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A History Lover’s Guide to Martinique

By Dana Givens

Mar 31, 2022

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At Habitation Clément, you can learn about Creole culture and taste rhum agricole in one place.

Photo by Richard Haughton

At Habitation Clément, you can learn about Creole culture and taste rhum agricole in one place.

Venture beyond the beaches to museums, memorials, and even castle ruins to learn more about Martinique’s unique heritage.

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Most travelers visit Martinique for its dramatic landscape, but the island is also home to a fascinating blend of Indigenous, African, and French cultures. Beyond the beaches and mountains lies a rich backstory that’s worth exploring.

The Arawaks (and, later, the Caribs) had been living on Martinique since as early as 130 C.E. when Christopher Columbus “discovered” the island in 1502. They weren’t disturbed again until 1635, when the French arrived, started a war, and killed thousands before declaring Martinique a French colony. Today, the island is a special collectivity of France; residents are French citizens, with full political and legal rights.

While some Indigenous artifacts remain on Martinique, most were destroyed in the devastating 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée. There are, however, several historic sites around the island where visitors can learn more about Carib culture, French colonization, and famous Martinique figures. Here we’ve gathered the seven best spots to dive deep into Martinican history and head home with a more profound appreciation for the island.

A few refurbished structures at Habitation Clément function as galleries with work by local artists.

Habitation Clément

A rum distillery, plantation, and heritage site in one, Habitation Clément is a font of Creole history. The property began as a prestigious sugarcane plantation but was purchased in 1887 by then mayor of Le François, Homère Clément, who was also the descendant of a freed enslaved person. Over time, he transformed the plantation into one of the more famous rum distilleries in the Caribbean, pioneering the production of rhum agricole (a style of rum made with fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses).

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Now, guests can visit the 43-acre property in Le François to discover Martinique past and present. Start your tour at the main house, where you can view traditional Creole architecture and furniture before exploring the outbuildings, which include a stable, kitchen, treasurer’s cabin, and carriage shed. Then, walk through the botanic gardens, set on the industrial wastelands of the old distillery and home to more than 300 tropical plants. You’ll end up at the distillery, where you can learn all about the manufacturing process, taste some of Clément’s famous rums, and pick up your own bottle to bring home. Before leaving, be sure to also check out the galleries; located in a few refurbished structures, they feature work by local artists.

La Savane des Esclaves is a living museum, set in a recreated “free” slave village.

La Savane des Esclaves

A museum in a recreated “free” slave village, La Savane des Esclaves offers a unique way to experience Martinique’s heritage. The site is the brainchild of Gilbert Larose, whose ancestors were Nègre Marrons, or enslaved Africans on Martinique who escaped the plantations and lived off the grid. Visit and you might find Larose in the kitchen, leading cooking demonstrations like how to make cassava pancakes over a fire.

The seven-acre site, located a short drive from Trois-Îlets, features 25 traditional huts as well as exhibits that cover the slave trade and Martinique culture. There are also two gardens, where Larose grows fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs in a traditional manner, and regular performances by Martinican folkloric dancers. Visits start with a video of Larose explaining the history of Martinique, then guests can explore the property at their own pace with the help of a map and several bilingual signs.

Reckon with Martinique’s complicated past at the beautiful but somber Anse Cafard Slave Memorial.

Anse Cafard Slave Memorial

A visit to the Anse Cafard Slave Memorial, located on a hill in Le Diamant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Diamond Rock, rewards travelers with panoramic views and a somber glimpse into Martinique’s past. Sculpted by Martinican artist Laurent Valére, the monument consists of 15 hulking stone figures and honors an 1830 incident in which a slave ship crashed into Diamond Rock, killing many of the crew and the enslaved people shackled in the cargo areas. It was unveiled in 1998 on the 150th anniversary of emancipation in the French West Indies and serves as a powerful testament to Martinique’s African heritage. Unlike sculptures at most museums, the figures here aren’t behind any sort of barrier, so walk right up to them, touch them, and soak up the solemnity of the site.

Today it’s a museum, but this small stone cottage was once the childhood home of Napoleon’s first wife, Empress Joséphine.

La Pagerie Museum

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Those interested in Martinican history shouldn’t miss a visit to La Pagerie Museum, the childhood home of Napoleon’s first wife, Empress Joséphine. She lived here with her family, who owned a sugar plantation on the site in the 1700s, until she met and married the soon-to-be emperor of France. Today, a small stone cottage, which originally housed the plantation’s kitchen, functions as the museum’s main exhibition building and includes an enchanting collection of Napoleonic art and artifacts, including furniture, tea sets, lamps, flatware, and more. Also on view is Josephine’s childhood bed, which survived a hurricane in 1776 that destroyed the plantation’s main house, as well as several handwritten love letters from Napoleon to Joséphine.

Ruins of Château Dubuc

For a look into Martinique’s colonial past, head deep into the forest on the east side of Martinique and tour the ruins of Château Dubuc. Built in 1725 by Louis du Buc du Galion, the grandson of colonist Pierre du Buc, the house once sat at the center of a sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantation, though it’s suspected the du Bucs also smuggled goods and traded enslaved people because the property includes large warehouses and dungeons. Now, the house features a small museum that teaches visitors about the history of the site and its inhabitants. Surrounded by the Martinique Regional Nature Park, the property is also a lovely place to walk, with sweeping views of the sea.

Catch a play or musical performance at the Théâtre Aimé Césaire, named for the late Martinican poet.

Théâtre Aimé Césaire

Housed in the old city hall in the heart of Fort-de-France, this historic theater takes its name from the late Martinican poet, author, and politician Aimé Césaire. Widely respected in Martinique and throughout the French Caribbean, Césaire is famous for his contributions to Francophone literature as seen through the lens of the African diaspora, such as the book-length poem Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (1939) and the play Une Tempête (1969). Today, the theater hosts an excellent program of French drama, dance, and musical performances. Check the large billboard outside for upcoming shows and study up on Césaire before you visit.

An Mao Héritage

Only a 10-minute walk into the forest outside Le Marin, An Mao is a peaceful memorial to the runaway enslaved people of Martinique. It was in this spot that many lived after escaping the nearby plantations, followed by their ancestors after the abolition of slavery in the French Caribbean in 1794. Visitors can take a two-hour guided tour of the site and surrounding land to learn more about Martinique’s heritage. Near the memorial, they can also explore a garden filled with trees and plants that played a role in the sociocultural development of the island.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Martinique

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