Martinique’s Slave Triangle
by Christine Gooch
The Anse Cafard Slave Memorial
How many times have you sailed past Diamond Rock, just off Martinique’s southwest coast, without being aware of the gaze of stone eyes watching you beat your way through the intriguingly named Passe des Fous (Madmen’s Passage)?
On a flat grassy promontory above Anse Cafard, where waves crash onto the rocks below, stands a memorial to a 19th Century tragedy. Around noon on April 8th, 1830, François Dizac, manager of a nearby plantation, observed a ship carrying out strange manoeuvers off the coast. At 5:00PM the ship anchored below the promontory. Heavy swells prevented Dizac from launching a boat to warn the captain his ship was in danger, so instead he sent signals that the captain either didn’t see or chose not to see. At 11:00PM came the dreadful sound of wood cracking and the terrified cries of men.
Dizac and a party of slaves arrived on the scene to see the ship being torn apart on the rocks. Some of the passengers had been thrown into the raging seas; others clung desperately to the foremast. Dizac and the slaves watched in horror as the mast broke and the terrified men were washed into the foaming sea and thrown onto the rocks. The ship, whose name and nationality remains unknown, was completely destroyed. Dizac and the slaves managed to rescue 86 people — 26 men and 60 women — all of them Africans destined to be sold into slavery. The remaining 46 souls on board were drowned, their bodies washed ashore. The slave traders were buried in the cemetery of the nearby village of Diamant, the Africans interred “a short distance from the shore” at the spot where the memorial now stands.
The memorial was created in 1998 on the 150th anniversary of the final abolition of slavery in France’s colonies. (Slavery had been first abolished in 1794, but was reinstated in 1802.) The installation by Martinican sculptor Laurent Valére consists of 15 statues arranged in rows forming a triangle. Each statue is a human form buried to the hips in the earth, all with heavy features, bowed heads and sad expressions, gazing out to sea towards their African homeland. Each figure weighs four tons and stands over eight feet tall. They are sculpted from reinforced concrete mixed with white grit and sand from Trinidad & Tobago. The triangular shape alludes to the route of the slave trade between Africa, America and Europe. White is the traditional colour of mourning in the Caribbean. The tip of the triangle points at a compass course of 110 degrees to Guinea in West Africa, where the slave ships came from. It is a very powerful memorial to victims of the slave trade in general and to the victims of this particular tragedy.
La Pagerie Museum
The village of Trois Ilets, tucked away in a sheltered bay on the opposite side of Baie de Fort de France from the capital itself, also has links to the slave trade.
The aristocratic French Creole family of Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, came from Trois Ilets. They owned slaves who worked in the family’s sugarcane fields and sugar factory. Her parents were married in the church that still stands; Josephine was christened here, and her mother’s funeral took place here.
The church, built in around 1724, is one of the oldest in Martinique. The interior, reached by climbing an imposing flight of curved white stone steps, is light and airy. A pair of enormous gilt chandeliers hangs from a domed ceiling painted sky blue. Bands of gold paint, decorated with a delicate pattern of flowers, pick out the shapes of the arches, which are supported by sturdy whitewashed pillars. Rows of highly polished wooden pews face a raised altar built of white stone, covered with a pristine white cloth and decorated with gilt statues of saints.
A mile or so outside the village is La Pagerie, a museum built on the site of the plantation where Josephine grew up. A local bus (the bus stops in the main square at the top of the hill, opposite the lovely red-brick hospital) will drop you off close to where the main road joins the road to the museum, or it’s about a mile to walk along the road from Trois Ilets waterfront. From there it’s another mile to walk to the museum entrance, past a golf course and a floral garden that has been closed for some years but had a large sign outside announcing imminent renovations at the time we visited.
The museum is set in tropical gardens and housed in a building on the site of the plantation house kitchens. Nothing remains of the original plantation house, which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1766. The museum guide told us that Josephine’s father was unable to afford to rebuild the house as he had lost all his money gambling and womanizing, so the family had to live on the top floor of the sugar factory. Josephine was christened Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie; it was Napoleon who re-named her Josephine. As a child she had a slave nanny called Dede and some sources say her playmates would have been the children of family slaves.
As a young girl Josephine was told by a fortuneteller that she would be “more than a queen.” Inside the museum is a copy of a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David depicting the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, an event that was not short of controversy. The Pope refused to crown Napoleon, who took the crown and placed it on his own head, before crowning Josephine. Napoleon’s mother refused to attend the coronation; like many a mother-in-law she felt that Josephine wasn’t good enough for her son, because she had two children from a previous marriage. Although Napoleon later divorced Josephine, as she didn’t provide him with an heir, she had the last laugh, becoming known as the “grandmother of Europe,” thanks to her grandchildren’s strategic marriages with European royalty.
Josephine is sometimes accused of having persuaded Napoleon to reinstate slavery on Martinique, in 1802, because her family had owned slaves. In fact, this is untrue, but that didn’t stop her statue on Rue de la Liberte in Fort de France being vandalized, daubed with red paint and decapitated; the head has never been found.
Farther up this wide street is the third side of my Martinique slave triangle — Bibliotheque Schoelcher, an eye-catchingly beautiful building.
The library was built in France in the 1880s of pre-formed concrete and cast iron and later shipped to Martinique and re-erected. The exterior is covered in a beautiful glittering mosaic in gold and hues of pale blue, pink and mint green. A flight of stone steps leads to the interior, which is just as breathtaking: a large square room with a high ceiling lit by a pyramidal glass skylight. The ceiling is divided into small sections decorated with mosaic and separated by cream-colored concrete beams decorated with flowers resembling the Tudor rose of medieval England. Beneath this, a frieze runs around the walls, the names of famous French writers carved into it in impressive large block capitals picked out in gold paint. A metal gallery, reached by cast iron spiral staircases in each corner of the room, gives access to the old books lining the upper walls in large wooden bookcases, while the ground floor is a modern library. As a confirmed bookworm, I loved it!
Not far from the library, on Rue de Pave, in the formal garden in front of an art college housed in the former law courts, is a statue of the man the library is named after, Victor Schoelcher. The French counterpart of English anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, he was born in 1804 in Paris. He became a journalist and writer campaigning for the abolition of slavery worldwide, but particularly in the French West Indies. In March 1848 he was appointed under-secretary of the navy and he wrote the decree of April 27th, 1848, in which the French government announced the abolition of slavery in all of its colonies.
All of these sites are easily accessible by yachting visitors.
• My husband, Kevin, and I hired a car and visited the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial as part of an island tour, but you can also take the local buses running from Petite Anse d’Arlet — where there is a good anchorage — to Diamant.
• At Trois Ilets, Kevin and I have anchored our 38-foot catamaran several times in the small anchorage, behind one of the three islands that give the village its name. Alternatively, there are frequent ferries from Fort de France.
• Both the statue of Victor Schoelcher and the Schoelcher Library are a short walk from the dinghy dock at the anchorage under the fort at Fort de France. [Editor’s note: In the past, issues have been reported with kids playing in dinghies here; it’s suggested that you remove your kill cord and any items of value from the dinghy.]
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