Both Guadeloupe and Martinique were sighted by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, but no colonies were established by the Spanish because the islands were inhabited by the Caribs; it was not until 1635 that French settlers arrived. Because of their wealth from sugar, the islands became a bone of contention between Britain and France, but were not lost like some other islands. The important dates in the later history of the islands are 1848, when the slaves were freed (Victor Schoelcher guiding the legislation through parliament); 1946, when the islands ceased to be colonies and became Départments (Départements d'Outre Mer - DOM); and 1974, when they each also became economic Régions.


Christopher Columbus named Guadeloupe after the Virgin of Guadalupe, of Extremadura, Spain, in 1493. The Caribs, who had inhabited the island, called it
, meaning 'island of beautiful waters'. As in most of the Lesser Antilles, the Spanish never settled, and Guadeloupe's history closely resembles that of Martinique, beginning with French colonization in 1635. The first slaves had been brought to the island by 1650. In the first half of the 17th century, Guadeloupe did not enjoy the same levels of prosperity, defence or peace as Martinique. After four years of English occupation, in 1763 Louis XV handed over Canada to Britain to regain his hold on the islands with the Treaty of Paris. The French Revolution brought a period of uncertainty, including a reign of terror under Victor Hugues. Those landowners who were not guillotined fled; slavery was abolished, only to be restored in 1802 by Napoléon. The slaves were finally freed in 1848, largely because of work by Victor Schoelcher. After 1848, the sugar plantations suffered from a lack of manpower, although indentured labour was brought in from East India.

Despite having equal status with Martinique, first as a Département then as a Région, Guadeloupe's image as the less sophisticated, poor relation persists. In common with Martinique, though, its main political voice is radical (unlike the more conservative Saint-Barthélemy and Saint-Martin), often in the past marked by a more violent pro-Independence movement.


When Christopher Columbus first sighted Martinique, it was inhabited by the Carib Indians who had killed or absorbed the Arawaks, the previous settlers of the Lesser Antilles some 200-300 years previously. He did not land until 15 June 1502, when he put in at Le Carbet. Columbus named the island Martinica in honour of St Martin; the Caribs called it
, or island of flowers. The Spanish never settled. In 1635 Martinique was colonized by the French under the leadership of Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc. His nephew, Jacques du Parquet, governed in 1637-1658 and started to develop the island; when he died, his widow took over. The cultivation of sugar cane and the importation of slaves from West Africa commenced. Fierce battles took place between the Caribs and the French until 1660 when a treaty was signed under which the Caribs agreed to occupy only the Atlantic side of the island. Peace was shortlived, however, and the Indians were soon completely exterminated. Louis XIV bought many of the du Parquet land rights and appointed an administrating company, making Martinique the capital of France's Caribbean possessions. In 1762 England occupied Martinique for nine months, only to return it with Guadeloupe to the French in exchange for Canada, Senegal, the Grenadines, St Vincent and Tobago. France was content to retain Martinique and Guadeloupe because of the importance of the sugar trade at the time.

More unrest followed when in 1789 the French Revolution inspired slaves to fight for their emancipation. White artisans, soldiers, small merchants and free people of mixed race also embraced its principles. In 1792 a royalist governor re-established control but he was expelled by a revolutionary force sent from France. The capital, Fort-Royal became République-Ville and Paris abolished slavery. Martinique was occupied by the English again from 1794 to 1815 (with one interruption), at the request of the plantation owners of the island who wanted to preserve slavery. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848 in the French colonies and in the following years 25,000 immigrant workers from India and a few from Indo-China came to Martinique to supplement the remaining workforce on the plantations.

In 1946 Martinique became an overseas Département (DOM), with all the rights of any department in metropolitan France. The bill was steered through the National Assembly by Martinique's Deputy at the time, Aimé Césaire (1913-), poet, mayor of Fort-de-France and a pioneer of négritude. In 1974 Martinique also became a Région, giving it more economic advantages.



Guadeloupe is really two islands,
, separated by the narrow bridged strait of the Rivière Salée. Together they have an area of 1,709 sq km and a population of 397,000. To the west is mountainous Basse-Terre, with the volcano Grande Soufrière (1,484 m) at its centre. The administrative capital of the same name is on its southwest coast. The commercial capital is Pointe-à-Pitre, situated in the flat half of the island, Grande-Terre. On the cliff-edged Caribbean coast, there was only one low-lying and hospitable shore. This was settled first, substantially from the 1640s, and became the capital. At that time, only the mountainous western island was called Guadeloupe. On its east coast was another settlement, Capesterre (which means that part of an island first sighted on the voyage from Europe). Grande-Terre came into its own around two or three decades later, when sugar cane cultivation took off. As it assumed the greater commercial importance the name 'Guadeloupe' came to refer to both islands.


The island is 80 km from north to south and 32 km at its widest, with an area of 1,102 sq km. There are mountains in the north and south and a low-lying 'waist' where most people live (population 385,000). The coastline is irregular in the southern half, with peninsulas and promontories protecting islets and sandy bays. Martinique's neighbouring islands are Dominica to the north and St Lucia to the south. Martinique is volcanic in origin and one active volcano still exists, La Montagne Pelée (1,397 m), situated to the northwest, which had its last major eruption in 1902. The rest of the island is also very mountainous; the Pitons de Carbet (maximum 1,196 m) are in the centre of the island and La Montagne du Vauclin (504 m) is in the south. Small hills or
link these mountains and there is a central plain, Le Lamentin, where sugar cane is planted. An extensive tropical rainforest covers parts of the north of the island, as well as pineapple and banana plantations. The coastline is varied: steep cliffs and volcanic, black and grey sand coves in the north and on the rugged Atlantic coast, and calmer seas with large white or gold sand beaches in the south and on the Caribbean coast.



Agriculture and tourism are the principal activities. Bananas have displaced sugar as the single most important export earner accounting for 25% of all exports. Sugar and its by-products generate about 15% of exports. Melons and tropical flowers have been promoted for sale abroad, while many other fruits, vegetables and coffee are grown mainly for the domestic market. Wages and conditions similar to those in metropolitan France force the price of local products to levels viable only on the parent market; 66% of all exports go to France and 11% to Martinique (most exports are agricultural products). Unemployment is high. Infrastructural projects are funded by the French government and the EU's regional aid programmes.


Martinique is dependent upon France for government spending equivalent to about 70% of GNP, without which there would be no public services or social welfare. Fishing contributes to the local food supply but much of the domestic market is met by imports. Most manufactured goods are imported, adding to the cost of living. There is some light industry and the major industrial plants are an oil refinery, rum distilleries and a cement works, while there is also fruit canning, soft drinks manufacturing and polyethylene and fertilizer plants.

Tourism is the greatest area of economic expansion. Of total stopover visitors, 80% come from France and 3% from the USA, while of total cruise ship visitors, 72% come from the USA, 14% from the whole of Europe and 9% from Canada. Tourism income is now around E220 mn a year.


The people of Martinique and Guadeloupe are French citizens, and both Départements are officially and administratively part of France. The President of the French Republic is Head of State. Local government is run by a Prefect (appointed by the French Minister for the Interior), the General Council (directly elected) and the Regional Council (elected, proportional representation). There are two different legislative bodies: the General Council and the Regional Council. Each Département is represented by four directly elected Deputies to the National Assembly in Paris, by two indirectly elected Senators in the Senate and by one representative on the Economic and Social Council. The General Council votes on matters of interest to the Département, administers and manages local services and allocates funds to the local councils, or
. The Regional Council concentrates on economic development.

Music and dance

African dances: the
and others are still performed in remote villages. The famous biguine is a more sophisticated dance, and the mazurka can also be heard. French Antillean music is, like most other Caribbean styles, hybrid, a mixture of African (particularly percussion), European, Latin and, latterly, US and other Caribbean musical forms. Currently very popular, on the islands and in mainland France, is zouk, a hi-tech music which overlays electronics on more traditional rhythms. Guadeloupe has a more overt African culture than Martinique, and here, the
, now written as spoken in Créole,
(big drum), has seven distinct rhythms, some, like the
, directly attributable to African
origins. Musicians such as Robert Oumaou in Guadeloupe work within this framework, outreaching via such styles as jazz to create new and vibrant music.


Traditional costume is commonly seen in the form of brightly coloured, chequered Madras cotton garments. The mixture of French and Créole language and culture gives Martinique and Guadeloupe an ambience quite different from that of the rest of the Caribbean. An extra dimension is added by the Hindu traditions and festivals celebrated by the descendants of the 19th-century indentured labourers.


The dominance of French educational and social regimes on its colonial possessions led, in the 1930s and 1940s, to a literary movement which had a profound influence on black writing the world over. This was
, which grew up in Paris among black students from the Caribbean and Africa. Drawing particularly on Haitian nationalism (1915-1930), the
writers sought to restore black pride which had been completely denied by French education. The leaders in the field were Aimé Césaire (1913-) of Martinique, Léopold Senghor of Senegal and Léon Damas of Guyane. Césaire's first affirmation of this ideology to become well-known was
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal
(1939); in subsequent works and in political life (he was mayor of Fort-de-France and a deputy in the National Assemby in Paris for half a century) he maintained his attack on the “white man's superiority complex” and worked, in common with another Martiniquan writer, Frantz Fanon, towards “the creation of a new system of essentially humane values” (Mazisi Kunene in his introduction to the Penguin edition of
Return to My Native Land
, 1969).

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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