Martiniquais - Orientation

Identification. In many ways, Martinique is a unique island culture: it is part of a major industrial world power (France) but set in a third-world geographic region. With its neighbors, Martinique shares an important social history of slavery and a monocrop economy based on sugar. Like other Caribbean islands whose sugar production has dwindled since the late 1950s, Martinique also lacks the mineral and natural resources to support its own economic growth. Because of Martinique's political assimilation to France, however, the islanders' standard of living remains well above that of most Caribbean countries. Incorporation translates into French import subsidies, social transfer payments, and provisions for a large, highly paid local government sector.

Location. Part of the eastern Caribbean chain of islands known as the Lesser Antilles, the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe constitute the French Antilles. Martinique is situated south of Dominica, and north of Saint Lucia, encompassing a total land mass of 1,100 square kilometers.

Demography. The French, who first arrived in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1635, found only a sparse population of native Carib Indians. At the hands of the colonists, these Indians were a short-lived labor source. Realizing the need for a cheap, abundant source of hardy laborers to work the sugar plantations, the settlers looked to Africa. Thus began more than two centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. By 1680, African slaves in Martinique out-numbered White planters two to one.

The forced migration of Africans to the New World, and specifically to Martinique, transformed the social order and composition of the local population. By the mid-1700s, all non-Spanish island populations were overwhelmingly Black but included a small number of mulatto Browns and an even smaller number of Whites. By 1770, 85 percent of Martinique's population were slaves, 12 percent masters, and 3 percent freed. The number of slaves imported to the island grew from 258,000 in 1810 to 365,000 in 1848, the year slavery was abolished in France.

Abolition created pressures to find a new source of plantation labor. Colonists turned to contract laborers, primarily from India, but also from China and Africa. Again, the composition of the population changed.

A demographic boom in Martinique occurred between 1930 and 1965 as a declining death rate and an increasing birthrate combined to double the population of the island. By the mid-1960s, the steady out-migration of Martiniquais to the Metropole (continental France) had reduced the impact of these changes on population growth. Once the birthrate began to decline in the late 1960s, net population growth began to lose momentum; a decade later, by the end of the 1970s, the growth of the island's population had slowed drastically.

Out-migration to France from Martinique peaked in the early 1970s and has continued to decline since 1980 as job prospects in the Metropole have become increasingly bleak. In fact, from 1982 to 1990, more people immigrated to the island than emigrated from it; some were return migrants, others were Metropolitan French coming to Martinique to live.

According to the 1990 census, there are approximately 360,000 residents of Martinique, an increase of almost 31,000 (or 10 percent) since 1982. As in Latin America and the neighboring Caribbean islands, rural-to-urban migration continues in Martinique. Today, more than half of all island households are situated in the general urban area of the capital city, Fort-de-France.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is French, and most people take pride in their facility with the language. A French-based Creole, not intelligible to French speakers, is the historical mother tongue of Martiniquais, however. One is likely to hear more Creole than French in rural areas, at cockfights and storytelling events, and in informal and intimate settings of family and friends. In recent years, local linguists created a written French Creole grammar. Since then, a number of novelists and poets have published works in Creole.

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