When Martinique Cannibalized Colonialism

What to do with Confederate statues in the US South? Martinique didn’t just destroy its colonial-era statues—it rebuilt them into something else.

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017

What should be done with monuments to those not worth memorializing? Whether it’s statues of the soldiers of the former Confederacy in the US, slave traders in England, or racist imperialists in South Africa, a movement concerning the legacy of colonial symbols and their intersection with systemic racism is emerging around the world. While this conversation may have begun with US counterprotests—in response to the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville that led to Heather Heyer’s murder, along with many other protests across the United States in the past few years—the movement has spread to France, the United Kingdom, Senegal, and throughout the Caribbean. Monuments have never been so sensitive an issue.

But these questions of monuments and memory—and their intersections with systemic racism—predate Charlottesville in many parts of the world. The destruction or repurposing of colonial monuments was, in fact, front and center in many processes of decolonization.

That this question has been so universal is no surprise. All territories that have known the terrible heritage of slavery and/or colonialism, different though they may be, are often mirrors of one another. That is because all these territories are confronted with similar dynamics, and are run through by the same deep currents that mold our world.

Let’s travel across the mirror, to a parallel world, an improbable case: the small island of Martinique, in the Caribbean. We’ll take a walk through its capital city, Fort-de-France, in a different era, to examine Martinique’s colonial legacies—how these legacies were represented in monuments, and how those monuments were toppled, smashed, beheaded, and even eaten.


Fort-de-France, Martinique, 1945

Aimé Césaire became mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945. At that time, Martinique was still a colony, part of a still-intact French Empire spanning seven continents. This posed a problem: Césaire was a famed playwright, poet, and cofounder of the Negritude movement, in which French-speaking African and Caribbean writers rejected French colonialism. How would this proudly anti-colonial artist inherit Martinique’s capital city, with all its colonial legacies?

These legacies went back centuries. Martinique had been a colony since 1635, when Cardinal Richelieu established the Compagnie des Îles de l’Amérique, which sent a successful sea expedition to the island led by Pierre Bélain d’Esnambuc. The practice of importing enslaved Africans, and using them to grow the highly profitable colonial crops of the time (tobacco, sugarcane, cocoa, coffee), soon followed.

Until Martinique, the French were not yet involved in the African slave trade. But things really took off by the 1660s: more enslaved Africans were ultimately taken to the French Caribbean (1.3 million) than to the British Atlantic colonies, now the United States (about 470,000).

By 1685, the French had already codified slavery, its trade, and its customs through the Code Noir. Indeed, the institution of slavery was so deeply ingrained in the French Caribbean that it took the Haitian Revolution, and two French Revolutions, to finally abolish it.


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But it was finally abolished in 1794 (though some slave trade was briefly reinstated by Napoleon in the early 19th century). The enslaved, who made up most of the population of Martinique, were now freed. They could vote, and even elect their own members of parliament. But they were still colonial subjects.

Furthermore, France deciding to put behind her the horrors of slavery soon led to more horrors. French abolition, in fact, was used by the French Third Republic as a justification to start a second empire, allegedly to bring this very recent enlightenment to other places in the world, like Africa, Oceania, and Southeast Asia.

At the beginning of the 1930s, this same republic decided to host celebrations all across the second empire. Celebrations were launched in 1935 in the “old colonies” of the Americas, like Martinique, to celebrate the anniversary of their colonization. After all, this is where it all began.

To mark the importance of the date, the colonial authorities decided to repurpose an old military hospital and its park, and to build a massive gate around it: La Porte du Tricentenaire, the Tricentennial Gate. Imagined by Robert Mallet-Stevens, it was built by one of the first Martinican architects, Abel Gouait. It was made of reinforced concrete. Impenetrable, the gate was meant to survive forever, symbolizing the everlasting strength of the empire and of its civilizing mission.

But that would not be the case. Césaire had other ideas, both for the gate and the city.


Of Poetic and Urban Cannibalism

The Tricentennial Gate was retroceded from the state to the city government in 1971. It became the Floral Park for a few years, but then Césaire, still the mayor, decided to create something within it that was entirely new at the time: Le Service Municipal d’Action Culturelle (SERMAC), the City Service for Cultural Action. The goal of the new organization (and its new home in the Floral Park) was to make culture, and especially Martinican culture, in all its aspects, accessible to every Martinican.

There, you could learn, pretty much for free, classical music and drumming, visual arts, and traditional basket weaving. You could watch French theater and take part in new plays created on-site by Wole Soyinka. The acclaimed Martinican filmmaker Euzhan Palcy, whose work so moved Marlon Brando that it brought him out of retirement, made her first short films at the SERMAC. The first recordings of Martinican bèlè music were made there, as descendants of the enslaved created and refined new sounds.

Entering the 1980s, the gate was no longer known as La Porte du Tricentenaire. Now, it was the entry to the Floral Park and the SERMAC. And that was the beating heart of a cultural revolution—spearheaded by Césaire—aiming to preserve, transmit, and celebrate Black arts, connecting the African diaspora outside Western capitals.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Césaire gave the artist Khôkhô René-Corail free rein to create a fresco that would run along the left bank of the Canal Levassor. Khôkhô obliged at first, but along the way decided to change course. As he advanced toward the ocean with his work, his path collided with La Porte du Tricentenaire.

What’s important, in terms of social dynamics and political change, is not what imperial monuments were. It is what they translate into.

Khôkhô just could not let it stay intact. He decided to confront it. On what used to be a pristine art deco wall, we see now a parchment of sticklike human figures armed with bows and arrows and cutlasses charging at the gate. They are a reminder of the last Karib insurrection.

Though the original project of the new fresco was never completed, Khôkhô’s new figures symbolize a reconquering of the imperial gate. As such, the gate’s meaning, and its function, had changed. It was eaten from the inside.

That had been Césaire’s goal. In fact, Césaire and the cultural and political vanguard that surrounded him defined themselves as “cannibals.” Yes, man-eating-man cannibals. This made a special sense for Martinique. The very first inhabitants of the island were named Karibs. Their name became the name of the archipelago, the Caribbean, and their battle rituals of eating the best parts of worthy adversaries gave birth to the word “cannibal.”

To be sure, Césaire and his cohort did not intend to eat white Europeans walking down the streets of Fort-de-France. Instead, these cannibals wanted to eat the Europeans’ values and ideas, as well as reclaim their Native and African heritages. All this was an effort to create something new, strong, fierce, unpredictable.

In a sense, Césaire’s cannibalism was about translating what was already happening within the city. The old was giving way to the new. After an enduring crisis in the sugar and rum industries, the rural population migrated from the countryside to the capital. This migration disrupted the centuries-old hierarchy of Fort-de-France (where power was traditionally held by the descendants of the slaveholders, known as béké, but also the new elites of color, mulâtres).

This social and political moment ruptured the plantation society and accelerated the formation of a Martinican identity. Very different people had to quickly create a common way of living together: not only descendants of slaveholders and the enslaved, but also those of indentured servants from India and China, as well as new waves of immigrants from the Middle East and Europe.


the In-City

Fort-de-France is an open vat to the sea. Its upper city alternates between fancy neighborhoods and housing projects, canopied even higher up by the exuberance of the Balata tropical forest. Its lower town, where the city center is found, used to be a mangrove forest but is now filled with concrete, where brackish water erupts unannounced with every episode of bad weather. It is split in two by the Madame River and the Canal Levassor. Don’t imagine the Mississippi—no boats travel on it.

On its right bank lie the working-class neighborhoods of Bô Kannal, Texaco, Trénelle-Citron. These formerly wooden informal settlements are now solidified with concrete and complete with running water, electricity, satellite TV, and the internet. These neighborhoods bite at the hills, swallowing the heights of the upper city, in a maze of colors and architectural impossibilities.

The left bank concentrates all the places of business and power. Here are the traditional market, shops, the governor’s palace of the erstwhile colony that is today the prefecture. There is the neoclassical old city hall, its small Italian-style theater with frescoes of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution at its entry. Here also is the new city hall, with its half-Stalinist, half-ecodesign architecture featuring gigantic representations of Heliconia caribaea (wild plantain).


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Martinique may have been a French colony the year Césaire came to office, but its population, power structure, and urban landscape would soon shift rapidly.

To reflect this change, Césaire changed the names on the map. The city center took the names of French and Francophone revolutionaries of the 19th century: the neighborhood Terres-Sainville took the names of figures from the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Caribbean and South American revolutionaries. Newer districts took the names of writers, thinkers, and figures from the 20th-century independence movements.

Thanks to Césaire’s cannibalism, the streets and avenues of Fort-de-France are now an ode to the revolutions and emancipations of the African diaspora. Caribbean and South American revolutionaries like Toussaint Louverture and Louis Delgrès, African American intellectuals such as Toni Morrison, and great figures of anti-colonial movements such as Lumumba and Gandhi are all assembled in the streets of a small Caribbean city.

This process came to be known as “the In-city.” The Creole language does not say la ville (“the city”), but rather l’En-ville (“the In-city”). “City” thus designates not a clearly defined urban geography but essentially a content, and therefore a kind of enterprise, a project, an organic experience. And, in our case, a cannibalization.


Here, Now

The events of the past few years, with the help of social networks, have provided us a global link among all those colonial legacies, across former empires, across current nation-states, themselves evolved into something new. But instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to their understanding, I believe that this global link should allow us to unearth specific experiences and their practical approaches. Rather than letting a generic zeitgeist inscribe meaning on all places, I believe that the specific experience should enrich our understanding of the general.

With one caveat: imperial monuments are symbols. Symbols can be destroyed, maimed, or artfully subverted. But they remain symbols. In the US, a number of boulevards were given the name of Martin Luther King Jr., yet they rank among the poorest and most segregated places in the country. We need to think and act beyond such symbolic changes.

What’s important, in terms of social dynamics and political change, is not what imperial monuments were. It is what they translate into.


This essay is the fifth in a series on citizenship, part of the University of Michigan’s Democracy and Debate Theme Semester for fall 2020.


This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabrielicon

Featured image: Mural of Aimé Césaire in Paris. Photograph by jehpuh / Wikimedia