Both the long-term continuity of a plantation economy and the Martiniquais assimilation to French culture have produced unique social as well as economic realities. Together, these forces of history forged new ideological and cultural foundations for a transplanted African people and generated a complicated sense of self-identity. Therefore, although the history of Martinique is the story of Caribbean colonization, of sugar plantations, and of slavery, it is also the story of how the French treated their Caribbean colonies: how they prized the riches they represented and how they assumed a proprietary interest in the people they claimed as their own.
The French colonization of the Caribbean began in the late sixteenth century as a way to break up Spanish dominance of the waterways from gold-rich Mexico to the Atlantic route home. The political strategy of Caribbean settlement took a decidedly economic turn in the early 1600s, however, when it became feasible to cultivate sugar on a large but labor-intensive scale. The need for laborers stimulated the Atlantic slave trade, which supplied African slaves to French, British, and Dutch Caribbean planters.
The other historic legacy that has shaped contemporary Martiniquais life was the assimilation-oriented nature of French colonization. Certainly, French colonists instituted a system of slavery no less brutal than other Europeans; unlike the British or Dutch, however, the French came to identify their own strength and international power with their colonies and the populations there.
In keeping with its colonial "mission," France declared Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the South American coastal area of French Guiana départements outre-mers (overseas departments, DOMs) of France in 1946. This status guaranteed the population of the French Caribbean the same rights and privileges that the citizens of France enjoy. The new status granted DOM residents representation in both the French National Assembly and Senate and made the three départements eligible for the extensive social-security-system allocations.
The legacies of the French assimilation ethic are easily visible today in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Following departmentalization, schools, hospitals and clinics, libraries, social-service and welfare agencies, and government bureaus were built to make the French feel at home and to provide continuing evidence to the Martiniquais of the value of being French. A system of excellent roadways and an administrative infrastructure were designed to replicate Continental standards and are the envy of other Caribbean islanders.
Appearances suggest that the Martiniquais have indeed welcomed the assimilation to French life. They have incorporated the status markers of all things European: language, table manners, religion, fashion, cuisine, and education. Local advocates of independence from France have only gained credibility since about 1980, and they do not represent the prevailing view. Understandably, people of the French West Indies do not wish to be independent when their standard of living is kept artificially high through French subsidies and allocations.