in 1946 when, at the urging of the representatives of the local populace (especially member of parliament AiméCésaire), the National Assembly in Paris voted to make Martinique an overseas department of France. As full citizens of France, Martinicans are members of the European community.

National Identity. Society is more like that of France than on other Caribbean islands. A relatively small group of nationalists demand outright independence for the island while others prefer autonomy within the French Republic. Most Martinicans, while preserving French West Indian cultural identity through Creole language, music, cuisine, and mores prefer not to sever their political ties with the French nation.

Ethnic Relations. The békés—white descendants of the original French settlers—have long constituted the local élite engendering varying degrees of both envy and resentment. Residual racial preferences within the non-white populace (lighter is preferred to darker skin) still mark marital and other social choices. Metros (short for metropolitans , whites from France) are regarded as outsiders by all Martinicans. Metros often occupy visible positions in government, civil service, and education, which local nationalists periodically protest. Intermarriage between Martinicans and metropolitans is fairly common.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Departmentalization and concomitant economic change have transformed the rural sugar plantation character of the island into one highly dependent on the tertiary sector and urban activity. One-third of the island's population converges daily into Fort-de-France, whose narrow symmetrically squared streets are as congested during the day as they are empty at night. Distinctive colonial-era architecture adapted to the tropics—wood and stone constructions of large, open spaces with verandas and light filtering (but wind porous) windows—is gradually giving way to more "functional," enclosed, air-conditioned construction. Such architectural change, especially in government buildings, projects a less colonial look and feel in favor of a more uniform and efficient French model. An unwalled, conical straw shelter—the carbet—still dots the landscape and is reminiscent of Amerindian days.

In addition to the classic war memorials which dot villages throughout France (and therefore Martinique), monuments to Victor Schoelcher, the leader of the abolitionist movement, are also common. One monument in particular—a statue in the Savanna (central park) of the Fort-de-France of the Empress Josephine, the Martinique-born wife of Napoleon Bonaparte—has been the object of continuous vandalism for those who see it as a symbol of racism and continued colonialism (Napoleon's decision to reinstate slavery is attributed to the influence of Josephine).

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Until supermarkets and imported common cuisine (including steak-and-fries and fast food chains) proliferated, daily Martinican cuisine was characterized by a unique blend of French and Creole cooking, often laced with piment (hot pepper). Open air markets still supply locally grown fruits (bananas, coconuts, guava, pineapples, mangoes, love apples, and passion fruit) and vegetables (breadfruit, chinese cabbage, yams, gumbo, and manioc). Much Martinican cuisine is prepared from seafood and shellfish including salted cod, lambi (conch), octopus, blaff (boiled fish with chives) and the national dish, court-bouillon (fish in a spicy tomato sauce). However, one-quarter of the average household food budget is now spent on mostly imported meats and poultry, especially beef. Restaurants have yet to cultivate the same air of sophistication and hospitality as in France.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Boudin —a fat sausage of spicy pig's blood—is a staple at all holidays. At Easter and on Pentecost a spicy dish of crab and rice, matoutou , is always served. Small fried vegetable or fish cakes ( acras ), used to be reserved for saints days but have become a popular appetizer. Special occasions call for a gumbo and vegetable soup with crab or salted meat ( calalou ). East Indian influence is evident in the colombo , a mutton, goat, or chicken curry. No social gathering is complete without drinking a ti-punch (straight rum with a twist of lemon sweetened with cane sugar) or a planteur (fruit juice and rum). Shrubb (rum with marinated orange or tangerine rinds) is served at Christmas.

Basic Economy. The economy is linked to that of France. The agricultural basis for the island—banana, sugar, and pineapple plantations—is heavily subsidized by the French economy.

Local islanders call Mauritius Madiana or Madinina, which means "Island of Flowers."
Local islanders call Mauritius Madiana or Madinina, which means "Island of Flowers."

Land Tenure and Property. Nearly one-half of large land holdings were inherited from colonial-era distributions. Land tenancy may be practiced either by share ( colonage ) or cash ( métayage ). Land division for inheritance purposes is supposed to follow normal French legal practice but unresolved plot disputes abound.

Commercial Activities. While the agricultural sector employs only about 10 percent of the population, approximately one-third of workers are in government service. Another one-third of the workforce is chronically unemployed.

Major Industries. Sugar cane processing and tourism are the major industries.

Trade. Imports are equal to more than five times exports. Primary imports are consumer goods and agro-industrial products. Major exports are bananas, pineapples, flowers, and rum. Martinique's principal trading partners include metropolitan France, Great Britain, Germany, and Guadeloupe.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Universal suffrage and departmentalization (i.e., statehood) have seen the power of the békés shift from politics almost exclusively to economics. Mulattos (mixed-race persons) still retain a residual social edge over those who are descended more directly from exclusively African forebears.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Western dress, urban outlook, white collar employment, and automobile ownership are all traits of social advancement. However, the most direct hallmark of upper class status besides skin color is the use of the French language rather than Creole and a metropolitan accent rather than a West Indian accent.

Political Life

Government. Martinique is one of one hundred départements (states) of the French Republic and one of five overseas departments (DOMs). It sends four deputies (representatives) to the National Assembly in Paris and in turn receives an appointed prefect who serves as the central government's local executive. There are also two locally elected assemblies: the general council with forty-five members, which is responsible for roads, housing, transportation, education and overall infrastructure, and a regional council with forty-one members, which oversees economic, social, sanitary, cultural and scientific development.

Leadership and Political Officials. The establishment and exploitation of patron-client relations are significant means of leadership attainment in this small society. Job and contract distribution is a major criterion for political popularity. Political parties can be classified into three major categories: local affiliates of French parties which are in favor of continued departmental status for Martinique (the gaullist Rassemblement pour la République, the moderate right Union pour la Démocratie Française, and the leftist Fédération de la Martinique); those advocating autonomy for Martinique within the French Republic (the Parti Communiste Martiniquais, Parti Progressiste Martiniquais); and proindependence parties (Combat Ouvrier, Conseil National des Comités Populaires, Group Révolution Socialiste, Mouvement des Démocrates et Ecologistes pour une Martinique Souveraine, Mouvement Indépendantiste Martiniquais). The major figure in twentieth-century Martinican politics is AiméCésaire, founder of the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.

Social Problems and Control. The legal and judicial systems of Martinique are those of France, as are the police force and gendarmerie . They are accorded high legitimacy in the eyes of the populace. The most common crime is theft, especially car break-ins and automobile theft. Economic and financial crimes are also common. Social and political protest movements have occasionally resulted in fatalities. Politically motivated vandalism has damaged or destroyed monuments and installations at electricity, telecommunications, police, and court offices.

Military Activity. France's armed forces in Martinique are the third strongest military contingent in the Caribbean after the United States and Cuba. Land, sea, and air units are represented as well as the gendarmerie. Over five thousand officers, sailors, and soldiers serve in Martinique and Guadeloupe, most of whom are from France. A special program of "adapted military service" permits Martinican conscripts to remain in the French Antilles, receiving vocational training and contributing to local development.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Martinicans benefit fully from the generous package of welfare programs available to all French citizens, covering health, retirement, widowhood, and large families. Given the high rate of unemployment in Martinique, the workfare program plays an important role in ensuring a minimal income level for the least privileged. A joint commission made up of members of the general and regional councils controls local economic development. As part of France, Martinique is part of the European community, and has benefitted over the years from development funds made available through the community. In anticipation of the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht creating a single European economic

A house in Fort-de-France. One third of the population converges in this city daily.
A house in Fort-de-France. One third of the population converges in this city daily.
zone, the European community instituted a special program to ensure that the overseas parts of constituent members not be adversely affected by economic integration.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Local branches of nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, the Red Cross, Doctors of the World, and Catholic Rescue channel Martinican philanthropy throughout the world.

Gender Roles and Statuses

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Machismo, a long-established tradition within West Indian society, still permeates Martinican society. There is a long matrifocal history of single female-headed households, which since 1975 have been heavily subsidized through government family allowance funds. Women retain power and influence in the private domain but in the more public spheres few women (with some exceptions in the fields of education and culture) occupy positions of high authority. Contraception has created a "fertility revolution," decreasing the child bearing average from almost six children in the 1950s to slightly over two in the 1990s.

Since the 1980s over one-half of Martinican women have entered the workforce, where they are disproportionately represented as salaried employees in the services sector where they are employed as servants, clerical workers, and teachers. Martinican women are three times as underemployed and more unemployed than men. One-fifth of women have achieved middle class economic status. Despite an evolution among the young and middle class, the combination of large numbers of unmarried women in an economy that creates pressure for marriage puts wives in a vulnerable position within the household, where they must often submit to male chauvinistic attitudes and behavior lest their husbands abandon them and/or take mistresses.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. In principle, Martinican couples marry by mutual consent on the basis of love. Particularly in village society, this typically follows a period of premarital co-residence and, frequently, childbirth. Families often apply subtle pressure to ensure that their eligible children "marry up" or at least do not "marry down" in terms of class and, especially, race as measured by skin color. Strong pressures to maintain endogenous family ties are exercised within the béké community. Legal formalities for marriage and divorce are those of France; declarations of common law marriage ( concubinage ) may be made at town hall. Approximately two thousand marriages are performed yearly in Martinique; between three hundred and four hundred divorces are processed. Little more than one-third of eligible age Martinicans (age 18 for men, age 15 for women) are in fact married.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit in Martinique has evolved somewhere between the nuclear and extended family. Couples live together with their children without the benefit of formal matrimony, and nearby relatives often assist with child care. Approximately one-third of single mothers are heads of the household and depend on relatives for child care and housework. Feminist challenges notwithstanding, it has been a longstanding practice in Martinican society for men to take mistresses.

Inheritance. Inheritance follows the laws of France. In practice, particularly due to a high frequency of "illegitimate" heirs, following death the division of land and real estate may be subject to dispute and protracted litigation.


Child Rearing and Education. Child rearing is strict and often includes corporal punishment. In households where the father is present, it is generally he who is in authority. Martinique benefits from the same highly developed child care infrastructure and school system in place in France.

Higher Education. Even before the establishment of the University of the Antilles—French Guiana in Schoelcher pursuing a higher education in France was the goal of upwardly mobile Martinicans. University and professional degrees convey high status in local society. University education and professional training abroad (particularly in France) carry more weight in local eyes than do equivalent educational experiences in Martinique.


Formality and social distancing characterize most interactions between strangers in Martinique. Language is the principal means by which social distance is established and maintained. Even though Creole is the lingua franca it is much more polite to address the other, at least until a sufficiently close relationship is established, in French. It can be considered disrespectful to initiate conversations in public spaces (i.e., government offices, stores) in Creole. If one can speak French, addressing a stranger in Creole is to acknowledge that person as socially inferior. Respecting French language norms of politeness (such as second person usage of the more formal vous as opposed to tu ) is also a must. Shaking hands is part of local etiquette.

Informal interactions call for more intimate social exchanges. These include double (and even triple and quadruple) cheek kissing, even between members of the same sex. While double cheek kissing parallels that of French society in its frequency, it is performed in a distinctly Antillean style: more slowly and with greater head turning for a more perpendicular cheek-to-lip encounter.


Religious Beliefs. Ever since the establishment of French rule Roman Catholicism has been overwhelmingly predominant. In recent years evangelical Protestantism (e.g., Seventh Day Adventists) has been growing in strength as have Jehovah's Witnesses. Bahai, Jewish, and Muslim faiths also have their own sites of religious and cultural congregation.

Throughout and beyond the slave era a parallel system of belief and practice, known as quimbois , has existed alongside Christianity. Quimbois encompasses plant and herb remedies, sorcery, and spiritual healing, and is embedded deep within popular culture. A version of nineteenth century Hinduism, brought to the West Indies by south Indian immigrants, still survives in small temples and shrines where the burning of incense, garlanding of statues, and offering of sacrifices are still practiced. Both Hindus and quimboiseurs ordinarily consider themselves also to be Catholic while the local Rastafarians—a sect that began in Jamaica and worships the late emperor, Haile Selassie—break more squarely with Western religion.

Religious Practitioners. An archbishop presides over forty-seven parishes and over 60 priests.

Rituals and Holy Places. In addition to the regularly celebrated Catholic holidays (Christmas, Easter, All Saints Day, etc.) each commune (district) organizes an annual celebration in the name of a saint or Catholic holiday. Annual local Catholic pilgrimages include Sacré Coeur in Balata, the Way of the Cross of Mount Vauclin, Notre Dame de la Salette in Sainte-Anne and Saint-Michel in François. Notre Dame de la Délivrande, celebrating the 1851 rescue of Martinique's first bishop from a tropical storm in the Atlantic, has become the patron saint of the island as well as the pilgrimage of Morne-Rouge. A number of Martinicans partake in the cult of miraculous medal of Sainte Catherine Labouréin Paris. In recent years there has been annual revival of the Hindu mela .

Death and the Afterlife. Death announcements are a regularly scheduled part of the daily official radio program. Funeral rites invariably follow Roman Catholic practice and, especially in villages, include public funeral processions in which men are uniformly dressed in black suit, white shirt and black tie. Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead), when people gather in cemeteries after dusk to light candles at grave sites, is observed 2 November, the day after All Saints' Day.

Medicine and Health Care

Modern medicine, administered through the Administration of Health and Social Services of France, has supplanted rural medical beliefs and practices relying on herbal cures. Folk or traditional medical practitioners ( guérisseurs ) are no longer common even in villages. Widespread belief in quimbois (sorcery) and the associated concepts of the evil eye and

Produce and goods for sale at an open-air market in Saint-Pierre. Traditional meals are a combination of French and Creole cuisines.
Produce and goods for sale at an open-air market in Saint-Pierre. Traditional meals are a combination of French and Creole cuisines.
devil's work has been supplanted by psychiatric and other scientific explanations of extraordinary behavior.

Secular Celebrations

In addition to all the national holidays of France such as Bastille Day, Armistice Day, and May Day, Martinique observes Emancipation Day (marking the end of slavery) and Bannzil Kréyol (the International Day of Creole). Although originally grounded in Catholic ritual (encompassing, in particular, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday) Carnival has become a more secular and boisterous festival. Distinctive and often wild costume and behavior are on display, as groups vie in parade for attention and appreciation. On Mardi Gras regalers dress in red; the following day, in black and white. Music and dance "wake the dead." Vaval, a giant puppet, is the symbol of Carnival, and each year personifies a new theme. Vaval's ritual bonfire at Wednesday dusk marks the end of the raucous festivities.

The Arts and the Humanities

Support for the Arts. Martinique is endowed with an extraordinarily rich infrastructure for the arts: that of the region (FRAC-Regional Funds for Contemporary Art); the municipality of Fort-de-France (SERMAC-Municipal Service of Cultural Action); and mixed national and departmental (CMAC-Martinican Centre of Cultural Action). Festivals for artists and musicians, competitions and prizes, and concerts and institutional acquisitions support every art genre.

Literature. Explorers and missionaries (Father Labat being the most renowned) introduced seventeenth century Martinique to the world. A rich indigenous oral literature, best represented by the folk tales of the wily rabbit Compère Lapin, developed during the slave and post-slave era. With the publication of Return to My Native Land (1939), AiméCésaire explained négritude (black consciousness of Africa and its West Indian diaspora) to the rest of the world; Edouard Glissant ( The Lizard ; Antillean Discourse ) followed this genre. Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon provided a penetrating analysis of the French West Indian mentality in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). Contemporary Martinican writers of note include Patrick Chamoiseau (whose novel Texaco won the Prix Goncourt) and Raphaël Confiant ( The Negro and the Admiral ).

Graphic Arts. The most notable graphic arts movements are the 1970s Caribbean Negro School, inspired by apprenticeship in Africa following study in France; and the 1980s Fromajé, steeped in the island's ancestral heritage. Annual artistic events are CMAC displays of paintings and sculptors, pastels and watercolors; SERMAC's Festival of Fort-de-France; and expositions by the Association of Young Martinique Artists (ADJAM) and the Martinican Association of Plastic Artists (AMPC). FRAC hosts artists-in-residence and degree-granting training is offered by the Regional School of Plastic Arts of Martinique (ERAPM). Legacies of Carib Indian culture survive in basket weaving and artisinal pottery from the colonial era continues but the Trois-Ilets Pottery has been modernized.

Performance Arts. Around the world Martinique is popularly known for its music, thanks to such groups as Kassav and Compagnie Créole. Zouk has largely supplanted the biguine of the past although the group Malavoi preserves a traditional instrumental style. A distinctive style of drumming is gwo-ka . Theater flourishes, especially at the Municipal Theater and Regional Dramatic Center. The Grand Ballet of Martinique maintains the island's folk heritage, mostly for the tourist audience.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Research institutes of France in Martinique include those for general science and development, geography, agronomy, geology and mineralogy, and oceanography. Demographic and economic studies are conducted through INSEE (National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies). The Martinican campus of the University of the Antilles-French Guiana offers two tracks of study: law and economics; and letters and social sciences. Training courses for social work, business and management, and nursing and midwifery are also available.


Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. Éloge de la Creolité/In Praise of Creoleness, 1990.

——. "Towards 1992: Political-Cultural Assimilation and Opposition in Contemporary Martinique. French Cultural Studies 3: 61–86, 1992.

——, and Fred Reno, eds. French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana Today, 1995.

Césaire, Aimé. Return to My Native Land, 1971.

Chaimoiseu, Patrick. Creole Folktales, trans., 1994.

Constant, Fred. "The French Antilles in the 1990s: Between European Unification and Political Territorialization." Caribbean Studies 26 (3–4): 293–243, 1993.

Daniel, Justin. "Political Constraints of Economic Dependency: The Case of Guadeloupe and Martinique." Caribbean Studies 26 (3–4), 311–334, 1993.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks, trans., 1966.

Guilbault, Jocelyn, et al. Zouk: World Music in the West Indies, 1993.

Horowitz, Michael M. Morne-Paysan. Peasant Village in Martinique, 1967, reissued 1992.

Lasserre, Guy, and Albert Mabileau. "The French Antilles and Their Status as Overseas Departments." In Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd, Caribbean Freedom: Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present: A Student Reader, 1996.

Miles, William F. S. "Abolition, Independence, and Soccer: Premillennial Dilemmas of Martinican Identity." French Politics and Society 17 (2): 23–33, 1999.

——. "Deja Vu with a Difference: End of the Mitterrand Era and the McDonaldization of Martinique." Caribbean Studies 28 (2): 339–368, 1995.

——. Elections and Ethnicity in French Martinique. A Paradox in Paradise, 1986.

Murch, Arvin. Black Frenchmen. The Political Integration of the French Antilles, 1971.


Also read article about Martinique from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Martin Bran
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Ghyslaine ROC
Dear you all

Can you, please, tell me what is the exact definition of the term "Creole" as an ethnic group in Maritinique, and where to find a proper dictionary of Martinican "Creole"?

Thanks. Regards.

Ghyslaine ROC
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freddy di paula cadremi
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lena mcletchie
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Thank you for all that information, it helped me a lot for the french project!!! Finally, I think my french techer got all of the informations from here, because everything that you said was basicly all on there.
Is it possible to translate the page or website? i am using a chrome book i dont know if i have to chage something on it or if there is a translated page. please help
Great website helped on my project for Martinique and got an A+
Rafiat mohammed
I am from Trinidad very informative I have learnt so much about martinque from this site great job

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