Learn Thy History: Traveling with a Black Lens through the French Caribbean
Updated: Jul 25, 2020
As I continue to travel to various parts of the world, I find myself returning again and again to the Caribbean. There is nothing like clear turquoise waters and soft sand beaches. The sun just hits differently. And of course, there is all the beautiful melanin concentrated in one place. However, I cannot help but to think of the dark history that led us beautiful black and folks to the #Caribbean to begin with. As a Caribbean American, it is refreshing to be around people who look like me, who I feel like I can relate to culturally and who I feel proud to have connections to. It feels like family.
It, however, is also disheartening, as on every Caribbean island I travel to, I am reminded of #stolenidentities. Such rich culture did not emerge in the Caribbean without terrible injustices. My trip to Martinique and Guadeloupe particularly put those #injustices to the forefront of my mind. It reinforced why it is important to travel with a #blacklens.
There are a lot of aspects of #Martinique and #Guadeloupe that do not align with typical Caribbean history: the biggest thing being that they are not independent countries. In fact, they are still technically a part of France. It is like Puerto Rico to the United States: not a state in the country, completely separate geographically, but with all of the benefits that come with being“a part” of a world superpower. As a result, compared to other islands, they do not have the same struggles in terms of visas when traveling to countries around the world because they have a French passport. This was the first moment where it made me question: is this what it would be like if Haiti did not gain its freedom?
In addition to the passport power, both of these islands also benefit from the economic power. For example, their currency is the euro which has a very high purchasing power. As a result of French funding, both of these islands have stronger infrastructure compared to many other islands. I was shocked to see such smoothly paved roads everywhere we drove. Martinique and Guadeloupe also have some of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. Again, I could not help but compare to Haiti, where as a result of gaining its freedom, had to pay the modern equivalent of $21 billion in reparations even though France stole our property to begin with. NOTE: France made this request in 1825. It took Haiti until 1947 to pay, and that was after France reduced their demands!
However, what are the costs of these benefits? No freedom, no true power, stolen identity, and a perpetual reminder of colonization. This is what blew my mind. Everywhere I looked, I saw lots of white people: the beach, restaurants, sidewalks. Yes, that is common in the United States in neighborhoods of color being taken over by gentrification. However, this was a first for me in the Caribbean. It was evident that much of the power still belongs in the hands of the békés -- descendents of white French slave owners. Unlike Haiti, the French government is the one who paid reparations to the slave owners after 1848, when France ended slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe. To many Guadeloupeans, slavery did not truly end until 1967. WOW! It is no wonder that everything is being catered to European tourists. I had a harder time finding truly local cuisine compared to other islands. Another added layer is that both islands follow the French legal and political system. They are literally learning the same curriculum as students in France. One should pause and ask: What history are they learning? What is being sugar coated about French’s colonial legacy?
I say this to point out that when you travel to Martinique and Guadeloupe, you should actively look for the island’s history of colonization. Depending on who you talk to, you will get a spectrum of feelings from French pride to just plain anger that their history is stolen history.
To gain a better understanding of the black culture of the French Caribbean, I urge you to check these places out:
1. Explore La Savanne des Esclaves (Savannah of Slaves): Located in Trois-Ilets, La Savanne des Esclaves is a massive park turned museum at the edge of the forest that presents a ton of information about the native inhabitants and history of slavery on the island. For example, I learned that the island was inhabited by the Carib and Arawak people as well as that the Carib people may have exterminated the Arawaks. This open-air museum is a replica of a village during the post-slavery times in #Martinique and has everything from wooden houses to plants growing in the garden that reflect the time period. There are guided tours given on a regular basis as well. It is super helpful that everything is translated in French and English. The best part: it is black-owned!
2.Shop at Village de la Potterie (Pottery Village): This is a great spot to explore if you are looking for handcrafted souvenirs to purchase. Located since 1793 in a former Jesuit monastery in #TroisIlets, the first thing you notice is the rich color ground formed from natural clay. Interestingly enough, one shop sold many Haitian art pieces as well. The Creole connection! You can also watch how the pottery is made. Coming here is a great way to #buylocal and support the people on the island!
3. Visit the Cap 110 Memorial: This was one of the main sites that I wanted to see in Martinique, not just for the photo-op, but for the historical significance as well. Created by sculptor Laurent Valére, these statues were built at Anse Caffard during the 150th anniversary of the abolition of #slavery on the island. It is a memorial dedicated to the tragic event involving a cargo ship carrying slaves (at the time slavery was illegal) that crashed into Martinique’s Diamond Rock Mountain near this beach due to a storm. Some bodies were recovered, but most were destroyed. The white concrete symbolizes mourning in the Caribbean. The triangular shape is the triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The statues all look towards the sea that took their lives.
4. Walk around city of Carbet: Le Carbet has a lot of history associated with colonization. The name Le Carbet refers to the big huts, also called "carbets," where the Carib Indians used to meet. Interestingly, it is where Christopher Columbus landed when he got to Martinique in 1502. Moreover, it is the starting site of Martinican colonization (in 1635). It is no wonder that there are so many monuments that commemorate the end of slavery in Martinique in 1848.
1. Tour Pointe-à-Pitre in a Pousse-Pousse: Yes, this is probably the most touristy experience I am suggesting. However, it is a great way to not only learn history, but take a break from the heat. Even though it was February when we visited, it was still hot enough to break a sweat. Our guide gave us a very thorough history of the island- ranging from natural disasters to #slavery to architecture. We made several stops to look at important monuments related to the colonization history of the island. The only thing I wished was that I took this tour at the beginning of my time in Guadeloupe instead of the end. I also wished I had the same tour in Martinique, so I can appreciate their history just as much.
2. Shop at a local market: I don’t know about you, but I love to shop locally ESPECIALLY when I am abroad. In Guadeloupe, shopping local IS shopping black! There is no better feeling than wearing an item and someone asks, “Where did you get that from?” to then answer “x country.” That has happened to me countless times at work or when hanging out with friends, probably because I have a costly habit of buying jewelry, purses and headwraps when possible, abroad. I also recently started collecting Christmas ornaments as I used to only collect shot glasses. Guadeloupe is where I really had a field day. From walking around downtown Pointe-à-Pitre alone, I ended up purchasing two dresses in native print, a headwrap, and several earrings. My interaction with a woman giving me straight auntie vibes made me truly fall in love with the spirit of Guadeloupe! Some markets that I would suggest checking out are La Dacha Marché nocturne in Le Gosier and Saint-Antoine market in Pointe-à-Pitre.
3. Visit the Memorial Acte Museum: Seeing this museum featured in several IG stories for the past couple of years is probably what put Guadeloupe high on my radar to begin with. For starters, you cannot take pictures inside so all I heard was people’s experiences walking out of it. It is a museum that I think every black person in the Diaspora should visit! I would compare it to the African American museum in Washington, DC in many ways. The one thing I will say to not spoil this experience for you is that this museum gives you the true history of slavery and does not sugar coat its impact. It is a journey! It is best to check it out mid-afternoon when the sun is at its peak and you are looking for a space to cool down.
4. Explore Fort Fleur-d'Epée:
This is a fortification built in 1763 to defend the bay of Pointe-à-Pitre against the English. In 1794, there were several battles between the English and French troops regarding the abolition of slavery and control of the land. After a series of battles, France successfully regained power, especially with the use of free slaves as soldiers. Currently, this fort is part of "La Route de l'esclave — Traces-Mémoires en Guadeloupe" (The slave Route — Traces — Memories in Guadeloupe) which is a lengthy list of sites selected due to their deep connection to the history of slavery (in an effort to acknowledge and preserve the history that is often covered up and unacknowledged). For example, while visiting the fort, our guide took us to the bottom chambers where one side was the kitchen while the other side was a room where slaves were crowded in and even burned to death. It was an emotional experience as this was the first time on a Caribbean trip where that history was brought to the forefront!
You will learn that although France’s influence is the past, present, and future, many black Martinicans and Guadeloupeans are fighting the good fight to reclaim and hold on to their Caribbean identities. In unity of this cause, I urge you to actively learn and experience thy history with a black lens in mind.