Every 22nd May Martinique commemorates the end of slavery and the revolts of the ancestors who fought for freedom. It is a public holiday and many events take place throughout the island, many of them including traditional dancing and music. Commemorative marches with burning torches and other cultural events are also popular. The celebrations used to take place on July 21st until the 1970’s, when Aimé Césaire inaugurates a square in the honor of the revolts of Mai 22nd and gives the day free for school children, thus starting the tradition. The choice of the date becomes a political and identitary question – the date in July was in fact chosen as to honor Victor Schoelcher, the French abolitionist who signed the degree thus giving more glory and importance to the state and its institutions.
Cap 110 memorial in le Diamant
Martinique’s history is deeply rooted in slavery and in sugar production. The island was colonized by the French in 1635, turning quickly into massively producing sugar – the money crop at the time yielding huge profits. Sugar production was very labour intensive, and the plantations need a lot of workforce. The most lucrative way of production was to use slaves. The first slaves arrived to the island in 1605 due to a shipwreck, and the trade was most active between 1725 and 1760. In total, about 216 000 enslaved Africans were brought to the island between the years 1500 and 1848.
The legal frame of the trade and the rights and obligations of the master’s in the French colonies were set by the infamous Code Noir (Black Code) in 1685, under the King Louis XIV. The code stipulates that slaves are considered as “furniture”, and can be sold and inherited. The code also prohibited free men (master’s or workers) from freeing the children that they would have with their slaves – this to curb the population of free mixed people seen as a threat to the slavery system and to discourage the blending of the “races”. It’s also to be noted that the master’s had the obligation to baptize the slaves into the Catholic faith – an argument used by the church to justify the enslavement of Africans.
Several slave revolts took place in many Caribbean islands and enslaved people resisted and fought for their freedom in many different ways (fleeing, poisoning the master’s….). The sporadic revolts were always stifled with extreme violence.
In 1848, slave trade had been prohibited in France (1815) and slavery already abolished in England in 1833 – mostly due to the big revolt of Jamaica in 1831. The French revolution had briefly also abolished slavery, although Napoleon had reinstalled it shortly after. The example of Toussaint Louverture, freeing Haiti in 1793 echoes through the region. Economical reasons linked to the sugar crisis, abolitionist movements and slave revolts are the three key factors behind the abolition.
So what happened in Martinique on May 22nd ? In February 1848, a revolution in France overturned the Orleans Monarchy and led to the creation of the nation’s second republic. The republic names a commission to organize the end of slavery, overseen by the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher. On April 27th, a series of degrees is published, stipulating the measures to be taken for the abolition in the colonies. Effective abolition is to be take place only in August –to give time for organization, and well also, very conveniently after the sugarcane harvest… Perrinon, in charge of bringing the degrees to the colonies, leaves France in the beginning of May and arrives in Martinique in June 3rd, to find that slavery has already been abolished.
In fact, the island was already in the know of the degrees and the slave population had grown more and more impatient. Many were also doubtful of the abolition and feared it being “fake news” – remembering the re-establishement of slavery after the French revolution. The 20th May in the town of Prêcheur, a slave named Romain is arrested for playing the tambour (drum) despite it being forbidden. This provokes the anger of several other slaves and the news spreads by the use of drums and conches to other plantations around the town. Armed slaves come from the towns of Saint-Pierre, Prêcheur and Carbet and demand for his liberation. Romain is set free and the slaves from Prêcheur start heading back to their plantations. Just before entering the town they are ambushed by a planter helped by about 60 sailors. In a shooting 25 slaves die and 50 are injured. The next day, on the 22nd of May, the news spread to Saint-Pierre where it starts another riot resulting to some slaves burning the house of les Sannois, where 32 white creoles (békés) had fled – most of them women and children. They all perish. Several other houses are also burned. The governor of the island hurries to the town and on the following day, signs a degree abolishing slavery.
Since the 1970’s Martinique has chosen the date of 22 Mai to commemorate the abolition – to honour the men and women who revolted for their freedom.
Ruins of a slave quarter in a plantation – nowadays the Zoo