Martinique (Matinik, Matnik or Lamatinik1 in Martiniquan Creole) also nicknamed “the island of flowers”2, is an island of the Lesser West Indies (or Windward Islands), a unique territorial community and outlying European region located in the Caribbean. It is part of the French West Indies (and has been since 1635, the year the first French colony was established by Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc).
It owes its current name to Christopher Columbus, the first European to discover it on 15 June 1502. It was then called Madinina3, Madiana or Mantinino4 by its inhabitants, the Kali’na5, who referred to a mythical island where the Tainos of Hispaniola lived. The name evolved according to the pronunciations to Madinina and Mada and finally, under influence from the neighbouring island of Dominica, it became “Martinique”. In Carib language, the island is also called Ioüanacaéra (ioüana, “iguana” and caéra, “island”) that is, “iguana island”. 6,7.
Martinique is located in the volcanic arc of the Lesser West Indies, in the Caribbean Sea, between Dominica to the north and Saint Lucia to the south, around 450km to the north-east of the coasts of Venezuela and around 700km to the south-east of the Dominican Republic.
The first inhabitants were the Arawak Indians who had to flee the new arrivals, the Caribbean Indians. These were in turn decimated by the European soldiers, a short time after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1502, on St Martin’s day. Called Madinina, “the island of flowers” or Jouanacaera, “iguana island”, Martinique became French in 1635, and was managed by the Company of the American Islands, created by Richelieu. Slavery was then established with the creation of the Black Code. Thousands of black slaves were brought mainly from West Africa. Slavery continued until 1848, the year of its abolition in France. On 24 February 1848, the July Monarchy was overthrown. François Arago, Minister of the Navy and the Colonies, admitted the need to emancipate the Blacks, but wished to postpone this issue until the permanent government took over. Under the pressing intervention of Victor Schoelcher, Under-Secretary of State for the colonies, a series of decrees was promulgated on 27 April 1848. The first abolished slavery but provided for a two-month period from its promulgation in the colony. It also provided for compensation for the former slave owners. In 1848, as General Commissioner of the Republic, François Perrinon brought the first decrees of the abolition of slavery to Martinique. He refused to swear an oath to Napoleon III out of attachment to the republican ideal.
Colonisation succeeded the slavery regime until 1946. The post-war communist leaders Aimé Césaire, Léopold Bissol and Georges Gratiant won electoral victories in Martinique. They brought a proposed law to the National Assembly. The issue was debated in Parliament, with an illustrious rapporteur, the young MP and Mayor of Fort-de-France, Aimé Césaire. This parliamentary debate resulted in a vote for the departmentalisation law of 18 March 1946, the date on which the island became a French overseas department.